Israel: The new Russian refuseniks

Some of them are Marxists, and some are simply opposed to the occupation. Whatever the reason, the army doesn’t know how to handle the new phenomenon of young immigrants who refuse to be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces for reasons of conscience.

National paper interviews CWI refusnik
A well known nationally daily paper in Israel, Ha’aretz Daily, interviewed young immigrants who refuse to be drafted into the Israeli Defence Forces (9 May). We carry the piece, which includes an interview with a CWI member.
CWI Online

The new Russian refuseniks

Ilya Ginsburg celebrated the 1st of May with the crowds of young people who came to demonstrate in Tel Aviv. He returned enthusiastic about the excited mood of the young members of the youth movements, about the red flags that were raised. He was even supposed to speak at that demonstration, but the order of speakers was changed and he didn’t go on stage.

Ginsburg, 18, didn’t come to the event as a member of one of the youth movements, which he praised with a certain undertone of cynicism. He himself is a member of the Israeli branch of the Socialist Struggle – a movement that seeks to bring about the revolution. The Israeli branch is a member of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), a socialist-Trotskyist movement to protect workers’ rights. In Israel they even have a newspaper, Hama’avak (The Struggle). Ginsburg sold a copy of this paper for NIS 2 to the army duty officer in charge of absentees, who found him at home. Somehow they started to talk, and the young officer told Ginsburg about his growing financial distress; Ginsburg wanted to give him the paper, but the officer insisted on paying. Then, together they filled out a form in which Ginsburg was asked to list the reasons for his absenteeism, and he wrote: "The need to participate in May Day demonstrations."

The army didn’t have any trouble finding the absentee Ginsburg, because he is not hiding. He wanted to go to jail for once, like all his grandparents, who took part in the Russian Revolution, and like his parents, who went to protest the Soviet invasion of Prague. But the actual experience was far less romantic than in those stories.

After his release from a 28-day stint in military prison for his refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, he returned to his mother’s home in Beit Shemesh. At the time of his release he received another order to report to the induction center, but Ginsburg has his own agenda. First he’ll greet his grandfather, who’s coming from Russia for a visit, about which he is very excited, and then he plans to return to the army and ask to face an exceptions committee, with a request to be released from military service.

"I’m not a pacifist," he declared. "I simply don’t want to serve in the occupation army in a country to which I don’t think I personally owe anything." And who does owe the country? "Nobody," says Ginsburg. "A country that declares in its laws that it doesn’t want to provide its citizens with anything, has no right to demand anything of me. It’s everything together – the occupation, the territories, the economic program. I simply won’t serve in the army."

From Kahanist to Marxist

He didn’t always feel this way. When he came to Israel from Russia nine years ago, he wasn’t a Marxist and a revolutionary. In fact, he was religious and an extreme rightist. He studied for one year in the yeshiva in Gush Etzion and lived in Alon Shvut. During his years in Israel, he has gone through the entire array of political affiliations. From Kahane Chai youth (an extreme right-wing organization named for assassinated leader Meir Kahane) he turned to the right-wing Moledet youth and from there to the National Religious Party youth. When he was 15 he stopped being religiously observant.

Out of a continuing interest in issues of social justice, he began to read relevant books, including the "Communist Manifesto" by Marx and Engels. At a certain stage he wound up with the left-wing Meretz youth movement, but he was still searching for a more activist framework. "I tried the Communist Youth Movement, but even they don’t talk to the workers, because they feel that most of the workers are rightists and fascists, and it’s not worth talking to them."

That’s how he got to the Socialist Youth, where he met another two Russian-speaking young men. In the meantime, his father died of a heart attack. His father, who was a drainage systems engineer, worked here cleaning stairs. Ilya Ginsburg remained alone with his mother. Part of the burden of supporting the family fell on him.

Half a year ago, he made the decision to refuse to serve in the IDF. In a letter he wrote to the draft office, he explained his philosophy. "I wrote that I don’t feel that the state has a moral right to draft me, because it’s busy all the time oppressing young people like me and workers, as well as oppressing the Palestinians in an occupation that destroys hope and causes thousands of young Palestinians to consider suicide as a way out of their problem. I’m not willing to serve the occupation."

A lesson about Israel’s military history in the context of educational courses that he took in prison only strengthened his feeling. When the female education NCO spoke about the need to defend one’s home, Ginsburg was not the only one who wondered aloud how she would suggest "defending the homeland" to some of the prisoners – veterans as well as newcomers – whose families have received an immediate eviction notice from their homes because they are having a hard time meeting payments. To the question whether he feels alienated from the state, Ginsburg replies: "Now I do," but adds that this wasn’t inevitable.

