More Israeli Conscientious Objectors
JERUSALEM - Lotan Raz was born on an Israeli communal farm but grew up on the lore of the 1960s U.S. protest movement, so when the 18-year-old received his Israeli draft card in the mail, he did his duty - went to the induction center and said his conscience did not allow him to serve.
Raz spent 52 days in a military prison after the army refused to recognize him as a conscientious objector.
Just a few years ago, young men such as Raz were an exception in a nation that has fought six wars in its 51-year history. But today, Israel is more prosperous and sure of itself, less of a garrison state.
While the vast majority of young Israeli men still do three years of compulsory service, many even volunteering for combat duty, a growing number seek to avoid the draft.
Some say they are pacifists, while others acknowledge they want to get on with their careers and not spend three years doing something they don't believe in.
In general, the army grants conscientious-objector status to women, but not to men, and those who are turned down by a special army review panel are sent to jail.
"The willingness to serve in the army is in decline," said Gad Barzilai, a political scientist and author who researches the relationship between the Israeli army and society. "I think the army is very concerned and, for good reason."
However, as external threats to Israel recede, the army may be less insistent than in the past to recruit every able-bodied 18-year-old, said social commentator Daniel Elazar.
Since the founding of the state, only Jewish seminary students and Israel's Arab citizens have been exempt from service. Raz, recognized as an Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience," said he felt the need to take a stand on principles.
He was ultimately dismissed by the army as "unsuitable for service," without mention of his objections to serving in the West Bank, Gaza Strip or southern Lebanon.
Still, the idea of challenging compulsory service does not come easy in a country where the military helped forge the national character. The sight of rifle-toting soldiers on the city streets is part of the national landscape.
Moshe Mugrabi, 34, said that when he was drafted as an 18-year-old, he did not realize that refusing to serve was an option. Mugrabi, an Internet designer from Tel Aviv, completed three years in a combat unit.
But when he returned to Israel after four years at art school in Berlin, he found himself incapable of returning to his unit for reserve duty and was released by an army psychologist. "I could not go on in an army framework of orders," Mugrabi said.
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