On an unseasonably warm afternoon this winter, I met with Hallel Rabin in Tel Aviv’s Sarona neighborhood. It was the cusp of Israel’s third countrywide lockdown, and the restaurants and cafes that populate the former Templar village were limited to serving takeout. Throngs of soldiers from the Kirya—the IDF’s headquarters across the street—picnicked around us.
Rabin is not related to the late prime minister. She is 19 and reminds me of many women I met over the course of my military service: the sharp-as-nails instructor who taught me how to fire an M72 antitank rocket in basic training, or the young officer who quietly commanded a room full of female soldiers charged with remotely monitoring the video feeds from security cameras along the Gaza border. But Rabin chose a very different role for herself.
Both of her parents served in the army: her mother as an officer and her father as a tank commander. Her older sister is nearing the end of her service. “I wasn’t brought up to be rebellious or anything like that. But I was taught to make my own decisions and to take responsibility for them,” she told me, as we sat outside in the sun. “My mom teaches civics, and current events were a big part of my life from a young age. Questions about violence, about the [Palestinian] territories, what our actions mean, and how they affect others. If bad things were done to us not so long ago, how come we can do terrible things? It seemed so unfair. It was kids’ talk, but it was there.”
After graduating from high school last summer, Rabin was scheduled to enlist in the IDF a few weeks later. But on Aug. 24, her scheduled recruitment date, she told the army authorities that she was a pacifist and refused to enlist. She was promptly tried and jailed. In late November, after four stints in military prison—a total of 56 days behind bars—Rabin was finally recognized as a conscientious objector and discharged. Since then, she’s been back home with her family in the village of Harduf, a former kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley near Haifa, where she works on a horse farm that doubles as a workshop for adults with special needs.
Most young Israelis who share at least some of Rabin’s qualms about military service choose to grin, bear it, and enlist nonetheless, whether because they realize that an army is a necessary evil in today’s Middle East, or the belief that they can have a positive influence in their service. The IDF is hardly colored by the conservative bent common among many American veterans, as evidenced by the outspoken dovishness of its many retired generals (MK David Bitan, the former coalition chair from Likud, famously remarked that security chiefs “all become leftists” during their careers).
Those who are repulsed by the occupation, or who see themselves as constitutionally incapable of military service, or who simply think they have better things to do with their time, typically opt for another route. According to the IDF, almost 12% of candidates for military service in 2020 were granted a full exemption for reasons of mental health. Some, if not most, of the thousands of people represented by those figures no doubt suffer from mental illness. But receiving a mental health exemption is notoriously easy, allowing the IDF to accommodate the desires of a growing number of young draft dodgers, while granting plausible deniability to all parties.
Lying to a mental health officer was never an option for Rabin, she told me. “I wasn’t going to say that something is wrong with me, when what’s actually wrong is everything else,” she said. As high school approached—and with it the series of pre-recruitment interviews and tests that keep Israeli teens busy—she began to research conscientious objecting. She contacted Mesarvot, an organization that supports conscientious objectors. She discovered that it was a rare and difficult status, one that only a handful of people attempt to receive every year, but that it was also her legal right—provided that she could prove that she was the real thing.
In her senior year of high school, Rabin wrote a series of letters to the IDF Recruitment Bureau requesting a hearing with the so-called Conscience Committee tasked with granting or denying her exemption. She didn’t receive a response. After refusing to enlist on recruitment day, Rabin was finally brought before the committee.
The Conscience Committee, composed of four officers and a civilian academic, has the job of making the often hairsplittingly fine distinctions between those who refuse to serve for political reasons—say, the occupation—and “genuine” pacifists who would just as soon refuse to serve in the Swiss Armed Forces. The latter are exempt from serving, while the former are not. A hearing before the committee has many of the trappings of a legal procedure, but no legal counsel is allowed to be present.
“Am I refusing to serve because I was brought up that way, or did I make that choice on my own? If I use words like ‘occupation’ or ‘government policy’ then they’ll see me as a political objector, someone who refuses to serve because of concrete actions taken by our army. If not for the occupation then they’d serve,” Rabin said. “But my refusal is because of my objection to all violence. Not because of objection to the occupation, which is just one of many forms of violence. No, I wouldn’t serve in the Swiss army either, because I object to the essence of any military, to all violence. When our army is so active, and our reality is so violent, that supports my argument, but it is not the root of it.”
Before meeting with the committee, Rabin had already made peace with the fact that she would be spending time in prison. “Optimistically my chances were 50-50, but realistically I knew it was more like 70-30,” she said. “For some people, prison is the goal. They say, ‘my refusal is political, and I’m going to prison to make a statement.’ But I made a real effort to convince them that I was a true conscientious objector. I wasn’t successful.”
