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September 5, 2015 | 21st Elul 5775

The Price of Conscience

April 20, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

A. was one of those kids who invested a lot of energy in rebellion during adolescence. He is basically a nice, quiet kid, who never made much trouble for anyone but himself, going through phases of punk, hippy etc. Every time I would pass him on the path, his hair would be outrageous in a different way. And while he sometimes seemed to carry himself with a sullen affect, it was not hard to talk to him, either when he was alone, or when our families got together for dinner. His parents are dedicated, idealistic Zionists, ivy league graduates who made aliyah right after college and have been founders and leaders of this community, active in the cultural, religious, and political life of Shorashim and the area.

After graduating high school, A. reached the conclusion that he was opposed in principle to the army as an institution, and to military service. His call-up date came, and he refused induction. His request to be defined as a conscientious objector, and to perform alternative service in education or social service, was considered by the “conscience committee” -- a military committee -- and rejected with no explanation. A. was sentenced to two weeks in an army prison, where he spent his days doing typical prison work such as cleaning, painting, pulling weeds, etc. After his release, he was called up again, and again refused. He was sentenced again to two weeks, but his time realized that if he refused to put on a uniform in prison, he would be held in solitary confinement and not allowed (!) to work. So he spent two weeks reading. Upon his release, he was called up again, and again sentenced, this time for four weeks, which he is serving, unhappy to be sitting in prison instead of doing alternative service, but not unhappy to be reading all day. His parents joke that that is all he did anyway before this whole episode began -- lying on the couch in the living room.

If A. were to bring some evidence of serious school disciplinary problems, suicidal inclinations, or depression, the army would happily release him from all obligations after a brief hearing. If he were a member of an ultra-orthodox community, enrolled in a full-time yeshivah, he would be exempted from any army requirement. If he were an orthodox girl, a simple declaration of unwillingness to serve, with a letter from a rabbi, would be sufficient to obtain an assignment of alternate service in a school or youth club or welfare agency. But he is none of those, so the army doesn’t know what to do with him -- or rather, they know exactly what to do with him, as they want to make sure that the concept of conscientious objection does not become acceptable.

When A.’s parents calmly answer questions about his adventures, the same way the rest of us talk about our kids’ studies, or army service, or travel plans, and we all smile, and go on to the next topic, I find myself suppressing a scream. I know that they have done everything they can, trying to mobilize connections, to lobby, to seek intervention, to appeal to the authorities. I am pretty sure that they don’t exactly agree with their son’s decision -- but their solidarity and support for him are truly impressive. The rest of us, however, are bystanders to this travesty, smiling and nodding while this kid’s idealism is stomped on, while his energy and his life are being wasted by the generals who seem to make too many of the important decisions around here. And the worst of it is that when I think to myself that we should be marching, writing letters, making these cases into a cause celebre , I know that that is hopeless and stupid, as the vast majority of the public sees these kids -- and anyone who supports them -- as idiots at the least, and more likely as traitors. I feel like a stranger in my own land.

You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant.

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