Deby Birnbaum

In Israel, mothers who are fearful (men are never fearful) are defined as "over-anxious" - irrational, and unable to think clearly. This is an Israeli way to be dismissive of fear, an emotion linked to facts, fear; an emotion that is rational and essential for survival. Mothers are regarded as "incapable of understanding" because "their anxiety clouds clear thinking".

I would like to give my fear an opportunity to speak up:

I am fearful when I think of my oldest son being drafted to the army because I know that in the army he will undergo basic training designed to strip him of his identity, his independence, his feelings, fears, hopes, and his ability to engage in creative and critical thinking. All this as a part of the effort to turn him into an efficient soldier who obeys orders unconditionally.

I am fearful because I know , that the moment my son will place his soul and feelings inside a" sealed room", his chances of getting them out are almost nil.

I am fearful because I know that my son will take on the speech and behavior patterns of power, that dialogue will become a battle that must be won, because this will be the only way to become one of the guys, and survive the missions of death and destruction that require a belief in one's invincibility.

I am fearful because I know that he will engage in dehumanization of whoever the current enemy is. This will be the only way my son would be capable of bringing himself to kill, or being killed.

I am fearful because I know that he will adopt the view that "there is no alternative but to fight", and the belief that power and violence are legitimate ways to solve political and social conflicts, otherwise he would not be willing to oppress, to endanger his life, and to kill.

I am fearful because I know that he will come to believe that the right to life of the Jews in Israel takes priority over that of other faiths or nationalities. And that it is impossible to share resources, but only to defeat or be defeated. Only with these beliefs he would be capable of endangering his own life and killing others.

I am fearful because I know that despite the songs of praise and heroics, the army is an institution designed for killing and destruction in the most efficient manner possible.

I am fearful because I know that those who make policy about security matters in Israel have never been civilians, have never been "fearful", have only been generals and, before that, soldiers. These people have learned the sweet taste of command, of having immense power with virtually no civilian oversight, of the privileges of class, and of the omnipotent feeling of having subordinates who obey you unquestioningly.

I am fearful because the decision-makers are preoccupied with trivial matters - , power games and prestige, the politics of religion - treating everything with the same weighty seriousness. I have not seen the courage and wisdom that are required for leading a confused and fragmented society to the transformation of thought and deed needed for a just solution in the region. They are wasting time and wasting lives. I know that this time is paid in bloodshed.

I am fearful because I know that continued conflict with the Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese is a cover for not dealing with the rotten core, caused by the negligence of all the previous governments - poverty, racism, flawed education, unemployment, extremism, discrimination, and oppression of the weak. In the face of these complex difficulties, the safest thing has always been to repeat the myth of our being small, vulnerable, under threat, in a world that hates and wants to destroy us.

I am fearful because I know that we have enough conventional, chemical and atomic warfare to "feel safe". And yet so-called knowledgeable military sources say that this is inadequate - inadequate for the military and inadequate for those who gain from the spoils of war. The enormous resources that could be applied to the solution of real problems are being diverted to imaginary projects and to continue feeding the illusion of security.

I am fearful because my son was educated in an ideological system that infuses him with messages like "war is inevitable", "there is no other alternative", and "it's great to be a hero".

I am fearful because my chances of convincing him that alternatives exist are not great.

I am fearful because there is no hope that the army will do any real soul-searching or examination of the need for the draft, or will agree to transparency and disclosure of the numbers of those who are not drafted, or consider a cut in its size or resources.

I am fearful because there is no civilian leadership responsive to my call to seriously examine the make-up and objectives of the army.

Fear has been an opportunity for me. I look at it every time it comes up, and discover new facets. It is the voice that signals me to stop and listen. To bring together mind and heart.

With knowledge, one can choose how to act. Certainly I have presented only part of the matter, and much more could be said.

For myself, I have decided that today I know enough. I am not willing to wait for "knowledgeable sources in security matters" to make peace.

I am not willing to cooperate. I refuse as a matter of conscience to be part of the oiled machine that is turning my son into a soldier. I refuse to close my eye and to hope for the best, and to repeat the familiar Israeli-Jewish mantra, "There is no alternative and the fight must go on".


A History of Shministim Letters

In June 2001 ten people, most from the Tel Aviv area, gathered to discuss new ways of action to resist the occupation. The ten recalled a long heritage of “Shministim” Letters, declarations by high school seniors who wrote to the prime ministers of Israel to protest the ongoing attack against the Palestinians. Israeli governments ignored these calls from conscientious objectors and persisted waging their wars with a ‘business as usual’ attitude – exacting a terrible toll from the Palestinians, as well as incurring harm on Israelis themselves both economically and in terms of personal safety.

