Podcast: Israeli military resister on her 115 days jailed
“I understood that if I will simply say what I believe in and the real reasons I’m not willing to enlist, it means I will have to go to jail.”
Tamar Ze’evi, who at the age of nineteen refused to serve in the Israeli military. “I guess my story begins from growing up in Israel and specifically in Jerusalem, which is living, growing up in conflict.” Today, Tamar continues to work with Mesarvot (Hebrew) to advocate for other objectors. For coverage of their movement in English, check out the Times of Israel.
Courage to Resist’s mission to “Support the troops who refuse to fight, or who face consequences for acting on conscience, in opposition to illegal wars, occupations, the policies of empire…” led to solidarity with Israeli objectors soon after our founding. Check out “US Resisters’ Solidarity with Israeli ‘Shministim’ Refusers” (Dec. 2008) and “Dialogues Against Militarism Report from Israel/Palestine” (Nov. 2009). In fact, Courage to Resist would likely have been named Courage to Refuse, had not an Israeli refuser organization of that same name already existed.
Tamar Ze’evi, center, along with other Israeli youth protesting against being drafted into the Israeli army. The sign reads, ‘Neither clerks nor tank drivers, we are refusers and feminists.’ (Photo: Mesarvot)
Eric Klein: This is The Courage to Resist podcast, bringing you the voices of the people who refuse to fight, those who face consequences for acting on conscience. My name is Eric Klein.
Tamar Ze’evi: I mean looking back at this journey, I couldn’t have done it any other way.
Eric Klein: On this episode of The Courage to Resist podcast, Tamar Zeevi, who at the age of nineteen refused to serve in the Israeli military.
Tamar Ze’evi: I understood that my only way to stay true to myself, which was kind of the point of all this process, finding what it is my moral truth, and the way I want to face reality with it. I understood that if I will simply say what I believe in and the real reasons I’m not willing to enlist, it means I will have to go to jail.
Eric Klein: Tamar Zeevi, spent 115 days in jail. This is their story in their own words.
Tamar Ze’evi: Hi, my name is Tamar Ze’evi, I’m 20 years old from Jerusalem, Israel. A year ago I have refused to enlist to the Israeli army, and the IDF, out of sense belonging and responsibility to my society, and to the people who live on the land of Israel, whether they are Palestinians or Israeli. Because of my refusal I was in military jail for four months until I got my exemption.
I guess my story begins from growing up in Israel and specifically in Jerusalem, which is living, growing up in conflict. It means that on the one hand my personal security was very high. I mean I was never really scared to go in the street but it means when I’m on a bus and I see an Arab civilian, the first thought that I will have in my mind is, “Oh will he explode the bus,” because around 2001 when I was four or five years old and we had the second [bombing]. Which means we had a lot of bus bombings, and we had a lot of terror attacks. My mom is a social worker in the hospital, used to be away from home for days taking care of people who are wounded and the family of the people who died.
For me it is a really strong memory, like once we even heard an explosion and my father just told my mom, “You should go to the hospital.” She was the first one there to see the wounded people and I know that it affected her a lot and this is some of my early memories, of course. Growing up in Israel as an Israeli, meaning that it’s a highly, highly militarized society and being in the military is just a part of life. Like you’ve been born, you go to school, you go to the military, you go to university, like it’s not a questionable step in life. It means in education system, we have soldiers kind of coming around since the early ages to have their presence and to talk about the military.
In every family of course, we have soldiers. Both of my older sisters served in the military, and even weapons are kind of everywhere. They’re not scary because, I mean, my sister came home with a weapon and you know, you go out on Friday night, so all the soldiers who are at home for weekend go around with their weapons and you know a glass of beer. Always kind of seeing there’s a culture of the importance that you have for the Memorial Day. We have the Memorial Day for the Holocaust, a week later we have the Memorial Day for the soldiers, and then at midnight it turns to be the Independence Day. We have very strong hold of the military in our lives, really in every aspect of life.
For me, as a child and as a teenager, it was very clear I’m going to serve, I’m going to do my best, maybe becoming an officer, maybe trying to be pilot, maybe some intelligence force. Even kind of on the values level, being a real feminist now in Israel is going and joining the combat unit, because this is like the edge where like the feminist struggle is like just making the first win of the women joining combat, and I could totally see myself there. I guess that the change in my position started to happen when I went abroad for the last two years of high school and I started in an international school, … Organization in India.
