Jonathan Ben Artzi’s (or Yoni as his friends know him) first experience with the Israeli justice system was a positive one. As a student at an elite Jerusalem prep school, he found that he could no longer bear the militaristic atmosphere or the overt role the military played in his education. When his class was bussed to a military training center for an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) orientation as part of his school program, Yoni refused to go. He also insisted that his parents be refunded for this “course,” and that the fees be returned to his sole Arab classmate, who was literally taken off the military bus. Yoni simply felt that a school should prepare its students to be better citizens– not soldiers. But this position, which for many may seem rather commonsensical, is considered extremely radical in Israel.
The high school, for its part, retaliated by preventing Yoni from graduating and denying him his diploma. It took a year and half of an uphill legal battle for this decision to be overruled by an Israeli court. In a tiny and cramped courtroom, Yoni, by then a college freshman majoring in mathematics, finally had a graduation-ceremony of sorts.
But this small victory is now a fading memory for Yoni, who has spent the last six months in a military prison. Yoni is a pacifist and has been one ever since he was twelve. He simply opposes wars. He cannot picture himself bearing arms. Furthermore, he is incensed by Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine, by the atrocities and war crimes it commits, and by the endless cycle of violence its leaders market as a necessary component of life in Israel. Long before he was due to be drafted, it was clear to Yoni that he could not and would not participate in this march of folly; he would not join the military.
Yoni was one of the organizers of a seniors’ letter addressed to Prime Minister Sharon and signed by some three hundred high school graduates, which announced their refusal to be drafted. The group’s entire leadership is now behind bars.
One might have expected the state of Israel to respect the decisions of conscientious objectors like Yoni and his friends. After all, Israel has signed several international treaties which oblige it to wave military service for those who — due reasons of conscience or religious belief — feel incapable of taking up arms. These covenants require the state to assign civil rather than military service to such people. But the Israeli government, and more precisely the military prosecutor Menachem Finkelstein, have decided to ignore their obligations towards international law.
Instead the state has incarcerated the conscientious objectors in military prisons, for an indefinite period of time. Opposing the draft is simply too subversive a position in Israel– too threatening to a militaristic establishment which has lived off the occupation and the ongoing war for so long.
Before throwing Yoni and his friends in jail, however, the Israeli government had to address its obligation to the above-mentioned international treaties, and so in a cynical effort to appear law abiding, it created a committee of “conscience-experts” whose role was to examine the motivations of the seniors. This committee has found that not one of the graduates is a real conscientious objector. They are all pretenders, it claims, and as such their place is in jail.
It would seem that the motivations of someone like Yoni, who risked his school diploma for his pacifist beliefs, should be beyond suspicion. After all, the decision to sue his own school was not without ramifications. Yoni had to pay a high social price for standing up for his unpopular beliefs. Moreover, anyone who reads his school essays will find that ever since eighth grade, he has had a very clear pacifist worldview. These essays were handed over to the military’s “conscientious experts” who examined the evidence, and yet they found that Yoni was not really guided by his conscience. Yoni, the experts concluded, was simply a troublemaker, which, according to some twisted logic, also made him a perfectly suitable candidate for military service.
Accordingly, Israel and military prosecutor Finkelstein are not really violating their commitment to exempt conscientious objectors from military service– there just aren’t any objectors in their midst. As for trouble-making seniors, these exist in large quantities and have to be disciplined. There is no international law against this.
What, then, is the suitable punishment for the crime committed by Yoni and his friends, those trouble makers who masqueraded as people of conscience?
The answer to this question is simple: whatever it takes to break them.
Yoni has so far been sentenced to seven consecutive prison-terms, amounting to 196 days, and there does not seem to be an end in sight. He has been told time and again that he would be released at once, if he were to give up his principals. He would then be exempted from army service for mental reasons, they insinuated. The process would be simple: there would not be a team of experts this time. If he would only agree to see a psychiatrist, they would declare him mentally unfit instantly
But Yoni is still strong, and insists that his conscientious position is not some kind of mental illness. Yoni’s parents, Ofra and Matania, are also strong, although they are growing increasingly bitter with the state in which they chose to raise their children. People of conscience, in Israel and abroad, must take a stand in Yoni’s case. We need to raise our voice in his support. We should demand that this young man be released immediately and be reunited with his parents. It does not take a pacifist or even a political like-minded person to realize that he’s done more than enough to earn his second diploma and become a graduate of the prison academy.
YIGAL BRONNER teaches South Asian literature at the Tel Aviv University and has recently spent four weeks in military prison for refusing to serve as a reservist in the occupied territories. He can be reached at email@example.com
How to Help Free Yoni Ben Artzi, who was been tried for a seventh time, for a total of 196, and the other Israeli conscientious objectors?
1. Donate money for the Free the Conscientious Objectors Campaign. To support the campaign on behalf of Yoni and his friends please send a check ($15, $25, $50…. $1,000) made out to Assaf Oron,
To: Free the Conscientious Objectors Campaign C/O Assaf Oron P.O.Box 95511, Seattle WA 98145-5511 USA
2. Send faxes and protest the treatment of Yoni: Please write to:
Brigade General Menachem Finklestein Chief Military Prosecutor Military postal code 9605 IDF Israel Fax: ++972-3-569-43-70
Here is a sample letter: (it’s always better co compose one’s own)
Dear Brigade General Finklestein,
During the last months officers under your charge have sentenced young conscientious objectors to repeated prison terms in clear violation of international law. I hereby ask you to abide by the international covenants upon which Israel is a signatory (e.g., International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights) and to immediately release these young men from prison. There is no justification for your insistence to keep Yoni Ben Artzi and the other determined young men behind prison bars.
You can also write or call the following officials:
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon firstname.lastname@example.org
Spokesperson of the Prime Minister email@example.com
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz firstname.lastname@example.org
Spokesperson Defense Ministry email@example.com
Foreign Minister Benyamin Netanyahu firstname.lastname@example.org
Copies to: the Israeli embassy in your country.
You can find embassy listings for Israel on http://www.embassyworld.com/embassy/israel1.htm
Amnesty International email@example.com,
Amnesty International firstname.lastname@example.org
3. Write the imprisoned conscientious objectors — Yoni Ben Artzi (total of 196 days in jail), Uri Yaakovi (133 days), Dror Boimel (119 days), Yoni Yehezkiel (112 days), Haggai Mattar (84 days), Noam Bahat (70 days), Hillel Goral (70 days), Adam Maor (70 days), Mattan Kaminer (56 days), Shimri Tzameret (35) — and convey your support. The best way to write them is by e-mail to email@example.com and the messages will be passed on to them.
4. If you are a professor of law or know professors of law who will support a petition demanding the release of conscientious objectors and have them send an email to Matania.Benfirstname.lastname@example.org
We are considering publishing a paid ad in their name, which will be distributed to them in advance for their approval.
5. Sign a petition in support of the seniors at: http://www.petitiononline.com/091202/petition.html