Israel’s Conscientious Objectors Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

NONVIOLENCE, 1 Apr 2024

Ariel Gold | CounterPunch - TRANSCEND Media Service

Image by Valeriia Miller

24 Mar 2024 – According to legend, the organization I lead, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was founded in August 1914 when a British Quaker and a German Lutheran shook hands at a railway station in Cologne. With England on the cusp of joining World War I, they pledged, “We are one in Christ and can never be at war.”

After Germany sunk the Lusitania ship in May 1915, US public support for joining the war swelled. But not everyone got on board.

Political activist and theologian A.J. Muste responded to his country’s gearing up for war by becoming a pacifist. His views resulted in him being forced out of his pastoral position. Likewise, pacifist and social reformer Jane Addams (who later went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize) was viciously criticized for calling the war “an insane outburst.”

Despite the pro-war hysteria that countries use to justify their military endeavors, conscientious objection remains a courageous option for those committed to peace. As the ongoing genocide of Palestinians unfolds in front of the eyes of the world, a couple of young Israelis are choosing this brave, though unpopular, path.

“Slaughter cannot solve slaughter,” 18-year-old Israeli-American Tal Mitnick said in December 2023 before receiving his first 30-day prison sentence for refusing to join Israel’s military.

The same week that Tal refused for the third time and received a third term in prison, he was joined by fellow teenager Sofia Orr. “I reject participating in the violent policies of oppression and apartheid that Israel has imposed on the Palestinian people, especially now during the war,” she said.

It’s not the sentences Tal and Sofia are enduring that make their actions exceptional. They have options. In fact, 12 percent of conscripted Israelis get out of service through notoriously easy-to-obtain mental health exemptions. Instead of the 10-year terms that Russian draft evaders face, even when Israelis are sentenced for refusing, they receive consecutive sentences with breaks in between to see if they have changed their minds.

Tal and Sofia are not being held indefinitely in overcrowded, abusive, deadly prison facilities like incarcerated Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank. But, what Tal and Sophia are doing is heroic and places them within a legacy of great peacemakers.

The earliest recorded act of conscientious objection occurred in 295 A.D. when Maximilianus  refused his conscription into the Roman Army. He was beheaded for refusing to kill. Later, he was canonized as a saint.

Like Maximilianus, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter was arrested and executed for refusing conscription by the Nazis. He wrote, “I find that [my hands being in chains is] much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will.”

Sofia Orr – Photo: France 24

“When, in 1944, devout Quaker Bayard Rustin was sentenced to three years for refusing to serve in World War I, he devoted his prison time to racial justice work.” A disciple of Gandhian nonviolence, he organized his fellow prisoners to resist segregation in the prison. He was so successful that the head of the prison described him as “an extremely capable agitator.” Upon release, he traveled the country organizing communities, including the “First Freedom Ride” in 1947.

James Lawson, also a student of Gandhi, spent 13 months in prison between 1951 and 1952 for refusing to serve during the Korean War. Lawson went on to become, along with Rustin, an essential advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King.

Since its campaigns were broadcast on TV across America, the civil rights movement challenged the public, especially American youth, to choose between justice and segregation — between equality and oppression. At the same time, there was a surge of draft evaders and conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, including prominent leaders like “good troublemaker” John Lewis.

Refusing and avoiding conscription became so popular during the Vietnam War that President Nixon’s commission reported that the movement was “expanding at an alarming rate,” leaving the government “almost powerless to apprehend and prosecute them.”

With the majority of Israelis opposing an end to the war in Gaza and 72 percent of them supporting no humanitarian aid, Tal and Sofia are not part of a growing popular movement, like what took place during the Vietnam War. But their contributions to peace are no less important.

Whether or not other young Israelis join them in jail — Tal and Sofia were part of a group of 200 Jewish Israeli 12th graders who pledged in August 2023 to refuse military service to protest the government’s effort to overhaul Israel’s judicial system — what Tal and Sofia have done places profound marks on the pages of history.

Members and contributors to the Fellowship of Reconciliation include the likes of Jane Addams, A.J. Muste, Mahatma Gandhi, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, James Lawson, and countless other brave conscientious objectors and peacemakers.

Today, as the world is watching a genocide take place in real-time — as of this writing, the death toll in Gaza is approaching 32,000 and famine is setting in — FOR-USA is proud to be raising money for an ad in an Israeli newspaper lifting up two of the most important conscientious objectors of our time. We invite you to join us by following Tal and Sofia’s journey at forusa.org/IsraeliRefusers.

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Ariel Gold is the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest interfaith peace and justice organization in the U.S.

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