I met people who military service was not an obvious part of their lives and for me it was a weird thing kind of to imagine that they finish high school and they just go on and study. It was something which I was unfamiliar with and it slowly started to make me question the military service and understand it’s a choice rather than an obligation. I mean, if I choose going to military service then I mean, I have to explore what is the mission of military service is. Also many people, many of my friends, they kind of raise their eyebrow, kind of looking at me, “What are you going to serve, are you going to be part of occupation?”
Now growing up I knew what occupation is, my parents are opposing the occupation in a way but I’ve never seen the real connection between military service and occupation. The military is very like sterilized from politics. People always try to make the separation that military is not political and the military will become irrelevant when it will be political. Then I started to questioning the military service and explore the meanings of it. At the beginning I was very frustrated, I was angry that I feel responsible for the occupation, I mean I am not, I have never chose the occupation.
If someone would ask me I would say, “I don’t want it, I oppose it.” I mean, you know, I was sitting next to a Norwegian friend, I did not choose occupation any more than them but I had this huge responsibility over my shoulders as a 15, 16 years old girl to like ponder about this huge question and understand what is my responsibility and what is my obligation and what is the most moral thing to do? It was really, really mentally heavy on me and after a while I grew to see it not only as a painful duty to make this choice, but also as a right.
Because I belong to Israel I have the right and ability to change the reality because my Bangladeshi friends cannot come to Israel and talk about the occupation, they do not know what occupation looks like, what does it mean. I tried to see it as a power also to be an Israeli, and it’s a privilege that I have the ability to try and make better life for the Palestinian and the Israeli. During that time there was also a war, another war in Gaza, which was very hard, and very shocking again to see how strong Israeli military in relation to the Palestinians and how they give the power against civilians in such a horrible and extreme manner, I mean I think that taught me something.
Over, 10,000 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip and maybe 60 or 70 Israelis died, and most of them soldiers, while many of the Palestinians were children and civilians. It was really hard and of course also in the International School we got a lot of hard criticism about it, which of course I agreed with, but still being away from Israel I could not make the decision not to enroll. It was too distant and I still couldn’t figure out, I mean, I recognize and acknowledge the need for Israel, for an army right now. Israel can not survive without it at the moment.
In the meantime I acknowledge that the main task that the military does nowadays is controlling the Palestinians, but still how can I take the privilege I have, like sit at home while my friends give years of their life and sometimes their life to do a task that I believe is needed protecting Israel? I kind of couldn’t get over this argument and I also kind of didn’t want to go against the system, because it’s scary and I didn’t know how to. Then I returned to Israel, I graduated high school and I did this kind of a gap year program, so I will have in my youth programs so that I will kind of have more time to think about things. I knew I can not just come to Israel and enroll right away.
After kind of feeling at home again in Israel and seeing the reality in a much more critical and mature way I figured that I’m not going to enlist because I still did not know where to stretch the moral line. I didn’t know the point of time when the occupation became a two year [inaudible 00:10:50] to join. I couldn’t say, okay this checkpoint, this is one too much checkpoint. I mean, five checkpoints is still legitimate but that’s it, like six is not okay, or like blocking another road or making whatever any human rights violation Israel does, there are so many that we can choose from, but I understood that it doesn’t matter when or where exactly this moral line, I just know for sure that we have crossed it.
I know this kind of individual versus collective point of thought that, I mean, if I will not enroll then what will be, no one will enroll and then there will not be an army, there will not be Israel and everybody will die. It’s actually not, I mean if I could put it aside, because I know that the true call I have, the responsibility I can take, is not enrolling and calling for a different reality and not compromising on the hope that there can be a better life for all of us in Israel and that it’s my responsibility to do it. I figured that I’m not going to enlist and then I still had the choice how do I want to get my exemption from the military service, because it is mandatory in Israel for secular women.
Then at the beginning I thought about kind of getting exemption on mental health basis, because all this struggle within myself about will I enroll or not was very mentally heavy, as I already mentioned. I mean, it was, whether it’s like crying a lot, or thinking about it a lot, and not sleeping well at night because it was so hard. I walked in the street and I saw soldiers and I felt guilty and then, and it was really hard. Then I thought I could maybe argue that if I will enlist then I will be depressed or something, but very quickly I understood that I don’t have enough record, kind of, to show that I will be depressed or something because it has never happened to me and I am mentally healthy and I’m not willing to lie about it. Many of my friends have lied about their mental health and got exemption.
