You are either going to love this group or hate it, depending on where you stand in Israel's contemporary political spectrum. There is virtually no middle ground. Looking through the lenses of our politically hyper-polarized society, you will either admire this organization as a beacon of light pointing the way toward a better Israel, or abhor it as a dangerous threat to the country's very existence.
The organization is called New Profile - A Movement for the Civil-ization of Israeli Society. Founded as a feminist organization 10 years ago to combat what it sees as the "over-militarization" of Israel, New Profile's primary objectives are to put an end to compulsory military service, provide aid and support to imprisoned refuseniks and conscientious objectors, offer counseling on "all forms of draft resistance and conscientious objection" to high-school graduates prior to their enlistment, advocate resistance to Israel's "occupation" of the West Bank, and conduct educational programs aimed toward raising public awareness of what the group believes is the over-emphasis of military themes in Israeli society and culture. One such program is a portable, traveling exhibit of photographs entitled, "Neither Shall They Study War Anymore."
The group's charter states: "We, a group of feminist women and men, are convinced that we need not live in a soldiers' state. Today, Israel is capable of a determined peace politics. It need not be a militarized society. We are convinced that we ourselves, our children, our partners, need not go on being endlessly mobilized, need not go on living as warriorsâ€¦ We will not go on being mobilized, raising children for mobilization, supporting mobilized partners, brothers, fathers, while those in charge of the country go on deploying the army easily, rather than building other solutions... We oppose the use of military means to enforce Israeli sovereignty beyond the Green Line. We oppose the use of the army, police, security forces in the ongoing oppression and discrimination of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, while demolishing their homes, denying them building and development rights, using violence to disperse their demonstrations."
Unlike most other Israeli non-profit organizations, New Profile receives little of its income from private donations. New Profile's funding comes principally from international Christian organizations like the Quakers (United Kingdom) and Bread for the World (United States). New Profile has worked in tandem with groups like Women in Black, and in conjunction with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions to rebuild houses of West Bank Palestinians demolished by the IDF.
But it is programs like "Think Before Enlisting" and other draft resistance campaigns that have placed the group at the opposite end of the spectrum from such organizations as Shivyon - The Israeli Forum for the Promotion of an Equal Share of the [military] Burden, with whom New Profile is often at bitter odds. The latest flashpoint has been the recent imprisonment of Udi Nir, 18, of Herzliya, who was ordered jailed on August 21 for refusing to serve in the IDF. Nir is one of a group of high-school seniors who recently signed a collective declaration of refusal to serve.
The group, who call themselves "Shministim Letter 2008 - Refusing the Occupation," have a page on Facebook.com and are featured as heroes of conscience on New Profile's website. Nir and his group, however, provoked the following angry comments from Shivyon spokesperson Zohara Berger-Tzur, published in The Jerusalem Post on August 22: "The situation is absurd. Suddenly everyone has a reason not to serve - the haredim have their reasons why they can't serve, and the pacifists have their reasons why they can't serve. It's demagoguery, that's what it isâ€¦There are still some who serve with pride, but there are others who simply worry about themselves. If we keep it up, we won't have anything left to defend."
Claiming some 2,000 supporters and run by "40-60" active volunteers, New Profile operates with a "feminist, non-hierarchical" system of organization. Accordingly, the group prides itself in having no leaders, no one occupying any official positions, no fixed division of labor, or even an office. New Profile members run the group from their own homes.
The organization also lacks an official spokesperson, but Dr. Diana Dolev, a founder and prominent figure within the group, agreed to talk with Metro about New Profile's general ideology and activities. Dolev, a fifth-generation Israeli - "Fifth or more, I'm not sure," she says - holds a Ph.D. in the History and Theory of Architecture and teaches at the Holon Institute of Technology. She is involved primarily with New Profile's outreach educational programs.
If I understand you correctly, New Profile's basic position is that Israel is an "over-militarized society." I have lived in some highly militarized countries, like Indonesia under General Suharto, when the army ran the country and anyone of any importance was an actively-serving army general. Few people look at Israel and see anything like that here.
If people don't see it, it's because they don't want to see it. There's this trick here of melting down the border between what is civil and what is military. So you don't see soldiers marching in good form. We don't have all that. We ridicule this kind of militarism. Our soldiers aren't tidy soldiers. They're very schlumperich [unkempt], which creates this image of a soldier that is half civilian. One of the hevre. Not a "soldierly" soldier. But I think this is a sort of cover. I think that actually, in a more concealed way, this image contributes to militaristic ideas filtering into civil society without our noticing it.
