Feminist military refusers claim their own voice

Why I Prefer the Term Refuser to Refusenik

As a feminist, anti-militarist movement we do not use the term refusenik in New Profile, not only because we don’t identify with the right wing agenda that is representative of the original refuseniks, but primarily because it seems to have generated another non-inclusive “boys club”, a social structure not unlike the military itself.

By Ruth Hiller, New Profile

The question of what is the difference between refuser and refusenik has come up quite a bit, and I just thought that now is as good a time as any to set the record straight.

The term refusenik historically was used as a term to classify a certain group of individuals, many of them Jewish, from the former Soviet Union, who were denied exit visas from the USSR, or refused the right to emigrate when it was granted by the authorities. The original refuseniks were often jailed or exiled to distant regions like Siberia, and were called Prisoners of Zion.

There are reasons why I personally don’t want to be identified with the first Soviet refuseniks. For example, one of the better known refuseniks was Anatoly Natan Sharansky, who strongly voiced his opposition to the Soviet regime and its practices, and later became a leader in the refusenik movement. His requests for an emigration visa were denied, and he was eventually charged with spying for the West, tried and convicted, spending nine years in the Gulag.

On an international level this refusenik movement raised awareness of Soviet human rights abuses and violations. But when Sharansky was finally allowed to leave the USSR and immigrate to Israel in 1986, he immediately entered Israel’s political scene and adopted, ironically, a double standard in dealing with human rights for Palestinians. He was a strong ultra right wing voice within the Knesset for many years, and resigned from the Knesset in 2005 in protest of the ruling Likud party’s plan to withdraw Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip. Today he continues to hold public positions and is the chairman of the board of the Jewish Diaspora Museum, and chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

In 2002 Peretz Kidron, from Yesh Gvul, decided to borrow the term and recoin it to describe, what he called, the “refusenik community”. (I know this because I was actually traveling with him on a train on the way to the EU Parliament, where we had been invited to speak, when he came up with this idea.) For those of you who may be less familiar with Yesh Gvul, it is an organization that was founded in the 1980s with a long history of supporting soldiers and reservists, many of them officers, who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories but not necessarily in any other military positions.

I still feel today, as I did ten years ago, that the term refusenik is misused. The term in its more recent usage has tended to refer mostly to men, often officers, who have decided to not serve in the Occupied Territories. This creates a non-inclusive community which excludes women, pacifists, Orthodox Jews, the Druze and the many others who decide to not serve in the Israeli military for reasons other than opposing the Occupation, or those who refuse to serve because of the Occupation as a general concept, not just in the West Bank or across the Green Line.

Since we are a feminist, anti-militarist movement we do not use the term refusenik in New Profile, not only because we don’t identify with the right wing agenda that is representative of the original refuseniks, but primarily because it seems to have generated another non-inclusive “boys club”, a social structure not unlike the military itself.

In New Profile we use the term refuser or simply conscientious objector (CO) instead (in Hebrew, sarvan or sarvanit) because, without the above historical resonance we feel it is broader and more inclusive. The term conscience is open to individual interpretation, and we are very respectful of that.

We accept a variety of forms of refusal to do military service: anti occupation, conscientious objection, pacifism, feminism, religious, and ethnic for men and women, or young people, aged 16-18 who can’t formulate yet why they don’t want to enlist, but know that it just doesn’t feel right to them. In our perception all these forms of refusal are legitimate.

I think it is also important to note that not all forms of refusal to serve in the military necessarily mean standing up for human rights, those of the Palestinians, and those of the young 18 year olds who make a decision of conscience not to take an active part in Israel’s military. There are other types of refusers, for example the Israeli soldiers who refused to obey orders and vacate settlements, such as we witnessed during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. This is where I personally draw the line and refuse to support anyone who is not for ending the Occupation.

Ruth Hiller is a co-founder of New Profile: Movement for Civil-ization of Israeli Society

Interview with New Profile’s Ruth Hiller

“We advance the realization that peace is neither beyond reach nor out of our hands.”–Ruth Hiller
Jewish Voice for Peace interview


New Profile is an Israeli Organization working to de-militarize Israeli society to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In an effort to explore how JVP activists can become partners with New Profile we asked Ruth Hiller (one of the co-founders) a few questions.

Could you explain the goals of New Profile?

New Profile, the Movement to Demilitarize Israeli Society, is a feminist group working to de-militarize society in Israel, to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land conquered in 1967, to generate a life-preserving, egalitarian, humane society and to uphold the right to freedom of conscience.

Founded in 1998, New Profile’s active membership includes women, men and youth who: initiate change in the gendered and militarized mind-sets fuelling war in Israel-Palestine and with other neighboring countries; educate the public on the crucial connection between militarization, inequality and sexism; conduct interventions against the militarization of Israeli education; and uphold the right to all forms of draft resistance and conscientious objection.

How does New Profile do the work?
Using feminist methods of knowledge-building and organizing, we raise public consciousness of the naturalization of militarism in Israeli society. In clarifying the responsibility of Israeli Jews and the Israeli state for the ongoing war, we advance the realization that peace is neither beyond reach nor out of our hands. In our work we realize feminist ideas of equal participation and egalitarian, non-hierarchic decision-making. As a result, we stand out within the Israeli left, in our success at drawing committed and active youth. .

