Haggai Matar is standing in an ornate Brooklyn church on a warm night in May, trying to explain why he started a movement among young Israelis to refuse to serve in the army. It began during the summer of 2001, when Israeli society was convulsed by suicide bombings. Matar was a 17-year-old activist who'd worked for Palestinian rights, and he knew that the following year he'd be faced with going to the occupied territories to implement policies he despised.
So he and a few friends he'd met in the peace movement drafted a letter to Ariel Sharon informing the prime minister of their refusal to join the army. By the time they sent it in late August, it had been signed by 62 high school students, mostly people they knew; now the number is up to 170.
"We, the undersigned, youths who grew up and were brought up in Israel, are about to be called to serve in the [Israel Defense Forces]," read the so-called Seniors Letter. "We protest before you against the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army, and to inform you that we do not intend to take part in the execution of this policy." The letter went on to decry human rights violations by the military, and concluded: "We will obey our conscience and refuse to take part in acts of oppression against the Palestinian people, acts that should properly be called terrorist actions."
Standing before a crowd of a 100 or so in the Brooklyn church last week, Matar addressed his government with measured fury, saying, "You are criminals, you are terrorists, and I'm not going to take it." Most of the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Some screamed and booed. One livid Israeli woman insisted he was an imposter and challenged him to speak Hebrew.
Matar's words and actions have touched off an even more intense reaction in Israel. Certainly, there have been Israeli army refuseniks since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but they were drawn from the ranks of soldiers -- indeed, they relied on their army affiliation to bolster their legitimacy. Matar and his friends are different. Many of them aren't just refusing to serve in the occupied territories -- they're refusing to serve, period. While the Seniors Letter includes the signatures of some who object only to the army's actions toward Palestinians, Matar's agenda is much broader: He wants to challenge the very foundation of a culture he says defines itself by war.
Matar and his allies' quest might seem comparable to the movement among Israeli reservists to refuse to serve in the occupied territories. A few months after the Seniors Letter, 50 reservists signed an Officers Letter, saying, "We shall not fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people." Since then, hundreds have added their name to the petition. But many reservists oppose the young refuseniks who reject conscription entirely.
"I think Haggai should join the army," says Ishai Sagi, a 25-year-old reservist and a veteran of the IDF Artillery Corps who has known Matar for years. Sagi served a month in prison for refusing to serve in the occupied territories. "He should go through basic training and learn how to defend our country," Sagi says. "If he is stationed at the Egyptian border, he should go. If he is stationed at the Lebanon border, he should go. If he decided to refuse only when called to the territories, I will support him fully."
In a country where conscription is nearly universal among secular Jews and the army forms the center of society, the burgeoning refusal movement has threatened not only the military but also Israel's conception of itself, prompting a furious outcry. Two of the signers are currently in jail. According to Matar, some were thrown out of their homes by their parents. Many were mocked by their teachers. The movement was attacked in the press. "It was like an earthquake in Israeli society," says Aron Trauring, an Israeli army veteran whose son, Asaf, helped write the Seniors Letter. "In Israel, serving in the military is a sacred duty in the real sense of that word." To reject that duty, he says, is "blasphemy."
If that's true, then 18-year-old Matar is a heretic. While military refuseniks are often emphatically patriotic -- several don't give interviews to the foreign press for fear of stoking anti-Israel sentiment -- Matar feels little need to defend his country to the world. He talks with a strange combination of blazing idealism and weary fatalism, throwing around the word "fascist" in a way not exactly calculated to win the wary to his cause.
"Israeli society is growing more and more fascist by the day," he tells me. "In any instance of growing fascism in a society in history, it's usually been opposed by a small number of people, but it did no good, because the vast majority of people don't care." With Israeli society behind Sharon's hawkish policies like never before, Matar and his friends are engaged in a struggle they see as both urgent and hopeless.