I mean, after I figuring out I am not willing to lie, I understood that my only way to stay true to myself, which was kind of the point of all this process, finding what is my moral truth and the way I want to face reality with it. I understood that if I will simply say what I believe in and the real reasons I’m not willing to enlist, it means I will have to go to jail. In the beginning it was a scary thought and after awhile it stayed really scary but it was also the first time in all these years that I felt complete with an answer. I kind of understood it, actually I had decided not to enlist much before but I didn’t want to take this decision because it was scary to go against everyone and everything kind of I know.
I knew my family wants me to enlist, I mean out of Zionism I guess, and in my youth movement, which was a very big part of my life, is very militaristic also. Also society makes sure to scare you that you are going to become a stranger in your own homeland if you will resist. Then I contacted Mersarvot, which is a network that supports the refusers. At that time another refuser was in jail because of her refusal to draft. Then I met another girl named Tamar, Tamar Alon, who apparently we had the same draft day kind of.
Then last November, the 16th of November, 2016, we came on the day we were supposed to enlist. We had a big demonstration outside of the military base camp and we got in. We kind of got out off of the bus and found the first commander we could find, where we told him, “We refuse to enroll.” He was like not very impressed but took us to the high commander of the base, he made sure we understand what the meaning of it. Then they already took us straight away to detention. We got sentenced for a week in military jail, we went to the military jail. Then the way the army treats it is that every time you get out of the prison and you have to go back again and refuse again, and in and out and in and out.
In total I had six imprisonments, which were 115 days. After four months I went to a Conscientious Committee, which examines kind of to give conscientious exemption from the military. Three days after I met this committee, someone came to me when I was in the middle of prison, gave me papers and told me I’m free to go and I’m exempted from military service. That’s how my story ended. The other Tamar did not get the exemption out of conscientious reasons and after a week she got exempted for very bad behavior, kind of a name of exemption of just fuck off, like go away, yeah. We give up kind of the military.
I mean, looking back at this journey I couldn’t have done it any other way, or any better way and I’m so complete with my choice to go with my truth and fight for what I believe in out of solidarity with people who suffer from the occupation and it’s really all of us. All of the people who live is Israel, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Arabs, and Palestinians and Israelis, all of us live in fear and are full of hate and racism and revenge. Too much blood and violence are present here in our lands and it was not easy for sure, I mean, both just sitting in the military jail for a long time and also, I mean I did get some support from my family and from the political network but also from my youth movement I got not that good responses from some people.
Of course on like Facebook and social media we got very, very hateful messages, some were more creative than others. Right now I am still anti-occupation activist and I’m still asking myself what and in the past year I think we have already done ten refusers sitting in jail for refusing. Many times we had even three at the same time. All of them opposing the occupation and calling for change and willing to sacrifice their freedom and sometimes their social status or something. Last December we published Seniors Letter of students who graduate now, the senior class or recently graduated.
60 teenagers signed this letter saying that they refuse to enroll in the military because of their resistance to the occupation. I mean, formally we send this letter to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education and such, but its mainly for the media. The big success of this letter is that actually the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, the Minister of Education and the head of the IDF all replied to the letter. Of course, they oppose it very strongly but it got a very big [coverage] on the media and now we have already 100 people who signed this letter.
I think it’s a very strong and optimistic voice of a youth that is not compromising about the values and the nature of our life here and are calling for a true deep change of policies and to stop the exploitation of human rights on such a daily basis in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and to stop the military rule over the Palestinian civilians that is over 50 years already. I guess that’s a bit of my story.
Eric Klein: My thanks to Tamar Ze’evi, for sharing their story. The organization of conscientious objectors that Tamar Zeevi belongs to in Israel and that was referred to in this Podcast is called Mesarvot. That’s M-E-S-A-R-V-O-T in English. This is the Courage to Resist Podcast. If you want to learn more about our work, we’re online at couragetoresist.org.
If you want to honor the work with a strong symbolic gesture you can give the program a five star review in the podcast app of your choosing, or share your favorite episode with your friends and family, or strangers on the internet, or real life. You can also subscribe to the show so that the next episode, when it comes out, will be right there in your phone or on your computer waiting for you. My name is Eric Klein, thank you for listening.