Israel’s ‘Prisoners of Conscience’

By Gabriel Matthew Schivone, Arizona Daily Wildcat – 20 Sept 2009
http://wildcat.arizona.edu/opinions/israel-s-prisoners-of-conscience-1.524099#3

They are just like us. Nineteen years old, ambitious, aspiring and passionate about life. But unlike many of us, they’ve gone to jail to defend their convictions.

Maya Wind and Netta Mishly, Israeli refuseniks (they call themselves “Shministim,” which is Hebrew for “twelfth graders”), accumulatively spent several months incarcerated for refusing to join the Israeli military, which is a required service after finishing high school.

Both young women come from the most recent refusal movement (deemed the “December 18th movement”) against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In December 2008, Amnesty International officially endorsed this campaign of solidarity led by American activist group Jewish Voice for Peace, garnering 20,000 letters of support. Amnesty International considers them to be “prisoners of conscience” and “calls for their immediate and unconditional release.”

This weekend the two, who will be on campus Tuesday and Wednesday for a series of speaking events, spoke with me via telephone about why they refused military service and about the overall political issues that bring them here on a college tour of the states that will take them all the way to Hawaii. “The hardest part of prison life was being isolated,” said Mishly. “Being behind bars without the ability to talk to your friends and family.” But, ironically, they both agree, the most difficult aspect of military refusal is not the experience of jail, but rather the experience outside prison. “The social repercussions of refusing were much harder for me to deal with,” said Wind.

When it comes to the context of the conflict, the two possess a remarkable understanding of the underlying causes and effects of the occupation. “It’s not just a political issue, it’s also an economic issue,” said Wind. “There are economic interests to keep the occupation going. And those economic interests are not only Israeli, they are also American and international and often multinational corporations also.” Ms. Wind doesn’t hold any punches when she discusses our personal role as Americans in the toxic reaches of the occupation. “You (Americans) as consumers should be more aware of the companies that you might buy from and the role that they play in ruining people’s lives and trampling on human rights and making the war in Israel/Palestine go on, and the occupation go on.” She doesn’t leave our university in the clear either. “As far as U.S. corporations go there are many who are involved in the occupation, and who are profiting from the occupation,” said Wind. “Some of them cooperate even to the extent that they design special machines for the Israeli occupation, such as Caterpillar. Caterpillar designs special huge bulldozers to take down Palestinian houses that Israel uses in the house demolitions it does in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” The UA’s business licensing contract with Caterpillar, Inc. raises serious questions of our involvement in these crimes.

On their college tour, the two also intend to inform audiences about U.S. military aid to Israel. “You give us $3 billion a year in military with absolutely no condition. For example, to hold Israel to some moral standard or international law — that would be a great idea. It’s a shame the U.S. doesn’t do this. And it’s a shame that instead of helping us in humanitarian aid, the U.S. gives us bombs.” A shame indeed. And a crime.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Shministim refuseniks is the way they are viewed by their own state.

Wind, who spent two months in detention and 42 days in a military prison before she was exempt for being “mentally unfit” in March 2009, said that those who object to participating in the army go through similar treatment. “They do not wish to grant us conscientious objector status. (They want to) get rid of us, in a way, and put us in another category. This is a very convenient way for them to sort of pathologize us and kind of marginalize our opinions and almost disqualify them because we are ‘mentally unfit’.”

In a sense, for them to be deemed “unfit” — intellectually, emotionally and morally — affirms their courage and relays their example to all of us of what is possible for human beings to achieve in the face of extreme adversity. The main character in Joseph Heller’s anti-war classic “Catch-22”, Yossarian, was deemed “insane” because he didn’t want to go on anymore bombing missions. If Yossarian wanted to bomb, he would be sane, in the eyes of the military.

If enough Israeli youth, like Wind and Mishly, refuse to fight, kill or die for the vulgar cause of occupation, and continue speaking out despite immense opposition, a clearer picture of what sanity really is may be achieved.

— Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a junior majoring in art, literature and media studies. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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