Following the occupation of 1967 several groups of COs (Conscientious Objectors) united the voices of protest. They recalled the authors of a letter in 1970, the COs who refused to participate in the invasion of Lebanon and the COs of the first Intifada who had spoken out clearly for justice and peace. During this hour of hardship, when Israeli aggression against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories reaches heights that were formerly suffered by the inhabitants of Lebanon, we have decided to reiterate the call: Enough! We will not take part in this!

The Organization of the Shministim Letter 2001 and its Unique Character

Following the decision to issue a “High-school Seniors’ Letter” (in Hebrew called “Shministim”), the founding group began a marathon of meetings. Some activists quit, others joined in, and ultimately a final text was agreed on. Among the authors of the letter were young people of various views: supporters of partition and proponents of the unification of Palestine, liberals and socialists, pacifists and supporters of violent resistance. The final version was therefore one that all signatories agreed upon, without committing to one political or social solution; this version condemned the occupation of 1967 and Israeli war crimes, and pointed to the connection between Israeli aggression and the increase in attacks on Israeli citizens by Palestinians.

The “Shministim Letter 2001” contains important elements that were not part of earlier letters of refusal: it was the first letter to acknowledge the importance of conscientious objection. Each endorser has her/his own interpretation to refusal: many endorsers are unwilling to serve in any army, entirely negating the legitimacy of the military as an organization; others are not willing to serve in the Israeli army because of the nature of the state of Israel and its policy; yet others refuse to serve in the Israeli army so long as it occupies certain territories; finally, some endorsers are willing to join the army, but refuse to serve outside the “green line.” Some of the endorsers openly demand to be relieved of service on the basis of their opinions, while others avoid service, which is against their moral view, in other ways. This letter was the first call to other youths, as well as to soldiers, to refuse. Having women among the endorsers is another novelty of this letter. The endorsers refuse to accept the old division according to which “men refuse, and women support.” The army perpetuates male chauvinism in Israeli society, and letter endorsers refuse to let the same rules of conduct shape the limits and character of conscientious objection.

The letter was primarily signed by 62 youths. The letter organizers felt this was enough to go public, and sent the text as an open letter to the Prime Minister.

The Effect of the Letter in the First Week of Publication
Within a week of its publication in September 2001, the Shministim letter had achieved the following:

Significant Press Coverage: In Israel, in the Occupied Territories and abroad. The letter was covered in Israeli newspapers Haaretz, Maariv (twice), Yedioth Aharonoth, Al-Itihad, Tzomet HaSharon, Al HaSharon, and Zman Haifa. It was covered on Radio news and in at least five radio shows on National radio, IDF radio, and several local stations. Israeli television coverage included the morning shows on Channels One and Two, as well as Seven-Thirty and Mabat on Channels One. The letter was also covered by several newspapers in the Occupied Territories, and by the large Qatari station Al-Jazeera. The letter was reported in various media in the United States, Britain, France, Spain, Australia, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden, and Japan. Some members of the group were interviewed by the BBC World Service.

We encouraged members to do their utmost to increase media exposure; at least ten members of our group were interviewed on various media.

Reactions from Israeli Politicians

We have received some harsh invectives. Minister of Education Limor Livnat has said we are a tiny minority, and "do not distinguish between aggressor and victim." Head of the opposition MK Yossi Sarid has said that "as one who totally rejects this government’s futile and aggressive policy, I also totally rejects any refusal to serve in the army," and that "army service is possibly the last common denominator of Israeli society; when it breaks, the whole society collapses..." Chair of the Knesset’s Education committee, MK Zebulon Orlev, and Chair of Municipalities' Education Committee Shmuel Avuav have also taken a strong stand against our letter. However, former Minister of Education Shulamit Aloni supported the letter and called it “a manifestation of rare courage and civil commitment.”

Reactions from the Israeli Public

The majority of responses we heard were hard, offensive and threatening. Some attacked us personally, some criticized the system that "failed" in our upbringing. Additionally, several counter letters were organized by youths who said they support the army and intend to serve. We have also received positive reactions from people in Israel, and 18 youths endorsed the letter within a week of its publication.