Such as lots of advertising, based on [images] of a soldier and his mother, or a soldier and his girlfriend. We show examples of this in our exhibitions. Or, for instance, show business people posing on the covers of magazines, saluting. They're civilians - why should they be saluting? What's the idea there? And you can see today with all the political crises [about] how Tzipi Livni is being attacked as being unsuitable to be prime minister because she hasn't got experience leading the nation into war. People don't even question this idea. If you're not a general or an ex-general, you're not suitable to become prime minister.
But isn't the military's cultural importance due to the obvious fact that we're in a bad neighborhood, with dangerous enemies, under threat?
That's a very common idea. But we quote a book by Motti Golani, a professor at the University of Haifa, called Wars Do Not Just Happen. Although he comes from a very militaristic family, he has analyzed all our wars and says it's not true that the wars were all caused by our neighbors. We [took] an active part. We don't have to automatically believe everything we are told by our leaders. We have to look into things a bit deeper, and we will find out that, for different reasons, our leaders wanted the war, or they were never able to think about conflicts other than war and the force of our army.
Are you saying, then, that some of our wars were unnecessary?
The last wars, of course. This is without any question. All of the wars against Lebanon should have been avoided. But we can go back even to other wars - wars that there's a positive consensus about, and Dr. Golani says that they could have been avoided, as well. But from reading the newspapers, including yours I suppose, you can see that the discourse is always in militaristic terms. We think that if we change people's mind-sets, the discourse will change also. And then people will be searching for other solutions.
Do you really believe that whether we have war or peace is up to us?
People keep saying, "Well, it's not up to us. We have bad neighbors." But we have peace with Egypt, we have peace with Jordan. Lebanon never started a war against Israel, and Syria is [doing] its best not to attack Israel. So what are we talking about? Iran? [Laughs].
In your opinion, what is our best alternative?
The alternative is diplomacy, of course, but the problem is very complicated because the militarism here is so deeply rooted. It would take a new way of looking at our neighbors. If one of our leaders failed to speak of Arab leaders in a degrading way, he would not be considered the kind of strong leader that we want for Israel. People would think that he was weak. It's all about being strong. But in my opinion it's not about showing your muscle. Being strong is also being polite, compassionate, talking about another leader as your equal or someone you can learn from and have a dialogue with. Israeli leaders have not done that at all.
Never? Not at all?
Not at all.
Why do you think our leaders have not tried your approach?
I think it's a combination... of always seeing ourselves as the victim, thinking that the whole world is against us and that we are under constant threats to our existence. All that has been overused and has been one part of creating our militarization.
But what about the threats to our existence? What about Hizbullah, or Hamas?
Well, Hamas is a difficult question, because we've probably gone too far in undermining Palestinian society in the territories. Israel created Hamas. We created Hamas because of this idea that if we get the Palestinians to fight each other, we win. If they destroy each other, we win. This strategy has failed completely. It failed in Lebanon, and we've paid a high cost for this. Same with the Palestinians. I think Israel should simply leave them alone. We should leave them alone, pay them compensation for what we owe them for so many years of occupation, and let them go on with their lives.
We can leave the Palestinians alone, but will the Palestinians leave us alone?
It's worth trying. Up to now, the military force that we've been using against them hasn't brought us any peace and quiet, any end of danger. So maybe we should try. Maybe they will be so busy organizing their lives, maybe they'll be so overwhelmed [by] children going freely to school, being able to do business, to travel around freely without the humiliation and suffering of going through checkpoints - who knows?
So, in your opinion, how large an army does Israel actually need?
I don't often quote Ehud Barak, but I will now. He has said that Israel needs a small and smart army. When we call ourselves "New Profile for Israel" we are referring both to the centrality of the military induction "profile" that every kid gets when he goes into the army, and to changing Israel's civil profile. We think that this has to change so that the military profile will not be central at all, but will instead be marginalized in Israeli society, in our civil profile.
If military service is no longer compulsory for all young Israelis, is it not possible that only the poor and disadvantaged will actually serve, while children from better-off families will find ways of avoiding military service?
First of all, it's only a myth that everyone goes into the army. This is an idea that has been created to [make] people feel that this is something very "Israeli," and unless you go into the army you're not a true Israeli, and all that crap. The truth is that 56% of those eligible do not serve in the army. This includes the haredim and the Arabs. It includes people who started to serve, but whom the army decided it didn't want - perhaps because they didn't contribute anything, or were beyond the army's manpower needs. And also people the army has deemed "unfit." Also people in national service.
Secondly, the army is one of the tools for creating a class system in Israel. In addition to the physical "profile" kids receive when they're going into the army, they receive another classification based on family status - income, education and so on. Kids from elite families - if they want to go into the army - go to elite units. They become things like pilots very easily. This is very prestigious, both in the army and afterwards... On the other hand, Ethiopians for instance, go to the checkpoints. The myth is that the army is all colors and backgrounds working together, but it's not true. Especially regarding women. The army is one of the major tools in Israel for marginalizing women, putting them in danger of being harassed and sexually abused. The men then take this attitude toward women into civil life. So the army is a very bad place for women, and women are 51% of Israeli society.
