Refusing to Oppress

Eighteen-year-old Sahar Vardi
is currently in an Israeli military prison. She is being punished for the crime
of refusing to be conscripted into the Israeli military.

A few weeks before her imprisonment she wrote Israel's
Minister of Defense, Ehud
Barak
, explaining her decision to become a conscientious objector. "I have
been to the occupied Palestinian territories many times, and even though I
realize that the soldier at the checkpoint is not responsible for Israel's
oppressive policies, that soldier is still responsible for his conduct..." She
summed up her letter to Barak with the following words: "The bloody cycle in
which I live--made up of assassinations, terrorist attacks, bombings, and
shootings--has resulted in an increasing number of victims on both sides. It is
a vicious circle that is sustained by the choice of both sides to engage in
violence. I refuse to take part in this choice."

While Vardi is the first woman to be imprisoned this year,
she is part of a broader movement of Shministim,
high-school seniors who refuse to be conscripted due to the military's
oppression of the Palestinians. Two other conscientious objectors, Udi Nir and Avichai Vaknin, were
imprisoned earlier this month and a few others are likely to follow suit.

Like many other Shministim, Vardi's conscientious objection is also rooted in a
wider pacifist position, which
explains why she refused to wear a military uniform once imprisoned. The
prison authorities are not sympathetic to such acts of defiance and immediately
placed her in the isolation ward, which, according to existing reports, is
a site of abuse.

Vardi is in prison because the military conscientious
committee did not accept her appeal. In early March 2008, Vardi testified in
front of the committee, recounting her years of activism against the West Bank
separation barrier and the dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and
the South Hebron hills. She explained to the committee members -- made up of
officers as well as civilians -- that as a pacifist her conscience prevented
her from being part of an occupying power. She added that instead of serving in
the military she was willing to carry out two years of civil service in Israel
and had already secured a position with the Tel-Aviv based rights group Physicians for Human Rights.

Converting military service into civil service is common
practice among Israeli women; in fact, it has become routine among religious
women. Vardi's appeal was, accordingly, not exceptional or strange.

The appeal, however, was rejected, because, in the military
committee's opinion, it was based on political convictions rather than a
sincere conscientious belief. This spurious separation between politics and
conscientious principles was originally formulated by Israel's two court
philosophers, professor Asa Kasher
from Tel-Aviv University and
professor Avi
Sagi
from Bar Ilan University.
These moral philosophers (Kasher is also one of the authors of the Israeli
military Code of Conduct which among other things provides moral grounds for assassinations),
have spent much of their time arguing that people who refuse to serve in the
military due to its colonial and repressive actions and policies are doing so
in order to advance a specific political agenda and not due to conscience.
According to Kasher and Sagi, conscientious objection is, by definition,
divorced from politics; therefore anyone who refuses to serve in the military
because he or she wants to end Israel's occupation of the Palestinian
territories (a political position) simply cannot be a conscientious objector.

The military was, of course, delighted to adopt the
philosophers' distinction and has repeatedly used it to reject the appeals of
conscientious objectors like Vardi and to put them behind bars. On the day of
her imprisonment Vardi told her father that she would not bow down to the
powers that be regardless of how the military presents her case. "The
occupation is cruel," she said, "and my conscience will simply not allow me
take part in the oppression of another people."

While she has yet to study moral philosophy, eighteen
year-old Sahar Vardi understands something basic that Kasher, Sagi and their
cronies are determined to elide: conscientious concern for one's country and
neighbors is intricately tied to action. As Joseph Raz from Balliol
College, Oxford, points out, "there is no doubt that [conscientious objection]
covers the case of military service, for calling on people to be ready to kill
when ordered, or calling on them to engage in activities which perpetrate an
occupation with the subjugation of people to the indignities and humiliation
which occupations involve are clear cases where the right applies." It is,
after all, the duty of respect for human beings, perhaps the most fundamental
of all moral duties, which serves the guiding principle for the Israeli
refuseniks. It is also the foundation of the right to conscientious objection.

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