Reactions from The Palestinian Public

We have received many letters and phone calls from Palestinians encouraging us and express satisfaction that "there are still Israelis who can see Justice." Two groups have sent us heart-warming letters of support. One was an organization of several thousands of Palestinians our age, in universities and high schools, who thanked us for our "good, and warm heart." The other was from ten bereft families, whose children, or other members were killed "by mistake" by the Israeli army. They thanked us for the knowledge that we will not kill more innocent civilians like their lost loved ones, and complimented us for perceiving that the army's actions do not increase personal safety for our fellow citizens, for such safety can only be achieved through a just peace. This group was headed by Mohamed Al-Dura’s family, whose son’s death at the beginning of the Intifada symbolizes Israeli brutality for many Palestinians. In a supplement to their letter, the families sent us a list of their loved ones who died, their age, and cause of death (some were shot with IDF live ammunition, others were killed as a "by product" of assassinations, etc...).

International Reactions
We received some very positive responses from around the world, from people who believe that our movement may grow and have a positive influence on the situation in our region. Member of the European Parliament, Luisa Morgantini, said we "really do give hope."

After the First Media Wave

The letter continued to resound through Israeli society for a whole month. Endorsers talked on radio and TV shows. Letters to the editors of the major dailies, as well as the local weeklies, continued to discuss the “disturbing” phenomenon of refuseniks. Peace activists from around the world contacted some of the endorsers to express support. Many more Palestinians sent us letters of encouragement and support.

Over time the public debate died down, yet many youths throughout Israel continued to sign our letter.

In January 2002 the letter’s first endorser, conscientious objector Yair Hilo was imprisoned. In February yet another endorser, Yigal Roseberg, was imprisoned. The two were reincarcerated four and five times, over a period of four months. Another endorser, a Territories refusenik, was drafted and serves in the Israeli army outside the territories occupied in 1967. Some women endorsers were relieved of military service on conscientious grounds (a privilege for women only in Israel), and other endorsers were relieved on other grounds without being jailed. A new debate on conscientious objection began after fifty combat unit soldiers published their own declaration of refusal. Courage to Refuse and the Combatants Letter (endorsed by 489 soldiers so far) that focus on the 1967 occupation and the repression of the current Intifada from a Zionist view point have made it clear that they will not serve in the Occupied Territories again.

The Shministim Movement Today and Its Future

In the past year the number of endorsers has more than tripled. Over the same time the situation has deteriorated. Sharon’s government and the army have managed to carry out the plan to reoccupy the territories with sweeping public support, and persisted in their policy of heinous war crimes.

We, the signatories of the High-School Seniors Letter, felt a need, stronger than ever, to make our voice heard in protest against the occupation and its new-old horrors. Therefore we decided to organize our work in an organizational framework to be named as the Shministim movement that will help us act and influence.

In the last months we have protested on behalf of and supported several of the signatories who were sent to jail for their refusal to serve, among them Uri Yaakobi, Yoni Yechezkel, Dror Boimel, Haggai Matar and many others. We also organized demonstrations in Tel-Aviv, a sukkah and several other organized protests on the hill in front of the Atlit jail facilities. We are planning many more activities for the near future.

The Shministim movement aims to expand the circles of conscientious objectors, and to promote awareness of conscientious objection, primarily in high schools and within youth movements. We also wish to advance these two aims among the general public and the international community. We carry out our work in solidarity vigils, demonstrations, and other direct actions.

In addition to street activity, the Shministim movement aims to support those who refuse to serve who are confronted by difficulties as a result, such as discrimination in the schools, at work etc. Among other activities, we accompany refuseniks on the day they are drafted, and hold solidarity vigils.

The movement’s strong point is that it is comprised of young people who want to make a difference, and who take action to do so. Activists' presence in schools, youth movements, and among people our age gives us direct access to youths before their conscription. We, the endorsers of the letter, address our peers in the hope it is not too late to change the dismal looking future of the state of Israel.

Support the Shministim

The Shministim movement aims to expand its activities. We would like to hold more demonstrations, solidarity vigils, and to carry out more educational work. We aim to promote awareness in Israel and abroad regarding the refusal of youths to serve in the military, and to broaden our “ranks.” To do this we need donations that will cover our day to day work – printing flyers, t-shirts, and stickers, organizing demonstrations, placing ads in the media – and for many other projects.

Donations to the Shministim movement are welcome. Wire money to:

Bank HaPoalim (Bank #12),

Ahuza Branch in Haifa (Branch #704),

Account #183285.

Personal checks can be sent to:


P.O. Box 70094

Haifa 31700

You can also support the Shministim by writing to imprisoned refuseniks. If you would like to be kept informed about endorsers of the letter who are in prison,


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