“In total, I went to prison six times.” In conversation with an Israeli conscientious objector

Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson from Shoal Collective talk to Matan Helman, recently released from prison after refusing to serve in the Israeli armed forces.

May 25, 2018 · 11 min read
Matan Helman, Israeli conscientious objector

For decades, the Israeli military has occupied Palestine, demolished homes, restricted people’s movement and repressed struggles for Palestinian freedom. The military is the most important tool in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, which has been ongoing for 70 years. Young Israelis who refuse to be a part of these state policies face prison for their decision.

We talked to Israeli conscientious objector Matan Helman a few days after he was released from military prison. In total, Matan was imprisoned for 110 days for refusing to join the Israeli forces.

“Everybody has to go to the army when they finish school, except for most [Palestinian] Arab-Muslim citizens of Israel and some Orthodox Jewish people. Military service is two years and nine months for men, and two years and three months for women.

Some people manage to get permission from a psychologist to get out of the army [because of their mental state], or [on the grounds of poor] physical health. These people are usually from a higher social class, as they have money to pay a psychologist, or the right connections. Some avoid the army because of their conscience – for example, if they’re a pacifist. There’s a [army] committee that decides this. Only a few people succeed this way – maybe five per year. The committee says that the Israel-Palestine conflict is political and is not about conscience, so you can’t get out on the grounds that you’re anti-occupation.”

Can you tell us how the Israeli army’s propaganda machine affects young Israelis?

“Children are taught from the beginning that they will be in the army, that soldiers are heroes. We never question what the army has done, or question whether to join the army. It’s like being in school: you do it without thinking. We’re not taught to think about whether it’s good for us or not.

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During Purim [a Jewish festival], people wear costumes, and kindergarten children often dress in army uniforms. Children are taught about the military a lot in school. For example, we have a day of ‘remembering the soldiers who died for the nation’. It’s always around us.

The idea of joining the military is really pushed when students reach 17 years old. They have one week of practising with the army and shooting guns. Soldiers also come to schools and explain the roles that people can do.

The process of actually joining the military starts when you’re 16 or 17 years old. You receive a letter from the army and you have to go for some tests to see if you are healthy, to assess your mental health, your skills, and to decide which role you’ll be allocated: whether you’ll be the person cleaning the base, driving the tanks, or flying the aeroplanes.”

When did you make the decision to refuse military service?

“I decided four years before I was required to join, when I was sixteen. I started to think about refusing when I was in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. Hashomer Hatzair is a Zionist movement, but socialist. They spoke critically about the occupation to us and this was the first time that I thought about what the army does in the West Bank.

I started to read articles and books and went to see the occupation with my own eyes. I went to the West Bank with activists from Ta’ayush [meaning ‘Co-existence’: a grassroots network of Palestinian and Israeli activists against the occupation] . I saw the checkpoints, the wall, and how the army takes land from the Palestinians and gives it to the Israelis. Then I understood that it’s a policy of the Israeli government to mess up people’s lives. The army carries out the state’s policies.

Later on, Hashomer Hatzair kicked me out, after they found out that I was planning to refuse the army.”

How did your family and friends respond to your decision to refuse?

“My mother is from the Netherlands, she never went to the army herself but she wanted me to join the army because she wanted me to be like everyone else. My father understood me more. He said that nowadays the army occupies and that they’re not acting in defence. He didn’t want me to go to jail, though.

My friends were curious. They didn’t think they had the option to refuse. It didn’t cross their minds. It was hard for them, because they’re in the army now, but they understood. When I was in jail they supported me.”

How did your politics play a role in deciding to refuse?

“When I was young I was a communist, but I always had a problem with what Stalin did. My grandpa was a communist too and the kibbutz where I’m from had communist ideas, although it’s more capitalist now. I read Bakunin when I was sixteen and I became an anarchist. […] I don’t believe in God: as an anarchist I feel that I need to serve the people, rather than God or the nation.”

What happened when you informed the military that you planned to refuse?

“On the day that I was told to join the army, I held a protest. After that I went into the military base and said that I didn’t want to join. They said, ‘ok, you know that you need to go to jail?’ They kept me in the base for one day, and then they took me to a military court. I was sentenced by a General, and sent to prison in Atlit, not far from Haifa.

I spent ten days in prison. After that they released me, but they told me that I had to report to the base again within 21 days. I went home for 10 days and then went back to the base. As I still refused to join, I was sent to prison again, this time for twenty days. In total, I went to prison six times, for 110 days.”

What were conditions like in military prison?

“I had to wear a US military uniform, which had been donated to Israel by the US army. My shirt even had a ex-US soldier’s name embroidered on. I was treated like a soldier. We had to do drills and obey the army police.

Twenty of us slept in a big tent with ‘USA’ written on it. We had to get up at 5.30am and had twenty minutes to put our clothes on and stand in line. If we were late they would shout at us and punish us. We could only sleep when they allowed us to, and we weren’t allowed to lay on the bed during the day.”

Who were the other inmates in the prison?

“Living on the kibbutz, I had only been brought up with white European Israelis. In prison I saw all of Israeli society Druze, Ethiopians, Russians, Jewish people from North Africa or Arabic countries, people who believe in God, people who don’t believe in God. There were also people who had deserted and people who’d committed crimes while in the army. I saw that most people who had been sent to be soldiers in the West Bank were from a low social class: not white people like me. Those of a higher class usually went into intelligence, or went to places that weren’t really dangerous.

About 40 of the people in the prison were Orthodox Jewish people who had refused to do army service because of their religious beliefs. They are the biggest group of refusers in Israel right now. 

I don’t really know their motivations, but I know that they’re not Zionist and that they think that they need to work for God, and not for the nation.”

Can you explain about the public letter that you signed with other conscientious objectors?

“I signed a letter to the press, along with about 63 other people, stating that I was refusing the army. After I was released from my second period in prison, I found out it had been published, and all the newspapers were calling me. It was really crazy.

We also held demonstrations, and some people counter-protested. At one of the protests someone called me a Nazi. People made comments on the internet saying that they wanted me to die, but it didn’t matter to me. Now the letter has more than 100 signatories.

I don’t know how prison changed me yet, but I do think it has had a big influence on me. Having been to prison, I can now understand more how it feels to be oppressed. It’s really hard to fight for freedom if it’s never been taken from you. Now I can understand it more.”

How can the international community show their support for conscientious objectors?

“[Showing] solidarity gives you a strong spirit and it shows that people in Israel and around the world are opening their eyes.

I had a lot of letters from all over the world and that really made me strong. I’ve put all of my letters into an album. I was happy that I had touched people, and I could see that I hadn’t gone to jail for nothing. People also protested at the Israeli embassy in London because of me.”

Are you happy with your decision to refuse the military?

“Yes, and of course I would do it again. I want young people to think more about choosing to be in the army. I want them to think about the agenda they will promote and whether they really want to promote this. I think I have helped to open the eyes of other youths and have shown what the army does.

There’s a strong belief in Israel that we do the best for Palestine and that Palestinians are lucky that we occupy them because they can’t care for themselves. So I think that I have changed the opinion of many people. Others might not agree with my decision, but now they have the option to see another view [to what the Israeli state promotes]. Spreading my message publicly is a way of helping with the struggle. The struggle is not really against the army: it’s against what the Israeli state does.”

Conscientious objector Ayelet Brachfeld, an 18 year old from Tel Aviv, is currently in military prison. You can write to her via Mesarvot, an organisation supporting those who refuse to join the military. For information on army refusers globally, see the War Resister’s International website.

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