Women continue to compose the majority of New Profile's support base. Is that by design?
No, it just so happens. We are a feminist organization, but we have male members, and youth groups of boys and girls. Maybe the fact that we're feminist brings in more women, but from my long experience in peace activism in Israel, it's mostly women who are active in peace organizations.
What is New Profile's attitude toward Israel's non-military compulsory national service?
We don't have a unanimous opinion about this, or anything we could declare as New Profile's "position" on the subject. It's a complex issue for us. Some of our members did do civil service. Some did service with political organizations like Physicians for Human Rights, and that seemed right to them. On the whole, we think people ought to be educated to contribute to society for many years - not just one or two or three. Also, we feel that [in the case of] national service, the state interferes with people's lives. And in a state where people have so much difficulty finding jobs, it's not right for the state to fund "volunteer" work that isn't volunteer at all by young people just out of school taking the place of someone who really needs the job. And also, we feel that [national service also] becomes a tool to separate people into first- and second-class citizens, depending on whether they did their service or not. We resent that.
Are there any circumstances under which you think that war is justified or necessary?
Oh, yes. I'm not a pacifist. A lot of people in New Profile are not. I guess there are such circumstances. I recall meeting a delegate to an international conference of Women in Black. I think she came from the United States. We told her how we use a tank as a visual image of war to show how militarized we are. But she said, "You know, my image of a tank is one of rescue." She was a child in Germany during the Second World War, and they were hiding in a cellar. They hid until they realized they were surrounded by US army tanks. So for her, the tank was an image of rescue, of life. So yes, I'm sure there are - there must be - circumstances in which war is justified. But what we're trying to say is that our leaders do not explore all of the other possibilities before deciding to go to war.
What kind of Israel are you trying to create?
Paradise. A country with friendlier relations with its neighbors. A more just state for all its citizens. A genuinely pluralistic society. A country that knows you don't have to be strong all the time, where real "strength" is about defending people who have been weakened. We are a very violent societyâ€¦ New Profile is about looking at society critically - not through nationalist lenses, but about ourselves as people in a highly militarized society - to find out how our mind-sets have been influenced. We want to open people's eyes.
ALTHOUGH A lot of New Profile's energy and resources are directed toward "educational programs" like training workshops and travelling exhibitions, the group's major focus is helping young people avoid service in the IDF. New Profile goes about this in two ways: by organizing youth groups where options and alternatives to army service are presented and discussed, and by maintaining a network of counselors who assist individual boys and girls who have decided not to serve.
Lotahn Raz, 27, is a co-founder and co-coordinator of New Profile's youth groups program. Despite having inherited a flawless American drawl from his parents, Raz was born and has spent all his life here in Israel. He was himself a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for two months in 1999 for refusing to enter the army.
What happens in a New Profile youth group?
The goal is to create a space for young people to openly think, talk and discuss issues related to military service. It's about creating a space to ask questions and think thoughts that don't have space to be thought or discussed otherwise. Our principle is that in Israeli society there is no space for young people to talk about military service. It's considered to be a non-question. But in our perspective, it's a political issue, a political question. And the fact that military service is shoved down people's throats without having the space to ask questions is undemocratic and very problematic. Space needs to be made for people to ask questions and think. And that's the idea. It's not our perspective to say what people should do; it's just to create the space to talk about things.
Do these people come to you or do you go to them?
Mostly people come to us. We get a a lot of e-mail from young people from around the country, asking for a place to talk. When we open a youth group, we go around and look for young people who we know are interested in these questions. Like any other youth group would do, we look for places where people would be interested in what we have to offer. At this point, we have groups in Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa, Tel Avivâ€¦ we're opening one in the Sharon, we had one last year in Rehovot and another in Pardess Hanna. And we're looking to open one in the Galilee.
Do you provide draft counseling at these youth group meetings?
No. That's done within our counseling network. Our youth groups are there to provide young people with space to think, ask questions, and make decisions. The purpose of the counseling networks is to follow individuals through the process of draft resistance. We give people information that does not exist elsewhere - what are the different possibilities, how does one go about refusing?
So what are the different possibilities?
The main one, the political one, is to go the conscientious objector route, to go before the government's conscientious objectors committee and end up being imprisoned like me, and then eventually receiving 'unfit for military service' status. And then there are the exemptions for medical reasons, mental health reasons, or other issues.
How far does New Profile actually go in counseling people about, say, medical exemptions? Would you advise a sane person to act 'crazy' or a healthy person to pretend to be sick?