Ginsburg is one of a growing group of high-school seniors, including young immigrants, who are refusing to be drafted into the IDF. Even though they say almost the same thing as the others, the new immigrants have unique characteristics. If it’s hard for any young Israeli to refuse, it’s 10 times as hard for a young immigrant. As part of the absorption process, each of them hears that the army is the entry ticket into Israeli society, second in importance only to being injured in a terrorist attack, which in the Israeli discourse links the newcomers to the veteran Israelis. They are deliberately giving up this readily available entry ticket.

The refuseniks from veteran Israeli families usually have a family and environmental support network, which is familiar with the military and civilian systems, and knows exactly when and how to turn to the military authorities and the media. The immigrants have none of these things. The very fact that they are newcomers means that they come from relatively weak families, which can barely deal with the civilian experience of absorption, and they already have to deal with the alien military system. In many case, their financial situation is poor, and they participate in supporting their families.

The immigrant refusenik is more isolated; sometimes he becomes an additional burden to his family. Ginsburg’s mother is not enthusiastic about the fact that her son will spend a long period of time in prison, and won’t be able to contribute to supporting the family. Ginsburg gave up in advance on the possibility that the army would understand this complex situation, and he is willing to pay the price.

Attempted suicide

Arseny Khoutoryansky hears the sentence: "Why did you come on aliyah [immigration] to Israel if you refuse to serve in the army?" all the time. "That’s the strongest argument against me," he says. "Up until two years ago, maybe I would have agreed with it, too."

Khoutoryansky, 22, came to Israel five years ago, and studied electrical engineering here in the army’s academic program. When he immigrated he wanted to enlist, and only in a combat unit. During his first interview at the draft board, he announced in no uncertain terms that he wanted to serve only in the Border Police. He says he was a different person then.

"When I came here, after studying in a Jewish school in Russia, they told me that the Arabs are bad and the Jews are good, and I understood that that was the reality," he said this week, from the open detention facility where he is being held after refusing to be drafted. "Over time I understood that that’s not the whole story. I don’t understand why we have to be in the territories, to be an occupier, a situation that only leads to more dead from both sides. I’m not willing to participate in that. I’m willing to defend my country, but not what we captured from another nation."

With the exception of the support of the Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit), a peace-oriented organization that helps soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories, Khoutoryansky is alone. His parents don’t agree with him. His father, a 59-year-old electrical engineer, hasn’t found work in Israel; his mother, an accountant by profession, works as a caregiver. Both would prefer to see their son stay on track, and continue to help supporting the family, as he did during all his years of study, when he worked as a security guard at night. His friends, who are Russian speakers, oppose his step. Khoutoryansky says that it doesn’t bother him. He has been disseminating his views for a long time in mini-forums and chat rooms on the Russian-language Internet, and reading in reply that, at best, he is stupid and at worst, a traitor. But he feels completely justified.

"I’m not a pacifist," he declared. "I even did basic training in September, because everyone has to know how to use weapons in order to defend the country. But I’m not willing to serve in the army as long as it is an army of occupation. I simply can’t."

Since March 9, his designated draft date, Khoutoryansky’s life has turn into a web of harassment and suffering. He spent a month between Prison 4 and Prison 6, encountering inflexibility to his requests to be sent to a Conscientious Objection Committee, as well as open physical harassment, beyond the punishment of solitary confinement imposed on anyone who refuses to don a uniform. Khoutoryansky isn’t complaining; idealists don’t whine.

Attorney Neta Ziv spoke in his name in a letter to the commander of Prison 4, Guy Goldberg: "For three days, Khoutoryansky was punished for his unwillingness to put on a uniform, by being placed in the cold for hours on end in the `tool cage’ outside the prison … I was told specifically that if he agrees to wear a uniform, this procedure will cease. This is a completely illegal action."

In a conversation with him, Khoutoryansky has a terse reaction to this story. "They are doing what the communists did, putting people out into the cold for hours," he says, comparing it to his previous life.

Afterward he says that when he left the prison, he tried to commit suicide with a mixture of pills and vodka. The vodka saved his life, because it made him vomit. After the suicide attempt, he was hospitalized for three days in Hasharon hospital.

"They don’t want to talk to me at all. They aren’t giving me a Conscientious Objection Committee, or a military court, as I requested," says Khoutoryansky, summing up his situation with the military authorities. "Maybe if I die, it will help the refuseniks’ organization."

But after leaving the hospital, he was sent to the mental health officer, and told the officer that he was fine. The officer was convinced, and Khoutoryansky received another draft notice, again was sent to stand trial before an officer, and the whole story began again. To the question if all this is worth it, Khoutoryansky replies: "I can’t behave differently."

Attorney Ziv says that it’s hard for her to point to any specific harassment with respect to the immigrant refuseniks, but from her contact with these refuseniks and with the army authorities, it is clear to her that "the army doesn’t know how to deal with them."

