In the early 1970’s, a small group of high school students wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Golda Meir. It was only several years after the Six Day War of 1967, and a sense of euphoria was felt throughout Israel. The popular belief was that now, after tripling its size, Israel had proved to the world that it was undefeatable, and that no one would ever dare to wage war against it again.
Yet the young people who wrote the letter to the Prime Minister felt differently. For them it was obvious that the latest acts of occupation would necessarily lead to new wars and bloodshed– unless peace initiatives were to take the place of blunt militarism. They told this to Meir, warning her that if she chose to ignore Egypt’s calls for peace in exchange for the occupied lands – their own blood, as soldiers-to-be, would be on her hands. Meir ignored the letter, and the 1973 Yom Kippur war came to prove the young prophets right.
This letter became the first in a long tradition of similar letters, all taking the name of “Shministim” – which is the Hebrew for “High School Seniors”. The potency of these letters, in which young people articulated what others have thought, was the use they made of the threat of refusal. In a country where the army and mandatory conscription are held as sacred, the voice of young people who state they will refuse to join the army, or in any other way serve the occupation, was and still is a voice that gets a lot of attention.
And so the letters followed each other. The well known ones came out in 1982 – in response to the (first) Lebanon War; 1991 – in response to the (first) Intifada; and in 2001, 2002 and 2005 – in response to the second Intifada. Hundreds of high school students signed these letters each round, declaring that they would refuse to serve the occupation in any way they saw fit, each time getting a unique platform to voice a radical message, bringing attention to the human rights violations Israel commits against the Palestinians in its citizens’ names.
In 2002 the movement grew so strong that the army felt that extra measures need to be taken. While all refusers spent varying periods of time in jail (usually two to three months), this time it was different. Five of the signatories of the letter were singled out and court-marshaled, resulting in a sentence of two years in prison. However, while the army tried to make a showcase out of the five and use the political trial for its own good, the effect was very much the contrary, as the five refusers were given an even greater platform to give testament to the reality in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
And now, 2008, a new group emerges. Unlike the majority of Shministim letters, this one returns to the origins of the movement, and like the 1970’s letter, serves as a warning to a society which believes it is working towards peace, while its government and army proceed with a violent occupation. While Israelis forget about the occupation because of the relative lack of visible violence, the new Shministim are activists who go to the West Bank, see the building of the Separation Wall, which many Israelis and Palestinians call an Apartheid Wall, and learn from their Palestinian partners the true meaning of day-to-day life under the military regime of Israel. This is why they too choose to speak out, refuse, and offer an alternative to cooperating with an enabling the Occupation.