Refusenik will explain why IDF reservists wont fight

Yasha Navon came to Israel in 1939, a refugee from Poland, and lost several immediate family members in the Holocaust.

"He dedicated his life for the founding of this country and enhancing Zionism," said Tamir Sorek, his grandson, "and the value of serving in the Israel Defense Forces is very central in this ethos."

What a difference two generations make.

Recently, Sorek became No. 192 on a list of nearly 400 IDF reservists refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, sparking heated discussion among friends and family members. The number increases daily

"Even selective refusal is a very difficult thing [for my grandfather] to accept. He told me what he thinks, but at his age, it's better for us not to get into a debate."

These so-called refuseniks have drawn both praise and condemnation in Israel, and beyond.

Sorek, 32, has been doing postdoctoral work at the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland and will return to Israel in April. But first, he will visit the Bay Area to speak on behalf of his fellow reservists.

He will make a number of Bay Area appearances from March 31 to April 5.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was the first war in which morally opposed IDF soldiers resisted.

And while there had been isolated cases of soldiers refusing to serve in the current intifada, little attention was paid to them until recently, when the group Courage to Refuse was formed. It came about after two Tel Aviv University students were released from service in Gaza and decided, when called up again, to refuse. First they advertised around campus, looking for others to join them. When they had 50 people, they decided to publish an ad in Israeli newspapers, which appeared in late January. More sign on by the day — their names can be found on the group's Web site,

While pledging allegiance to Israel, the statement was extraordinarily harsh in its condemnation — saying that what soldiers were ordered to do in the territories was against the values they were taught, and in fact, corrupted Israeli society.

Saying they would no longer fight in a war for Jewish settlements that would eventually be evacuated, the statement concluded: "We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people. We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel's defense. The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose — and we shall take no part in them."

Although Sorek was in Maryland when he signed on to the cause, he knew he soon would be returning to Israel; as a first-class sergeant in intelligence, it would only be a matter of time before he was called up.

The group has received worldwide media coverage, including the front page of The New York Times. But organizers have decided not to talk to the foreign media about their stance. While they have made an exception for Jewish newspapers, they have turned down requests to speak to CNN and even Al-Jazeera, the satellite network seen throughout the Arab world.

"We want to influence Israeli public opinion," Sorek said. "Our intention is not to bring international criticism upon Israel. When we give testimonies about what's going in the occupied territories, we don't intend to harm the image of Israel all over the world."

The IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, has condemned the group, as has Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other elected officials. While recent polls in Israel show growing support for the refuseniks, supporters are still in the minority.

Sorek attributes his views to both his kibbutznik background, where he was taught the notion of equality, and his parents. He added that his father served in the Lebanon War, even though he opposed it.

Sorek is from Kibbutz Hanita, on the Lebanese border, and spoke to the Jewish Bulletin a day after a mother and daughter from his kibbutz were killed in a shooting attack in northern Israel.

He described his own experience serving in the West Bank during the first intifada as a sort of awakening. In 1995, for the first time, he asked to no longer serve there during his reserve duty.

When he was serving in the West Bank, it wasn't at the height of the intifada, but that was irrelevant, he said. During his basic training, he was returning to his base when he saw a soldier stop an Arab car. Then others soldiers joined him and started to shake the car violently.

"I was alone and was afraid to ask what are they doing," he said. "It was clear it was only for fun."

Finally a commander drove up, and Sorek waited for him to order the soldiers to stop harassing the Palestinians. The commander did nothing.

"It took me a lot of time to understand what I saw there," he said. "But I saw that the Arabs have inferior status and can be tortured by any small soldier with maybe two weeks in the army. They think they are the master of the occupied territories because they are soldiers, and Palestinians are subhuman beings."

Sorek has taken a firm stand because he believes the "occupation [is] illegal and immoral. It is immoral to rule a people without their civil rights, and I don't want to take part in any of it; I don't want to give legitimacy to the system by my presence there."

Although one might support certain measures in the territories that might prevent terrorism against Israelis, a soldier will always be forced to take part in measures of collective punishment, he said, or simply do things that are morally wrong.

"What can they do when they have an order not to let any Palestinian car move on the road, but an ambulance is coming with a person who needs dialysis or a pregnant woman? They need to pass and you are ordered to prevent them. You are not following this order to save the lives of Israelis in Israel; you are doing it to protect Israelis who choose to live outside Israel at the expense of our Arab neighbors."

Responding to criticism that he and his group are traitors, Sorek said that if Israel were under attack, of course he would fight to protect it.

"Sometimes, when you are a soldier, you must do something where you don't have any other choice," he concluded. "But here, we have a choice."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."