Matar will probably be imprisoned this summer, when he's supposed to report for duty. He used one of his last months of freedom to come to the United States and to rally support for his quixotic cause. His trip was organized by Courage to Refuse, an American group formed to support the Israeli refuseniks (who have a group by the same name). Matar traveled to Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison, Wis., and New York, speaking at synagogues, churches, schools and community centers. He came, he said, because he'd given up on Israel's ability to find peace on its own. "If there will be any change in Israeli society, it has to come from the U.S. That's why I'm here," he says.
To an outsider, Matar and the other letter signers might seem more like cowards than doomed dissidents. After all, a few months in prison sounds cushier than a few years on the front; in fact Matar says he's looking forward to catching up on his reading. Yet if Matar had just wanted to dodge the draft, there were far easier ways to go about it. Refusers and their families say it's relatively easy to claim mental problems, or to leave the country for a few years. "The army encourages people who don't want to serve to get out the back door, to play crazy or fake mental problems," Matar says. "They want us to be quiet." As Shani Werner, a 17-year-old who helped write the Seniors Letter, says, "Refusing is the hardest way to get out of the army."
Matar hardly looks like a movement leader. Pixie-slight with a long face and red hair pulled into a ponytail, he's a brainy, Camus-quoting kid who planned to use his time in New York catching Beckett plays, Eisenstein films and obscure jazz guitarists. Son of a prominent peace activist, he left school two years ago to teach himself at home, and speaks with the precocious condescension unique to brilliant teenage misfits. He wears a small pin on his breast with crossed Israeli and Palestinian flags.
So far, his U.S. trip hasn't provided him with much optimism. "It was a shame to see how much the propaganda works, how hard it is for people to break the link that the governments in the U.S. and Israel are making between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Palestinians," he says.
Matar is an eloquent speaker; his composure seems preternatural in an 18-year-old. But he has a fierce Manichaean streak that suggests he'll have a hard time winning converts. An ideologue, he reduces the Middle Eastern conflict to one between arrogant conquerors and aggrieved victims. At the Brooklyn talk, someone in the audience asks whether there's a Palestinian movement opposing terror attacks. "I'm always asked, 'Where is the Palestinian Peace Now?' he says with mewling sarcasm. "Palestinians don't need a peace movement. Palestinians are oppressed. Their job is to fight for their freedom. Our job is to support them."
He has only contempt for mainstream Israeli peace groups. Dismissing Peace Now's recent 100,000-person rally in Tel Aviv, he says that because the organization doesn't advocate refusal, "it's not a real peace movement. It does more harm than good."
Matar says the furor over the Seniors Letter hasn't bothered him much. But Ruth Hiller, a member of New Profile, an Israeli feminist peace group that Matar works with, believes it has contributed to his pessimism. "This is really rough for these kids," she says. Her own 20-year-old son Yinnon famously refused to serve in the army because of his pacifism, and she says New Profile is now in the Israeli media almost every week -- and usually under attack. Yinnon, she says, stopped doing interviews with the Israeli media, telling her, "I'm such a nonviolent person, and to be attacked by Israeli media is one of the most violent experiences I've ever had."
The intensity of the response stems from the centrality of self-defense to Israel's self-definition, which makes the military the core of the culture. It's something that has no analogue in America. From the time they're in kindergarten, refuseniks say, they're groomed to be soldiers. "When we are little, we are told, 'When you grow up, you will go to the army,' says Werner. "In kindergarten, children send gifts for the soldiers. Parents, teachers, TV, all tell us that everyone wants to kill us, that the Jews are always victims and we need a strong army to defend us so the Holocaust will never come back."
Like almost all Israeli students, Werner's 11th grade class took a field trip to Auschwitz, a trip often used to emphasize the importance of the Israeli military. "The school taught us, 'Now you should understand why we need a strong army.' All I could think was that now I understand why I shouldn't shut up, why I must demonstrate, why I must shout. What would have happened if the German intellectuals had shouted and said, 'What are we doing? It's terrible!' But they didn't."
Matar's critique of Israel encompasses this early inculcation of military values. If Israel society, as many say, is the Israeli army, then "society does not include a fifth of its population." After all, Arabs are exempted from the draft, as are most of the ultra-orthodox. Women serve, but not in the same capacity as men. Those with medical exemptions end up stigmatized. "White men, Jewish men -- that's the Israeli society, leaving the entire power structure within a group that's very chauvinistic," says Matar. "They create this brotherhood, but the bonds are built on fascism."