Her exemption denied, Rabin was sentenced to military prison for her refusal to serve—and given a new recruitment date. She spent most of her time in prison in a square concrete cell with five bunk beds, a toilet, shower, and two sinks. “It was a very strange, intense experience,” she said. “You have no freedom but plenty of free time. Cellphones aren’t allowed, so I read a lot, and talked a lot with the other girls. You make plenty of special connections, because no matter where you’re from and why you’re there, whether or not you’re even serving in the army, everyone has the same exact status. You have nowhere else to go.”
She spent the ensuing weeks in and out of prison: refusing to enlist on her new recruitment date, being sent to another stint in prison for that refusal, being released but refusing to enlist once again. Finally, after 46 days in prison, she was called to appear before the appellate Conscience Committee.
“I was sick of having to explain myself over and over again and being sent back to prison and meeting new girls,” she said. “So I was determined to make my case. But the second hearing was even more difficult—aggressive and probing and skeptical. ‘You say you’re a law-abiding citizen but you’re also a draft dodger. How can that be?’” After Rabin left the room, exhausted, her mother appeared before the committee as a character witness, attesting to her daughter’s philosophy of nonviolence.
Rabin herself returned to prison. By then she was used to the 5:15 reveille, followed by 20 minutes of washing up and putting on her uniform, and to the hours hanging out in her cell punctuated by roll calls and cleaning, canteen time, and meals. “By then I already knew the staff well, and they knew me,” she said. “They would joke around with me and make sure I was doing all right. They congratulated me after they saw an interview I had given. And that was nothing compared to the support from the other prisoners. Those are girls whose opinions are the polar opposite of mine, but they respected me for acting on my beliefs and paying the price.”
Awaiting the committee’s verdict, Rabin began to mentally prepare for her backup plan. If her exemption was denied again, she knew that after another 30 or 40 days in prison she’d be called to appear before yet another committee, this one charged with determining her incompetence to serve. Her predecessors who had failed to receive the coveted conscientious imprimatur were all eventually released from military service for “bad behavior” that made them incompetent to serve. “A soldier stubborn enough to spend 90 days in prison to avoid serving is guilty of very bad behavior,” she told me. She found that prospect mildly offensive. “I was a model soldier in prison. I was on my best behavior.”
Ten days after Rabin’s appeal was heard, her fourth prison sentence ended. She collected her mobile phone from the prison offices and saw the text message she had been waiting for.
When all else fails, the IDF can still be relied on to make our cognitive dissonances more palatable, to accommodate pacifists in a country that is still very much in need of a military, and to narrow the gaps between the stories that Israelis tell themselves and the cold, hard truths that govern our lives. So while the draft is mandatory in Israel, and the IDF is nominally a people’s army, the majority of 18-year-olds do not serve. All Arab citizens are informally exempt; Haredim are in practice, and Orthodox women are allowed to file for religious exemptions. The mental health exemptions are a relatively easy out for everyone else.
I asked Rabin what she thought about those who opted for a less circuitous route out of military service. “If you have an ideology or something to say about our reality, our country, you’ve got to own it. Take responsibility, pay the price,” she said. “You oppose the system, but you choose the option that is most convenient for it? A mental health exemption is very easy for the army to digest. But the mirror that conscientious objectors hold up to the army doesn’t suit them at all.”
While her family and friends were supportive, as were well-wishers from around the world, many Israelis have taken to cursing Rabin online. Real-life acquaintances are more diplomatic, she said. “They keep telling me that our army is the most moral army in the world,” she explained. “But an army is immoral by definition. In such a violent reality, the solution isn’t more violence. The contribution that I can make to society is to talk about this, to present an alternative that is legal and legitimate. I can’t even count how many times I’ve explained to officers what a Conscience Committee is, that pacifism is a legal right recognized by the Supreme Court, that our Declaration of Independence says that the State of Israel will guarantee freedom of conscience. I’m willing to speak with anyone willing to listen and explain myself again and again, but I won’t shut up just because some people don’t like what I have to say.”
The right not to serve in the military might win more hearts if it were framed as the right to serve in a nonmilitary setting. Civilian National Service exists in Israel, but it is open only to those exempt from serving in the IDF. Rabin told me that she’s planning to sign up. In her junior year of high school, she spent a week volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in Jerusalem. Now she’s considering volunteering there for two years of National Service. Another option is an organic farm that provides training and support to teenage dropouts.
Before we said our farewells, I told Hallel Rabin about the many occasions during my time in the army that I knew my presence had helped prevent a bad outcome, and about the dozens of soldiers and officers that I knew personally and could always count on to do the right thing. “I asked myself that question for a very long time,” she said. “Can I do more from within the system? I was offered plenty of good options. Combat roles and tech units. And I knew that I’d be a good fit, too. But that would have been too easy,” she explained. “And so if I have the option and the power to realize my worldview in a big way, and make some noise, I’ll go with that. And you know what? I came out all right, in the end. I’m going to be OK.”
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.