Fresh out of prison, young Israeli refusenik fights on

When Noam Bahat was 14, he realized that, unlike his peers, he did not aspire to be a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. He could be put to better use as an educator, or so he thought. But as time went on, that decision became irrelevant.

“I became more aware of the horrendous things taking place in the occupied territories, and I also became aware of the nature of what it means to serve in the educational part of the army, that it means to be part of the propaganda of the occupation,” he said. “Then I became aware that there’s nothing in the army I can do that I believe in, that I agree with, that I can tolerate. That’s when I decided to refuse.”

Bahat spoke out during his recent visit to the Bay Area, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Refusenik Solidarity Network. He and a fellow refusenik toured more than 15 cities. A handful of progressive synagogues invited him to speak, he said, but the Jewish media in the United States virtually ignored him. He spoke mostly to students on college campuses.

Bahat, 21, is much younger than the so-called “refuseniks” who made headlines earlier in the second intifada by refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Those soldiers refused to report to reserve duty after completing their regular army service, while Bahat refused army service altogether. And although he claims the number of others like him is in the hundreds, he and four others had to serve almost two years in prison for doing so. He believes that since they were the first, the IDF made examples of them. He was released in September.

Initially, his Zionist parents were not happy with his decision. But his mind was made up by the time he told them.

“It was hard for them to accept it, but my parents were helped by others who were supportive of us. That made them understand my motives for refusing and then they started supporting me.”

In recent years, the number of Israeli youths refusing to serve in the IDF has been steadily climbing. Many of them fake mental health problems. Bahat knew that was no option for him.

“When you believe something is immoral, you need to fight against it,” he said. “Refusal is one of the most powerful tools we have to fight against the immorality of the occupation.”

Bahat’s ordeal began with a 10-month trial, during which he was imprisoned on an army base. After he received his sentence, he had a short stay at a military prison, and then was transferred to a minimum-security civilian prison, which was the better of the two, At one point during his imprisonment, Bahat went on a 16-day hunger strike.

Now that he’s a free man, Bahat has joined efforts with other refuseniks to get high school seniors to sign a letter that they will refuse, too. There’s only one problem: Education Minister Limor Livnat has banned them from speaking in high schools.

But Bahat is undeterred. Acknowledging that it’s difficult to change public opinion in a country where “the army is God,” he said things are changing, albeit slowly.

“Thirty percent of the Israeli public supports refusal, maybe not ideologically, but at least they understand the right of it, and that is something new,” he said. “That shows that people are listening to those with independent thinking.”

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."