Such criticism of the military's role in Israeli life separates Matar and his friends from other peace activists. It's also the reason that some of the refusenik soldiers oppose what Matar is doing, similar as the two groups' methods are.
"They're wrong. Who will protect Haggai, who will protect his mother, while he sits at home smiling because he refuses to take part in what he thinks is going on in the territories?" asks Sagi, the reservist who refused to serve in the territories.
It's an astonishing statement for Sagi, whose voice gets taut with anguish when he recalls being told to shoot stone-throwing Palestinian kids, who feels that despite his best intentions, he was forced to plant the seeds of terror during his time in the territories. "You can't be in the occupied territories without making morally reprehensible decisions," he says.
But the problem, Sagi insists, is with occupation, not with the military as a whole. In fact, he still believes that "the Israeli army is the most humane and moral army in the world." The occupation is corrupting, he says, but he adds that no other army spends so much time agonizing about civilian casualties. Sagi believes strongly that young people are obligated to defend Israel on all its pre-1967 borders. "In today's Middle East, there is no room for pacifists," Sagi says.
But Matar isn't a pacifist. Though he's passionately opposed to suicide bombings, he allows that "Palestinian attacks on soldiers and settlers are legitimate." To some extent, his angry stance seems to stem from the fact that in his own life, the only violence he's ever experienced has come from his fellow citizens. "Through all the years of the conflict, not one person on a peace mission has been harmed by Palestinians," he says. "By the settlers and the army, yes, but never by the Palestinians."
Matar had his first taste of Jewish violence at age 11. He was at the peace rally where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot by Jewish right-wing fanatic Yigal Amir. Young as he was, he says the event "radicalized" him. Feeling that something in Israel had broken, he embarked on a kind of intellectual search for the roots of Israeli strife. In the next few years, he says, he spoke with people on the religious right and the left to try to understand the contours of the country's conflicts. Eventually, he stumbled upon a program called "The NIR School of the Heart," in which Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian teenagers studied cardiology together. He made Palestinian friends and discovered "they're not my enemy."
His political beliefs were solidified in the fall of 2000, when he joined a convoy of 150 humanitarian workers heading to the occupied territories with food, medicine and clothes for the Palestinians. After being stopped by an Israeli roadblock, he says, they finally made their way to a village whose olive groves and farms had been uprooted by Israeli tanks. He claims that nearby Jewish settlers would regularly destroy the Palestinians' crops, and road closures prevented the villagers from exporting olive oil.
The activists had made a human chain, he says, passing the food from four trucks into the village, when they were interrupted by 15 Israeli border policemen, who started stepping on the food. After an argument, the policemen agreed to leave the village if the convoys would leave as well.
On their way back to Israel, Matar says, the convoy was stopped by 30 soldiers at a roadblock. They began arresting the Arabs in the group, as well as some Jews, and Matar accompanied them to the police station. He says he later found out that while they were detained in the police station of a nearby settlement, local settlers attacked the village, burning cars and shops as punishment for cooperating with his group.
Since then, he says, things have deteriorated. Recently, his Tel Aviv suburb was plastered with posters saying, "There is a solution. Expel the Arab enemy." Along with a friend, he spent the day ripping them down. Hundreds of people passed by, but none offered a smile or word of support. Most just ignored them. A few threatened to crush their skulls.
"I don't think you have to be a radical leftist to oppose an ethnic cleansing," Matar says. "When you have a situation where thousands of people can go by and read such a fascist message just as if it were a Coca-Cola ad, that is how fascism grows."
That day just intensified his hopelessness, but somehow his despair hasn't led to apathy.
"Both societies are heading toward complete destruction," Matar says. "But these are my societies. They are my friends on both sides. Hard as it may be seeing some of my good friends going to the occupied territories where they will either kill or be killed by some of my other best friends, I have to work each and every day to try to make a difference." With a shrug, he adds, "Though I know I can't."
This story has been corrected since it was first published.