We conduct lectures, study days and workshops, often based on our portable exhibit, “Study War No More” which reveals the normalization of war and the military in Israeli visual culture. These events are held in private homes, for local groups and organizations, and at larger events such as seminars and conferences We operate youth groups nationwide allowing open discussion of issues such as the deliberation on and the decision not to enlist, education, gender, feminism, the Palestinian Naqba, civil inequality, economic inequality, occupation, creative protest, and globalization. These youth groups meet on a weekly basis during the scholastic year. We maintain a counseling network offering young people and parents information, moral support and legal aid in realizing the right to refuse conscription. We are the only group in Israel that insists on the importance of draft resistance among young women as well as young men, an issue that is widely marginalized.

About 2,000 supporters subscribe to our alternative information list serve. During 2007 the monthly average of entries into our website was well over 12,000. We maintain discussion forums where about 2200 topics are discussed each month. We also maintain a Hotline.

New Profile’s has 40-60 active members aged between 16 and 77 who participate on a voluntary basis , rarely with remuneration in activities that are non-hierarchical, choosing the activities where they feel that they can make the greatest contribution. Some of the functions are paid with small stipends. These, and appearing before audiences abroad, are taken on by rotation offering everyone a chance.
We do not have an office and work out of our homes. Our monthly plenary meetings are held in homes of members and are chaired by two different members each time. All activities are done in pairs or larger teams. The meetings provide us with opportunity for reflection on ideology as well as on aspects of our organizational functioning. This is an ongoing process and includes issues such as intergenerational work relations within the movement, and non-violent and gender conscious communication within New Profile and in our encounters with others.

During 2007 New Profile worked on approximately 30 different long and short term projects, done as part of our internal organizational work or as a partner in one of the several national and international networks we are affiliated with.

Your recent campaign received a great deal of attention and you now have a court case against the organization, threatening your existence. Can you explain what happened and where you see this going?

Towards the end of 2007, several governmental and non-governmental bodies initiated a massive media campaign focusing on “draft dodgers”. This campaign, titled “A true Israeli doesn’t dodge the draft”, tries to delegitimize the growing parts of society (now standing at around 56%), who do not enlist in the military for different reasons or end their military service before their tour of duty is over. The campaign attacks the changing public opinion through writing op-ads and placing ads on buses, web sites and on TV. In addition there is an attempt to rewrite several existing laws, amending them in a way that would harm and discriminate against anyone who doesn’t “serve his or her country” through military service.

New Profile launched a counter campaign, aiming to legitimize thinking before enlisting and also legitimizing people who have chosen not to enlist and/or were exempted from service by the army. Our campaign calls for pluralism and the freedom to voice opinions contrary to mainstream mindsets. It calls to end the massive pressure put on young people by the military and public school system to enlist following graduation. This campaign, which involves writing op-ads, placing web-ads and holding demonstrations, has increased in the volume of work of the Youth Groups and the Counseling Network .

Even before our counter-campaign was launched, New Profile was targeted by one of the leading forces in the new militaristic campaign, a newly formed NGO called “The Forum for the Equal Carrying of the Burden” (FECB). As we have been very successful in drawing extensive media coverage and public interest, this forum has decided to focus on New Profile as one of its main opponents, in particular because we are the only NGO in Israel which offers support for young people who wish to question their upcoming draft.

In addition to speaking out against us from every possible stage, the FECB has also turned to the Fellowship Societies Registrar, which registers NGO’s, demanding that New Profile be closed down as a nonprofit organization for violating several laws, in particular for calling upon others to refuse military service. Needless to say that we are aware that it is against the law to call for mass refusal, but we do reserve the right to promote alternate options, create new dialogs, and offer support to those who do choose independently to refuse the draft.

The FECB petitioned the High Court of Justice, claiming that the Fellowship Societies Registrar is not responding to their request to end New Profile’s nonprofit status. New Profile and the Attorney General’s office have also been named as sides in the petition. We are required to respond accordingly to the accusations made against us.

We have great faith in our counter campaign, and are well aware of its great influence on the ground. Hundreds of people country-wide are exposed to our message on a daily basis, and many of them contact us for more information, for help, or for offering their support in what they feel is a unique chance to struggle for a better civil society. For a period of close to a month 30,000 people clicked on the mini-site we created on NP`s internet banner while it appeared in Walla and Nana10, two major Israeli portals. Thousands participated in discussions on NP`s forum following viewing the banners on these sites. New Profile organized a team that answered to as many of the responses as possible, often creating a new discussion with individuals who deeply questioned the movement’s ideology and motives. This provided us with a wonderful opportunity to open an alternative public dialogue. 4. How can U.S. activists partner with you? Keeping in mind that Israel, which was created to be a safe haven for Jews, is the most dangerous country in the world for Jews to live in today, we call for a shared accountability.

In creating a partnership between JVP and New Profile activists, we would suggest striving for work that raises consciousness and understanding to what militarization is. Together we can examine the parallels in Israel and the USA. By collecting more detailed information on various components of militarization in the USA, we can then study how it feeds into Israeli militarization. This work would identify specific, practical links between the two separate and different, but interconnected processes. JVP could then challenge and protest these links as part of the views and positions that it disseminates, meanwhile explaining the extensive damage that they cause both Israeli and Palestinian societies (as well as American society—Jewish and non-Jewish). A great deal of the work would depend on the initiative of USA activists and would first be based on expanding an understanding that a so-called ‘strong’ Israel is a severely destructive society, aiming its destructiveness both outward and inward, destroying both others and its self.

New Profile has signed statements in support of divestment and feels it is an important tool in challenging companies and corporations involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. We would encourage a wider discussion on this issue, fully understanding the influence of the American public in such matters. The Caterpillar campaign is an excellent example of protesting the link between big corporation, occupation and the militarization of Israeli society.

We would also encourage using the materials that appear on our site and in our newsletters and disseminate them further, creating a wider discussion about New Profile, the work we do and the militarization of Israeli society.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017