"Prison is a matter of codes, and they aren’t familiar with these codes," she says. "The veteran refuseniks and the immigrant refuseniks come from different socioeconomic classes. They [the Russian olim] are simply different, rabid individualists for ideological reasons."

False picture

Ilya Ginsburg says that in the military prison there is "complete separation of walls between Israelis and Russians. The Russians feel a tremendous hatred for the veterans, which stems in part from a profound culture gap. Some of the Russians are `lone soldiers’ without family in Israel, with a life story of suffering, and they feel disdain toward the Israelis with their comfortable lives. In prison you have to choose to whom you belong – to the Russians or the Israelis. Even the welcoming rituals of the prisoners are different."

Attorney Ziv has learned from her experience that the personal profile of the immigrant refuseniks is different, as is their connection to the community: "With them there’s no point in talking about alternative civil service to the community, because they still aren’t connected to the basic ethos of the state."

Konstantin Soskin, 18, who is now serving a jail sentence in the solitary wing, for his refusal to serve in the IDF, is a good example of this unique profile. From a picture presented in conversation with his brother, Theodor, one sees the face of a good boy.

"You have to know him in order to understand," says Theodor, 30, with fatherly pride. "A state that puts people like him in prison is a criminal state."

The photo was taken at the graduation ceremony of the Shevah Mofet high school in Tel Aviv; most of those killed in the terrorist attack on the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium discotheque in June 2001 were students at the school. The family immigrated from the Ukraine 11 years ago. The mother works as a laboratory microbiologist; the father, an engineer by profession, works as a security guard. Three years ago, Theodor was released from the IDF after spending over a year of cumulative jail time for refusal to serve in the army for reasons of conscience.

"The army and I are two poles that will never meet," he says. "All my associations about the army are from the Soviet Union, and according to them, an army is a stupid, violent, cruel body, whereas I was brought up on different values. I never saw myself as a soldier," says Theodor, who is now studying psychology and works in a hospital for the emotionally disturbed.

Now, says Theodor, he doesn’t see a big difference between Israel and the Soviet Union. If there is a difference, maybe Israel is worse. "The State of Israel is one big army camp in which we are living," he says defiantly. "People in uniform walk around in the streets, people in uniform grab the headlines and the television screens, there’s a dictatorship here disguised as a democracy."

He is angry at the Jewish Agency emissaries who, he says presented them there with a false picture that a warm home was waiting for them, as well as a distorted picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But mainly he is angry at what they are now doing to his brother. In addition to the usual army harassment, Konstantin has once again been sent to Prison 6, to which he refused to go after immigrant prisoners seriously abused him.

"These are not people from his circle," explains Theodor. "They refused to accept the fact that he isn’t part of the troupe." The army, by means of a Conscientious Objectors Committee, refused to release him from military service.

To the question as to whether he doesn’t accept the fact that the act of refusal carries a price, Theodor replies without hesitation: "No. Whoever puts on this price tag is not legitimate in my opinion." Konstantin, who has accumulated many hours of discussion with his older brother on these issues, feels the same way. On the basis of Theodor’s experience, Konstantin knew to whom to turn, to whom to write, and he knew exactly what he wanted to say. In a long letter that he sent to the head of the draft board before he was drafted, he discusses a large number of topics, in addition to his reservations about the IDF as an occupying army: "… In a democracy the person is central, whereas in Israel the system is central, and it is more important than the person and his life, just as was true in the totalitarian Soviet Union where I was born," he wrote.

In a statement that he prepared on the day of his draft on March 16, as most of the 12th-grade refuseniks do now, he wrote: "I reject the claims that the IDF is an army that defends the citizens of the State of Israel and maintains their security. These claims are completely false, and are meant to divert attention from the real causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict …"

In a discussion that he conducts in his brother’s name, Theodor says that they are neither right nor left in Israeli terms; he also refuses to define pacifist, because that is a kind of label to someone who hates labels. "[Konstantin] is simply a person," says Theodor.

This week, on the eve of Memorial Day for the fallen of Israel’s wars, the family went on a visit to the military prison. The mother, Cecilia, has even on occasion joined a forum of parents of refuseniks to demonstrate in front of the home of the judge advocate general, a type of activity that is not part of the usual absorption process.

"It’s hard," admits Theodor. "Mother supports and sighs. After all, the entire absorption process is based on formulating a favorable attitude, in order to be a part of something new, and the need to be `anti’ all of a sudden requires inhuman flexibility. But we both inherited our alternative thinking from Mother."

So now the State of Israel also has a small problem with mother Cecilia, and a big problem with young people who refuse to be grateful, as new immigrants are expected to be.

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May 2003