We would never tell anybody to lie. That would be immoral and wrong. What we do is give information about how the system works - about how a psychiatric release from the army is decided upon, for example.
So are you saying that you inform people about how the army decides that someone is psychologically unfit for service and then tell them to take it from there?
Well, yeah. Our job is to give people information and help them through the process. People need to do the work and basically it's their decision. But remember, the ones who decide to release people from the military are the military itself. New Profile has no impact on that. It's the military's decision to decide who they want and who they don't want.
Less nuanced and far more direct are the responses of Sergei Sandler, self-described "activist" and very active member of New Profile's counseling network. Now 33, Sandler was brought to Israel by his family at age six from the former Soviet Union. Also a conscientious objector, Sandler was imprisoned for brief periods in 1994-1995 for refusing to serve in the IDF.
Do you help everyone who wants to avoid army service, regardless of their reasons for not wanting to serve?
Does it bother you that perhaps not everyone you help is a genuine conscientious objector, and that people with less "noble" motives might simply be using you to avoid service?
You're defining "conscientious objector" in the narrow sense if you take the nature of Israeli society into account. You're not living in a society where someone can freely decide whether or not he or she wants to go into the army. You're living in a society where there is tremendous social pressure on young people to enlist. And if you get someone who actually gets to a point where they resist that pressure, to the point where they say they won't enlist, that's not just any odd decision that someone is making.
We speak with people and we can tell that people who have been deliberating this know it's a very big decision. And while not all people say that their reasons are ideological, all know that they're going to disappoint their families and have all sorts of other problems. Some people don't cite any reasons in particular - they just show that they are rejecting the overall brainwashing. In any case, it's not a simple process. So in that sense, you can say that anyone deciding not to enlist is a conscientious objector, in every sense of the word.
In addition to conscientious objector status, there are also exemptions from service for medical and mental health problems. Do you simply make people aware of how these exemptions are granted or take it a step further and advise people to pretend?
We don't advise people to pretend. We really don't need to. Pyschiatric exemptions are the major gateway out of the military. If someone is serious and persistent about pursuing a psychiatric exemption - despite all of the stigma against people with mental conditions, and despite the stories the military itself is spreading around about those exemptions, which are meant to scare people off - if in spite of all this someone is really serious about getting this kind of exemption, the military reckons that this person really doesn't want to serve in the military, and the military doesn't want that person to serve. It's sort of an informal deal that the military has, actually. Attacking New Profile on this point is utter hypocrisy.
But your critics charge that you are getting people to model their behavior after the military's medical and psychiatric exemption criteria - in effect, to pretend.
I'll tell you something. It's true that we will counsel anyone who decides not to serve in the military. And that's because they have the right not to serve in the military. That's a basic right - the right to refuse to kill is a basic human right. And we don't really feel that we have to dig into people's motives. But apart from that, many people who appeal to us are soldiers already. That's a very important group of people who actually ask for our help. And many, many, many of those soldiers are in a serious state of trauma or depression. We counsel soldiers who, if the system had been working well, would have been exempted long ago. But the system doesn't work well.
The military health care system and mental health care system are there to serve the interests of the military, not the interests of the person. When you're there as a patient, you're not treated as someone who needs help, but as someone who is there to get something. Part of our work - and in many cases it has been part of our work - is to speak to people who are obviously and evidently in a state of trauma and in a state of depression, and who obviously and evidently should have been out of the military by the military's own criteria. We try to explain to them how to make those things evident enough to the people around them - in the military at large, and to military healthcare professionals.
One final question. The State of Israel indisputably has real enemies -
Yes, and it's been working very hard to make them.
Don't we need a strong, standing military force to protect us?
Well, you're actually talking about something that goes beyond the common line in New Profile. New Profile is composed of different people thinking different things, united in a common belief that the military is bloated and that the country is over-militarized. But right now, you happen to be talking to a pacifist. And as a pacifist I would say quite clearly that nobody needs an army. And I don't see how the Israeli military offers me protection. I personally am not willing to differentiate the Israeli military from that of Syria or Iran. They're all on the same team - the team that kills people - playing over the heads of the civilians. And no one is offering us protection.
In a written response to Metro's inquiry about
New Profile, The IDF refused to directly acknowledge the group or its activities:
"Even after 60 years of independence, Israeli society is forced to defend itself militarily and politically against terror organizations that have not accepted our existence in this region.
The present generation, like those before it, must bear its part of the security burden, in accordance with the Military Service Law.
IDF service is compulsory, but is also a great privilege. Every young man and woman can take part in protecting their family, their friends, and the country.
Everyone who serves in the IDF is a role model, and deserves to be honored and appreciated.
The Israeli society as a whole has made IDF service its goal - the government, the school system, and the young people themselves."
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