The power of fear

The impacts of military service and culture on Israelis

One day when Yuval was in kindergarten, her class went out to play and found the wreckage of a bus. It had been blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomb, a common occurrence in Jerusalem during the second intifada, years of violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. She remembers her teacher trying to explain the situation to the class of five- and six-years-olds, though many Israeli Jews like Yuval* were already familiar with the frequent transit attacks. The terror was ever present, and so was fear of the other side.

Though Jerusalem, where Yuval grew up, is home to both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, the two groups don’t truly live together. They live in different neighbourhoods, take different public transportation and attend different schools. Yuval was never in the same classes as Palestinian children, and she remembers being afraid that GPS directions would accidentally take her into Palestinian parts of the city because she was told it was dangerous. She would meet Palestinians, but they were always in service roles, selling food or cleaning her school. “I never talked to a Palestinian as a kid or teenager who wasn't giving me some kind of a service," she says.

Fear of violence from Palestinians and the need for Israel to defend its land were the narratives she heard growing up: "We are in a very small place surrounded by enemies, like everyone around us wants to kill us, but we are very strong and we defend our life,” she recalls.  

Military service is mandatory for all Israeli Jews: two years for women, three for men. Youth are told they will get training and education through the military. And they’re told if they don’t serve, the stigma will prevent them from getting work; that being in the military makes them good Israelis.  

But that’s not always true.

It’s not widely known that each year many people get exemptions on religious, health or mental health grounds. In 2013, a record high of 26 per cent of eligible recruits received exemptions.1 Others leave the army early, and many soldiers come out with trauma from what they saw. Though her family feared the consequences, and though the pressure was great, Yuval chose not to join the military. “When I made this decision I felt like I was making the harder choice,” she says. “But then I realized that all of my friends that went to the army suffered,” either during their time as soldiers, or carrying trauma with them after leaving the army.

The story told by the State of Israel

Jana and Yuval share how the story the State of Israel tells reinforces the message that occupation of Palestine is necessary
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It was a disaster for me

When Jana* graduated from high school she joined the military. She had only been in Israel for three years after emigrating with her family from Argentina at age 15. As far as she knew the army was her only option as an Israeli Jew. “I didn’t know anything about Israel, and everyone told me that I must do the army and there is nothing else that I can do when I’m 18,” she says.  

After arriving in Israel, Jana (pronounced Hannah) attended a boarding school with mostly international students. The army was her first real exposure to both Israelis and Palestinians. Until that point the only thing she had heard about Palestinians was that they wanted to eliminate Jews. “If the people [in Israel] don’t want to know about the Palestinians, they will not know anything. It’s just a name to say terrorists or bad people,” she says.

Once she joined the military Jana was shocked to see how soldiers treated Palestinians in arrests and interrogations. She felt out of place wearing the uniform of a soldier. Looking back on the experience, it’s hard for her to reconcile that with the person she is today. “It was a disaster for me. It was a very, very deep depression. And it was not me. I wasn’t there. Some other Jana was there in my place.” She watched what was going on but felt unable to stop it; she decided to leave the army about six months before her term was finished.   

“The system didn’t tell me everything” 

Like Jana, Yuval assumed that becoming a solider was her future. It was the only option presented at the Israeli schools she attended, and both her parents had done their time in the military.   

Then she met a Palestinian from Bethlehem. She was shocked to hear she wouldn’t be able to visit her friend in Bethlehem because it’s in Area A of occupied Palestine. Area A is the 18 percent of the West Bank which is administered by the Palestinian Authority (PA), as set up during the Oslo II peace accord, and Israelis can’t legally travel there. 

Sign on the road to Bethlehem. MCC photo/Emily Loewen

As a teenager she hated being told where she could and couldn’t go, and so she arranged a trip to Bethlehem anyway, seeing the military checkpoints and the restrictions on movement for the first time. “I was very mad and angry that I felt that the system and my family didn’t tell me everything,” she says.

She spent the next few years learning more about the realities outside the world she grew up in. Knowing her travels were illegal, each time she left the borders of Israeli control she had to think about how she would explain herself going back in. She realized that for many Palestinians negotiating checkpoints and permits are realities of everyday life, affecting everything from visiting friends and families to running a business. “I was so mad for myself, so I couldn’t even imagine how hard it is that everything you want to do will take hours and hours,” she says. 

The separation wall in Bethlehem. MCC photo/Emily Loewen

Having grown up during the Intifada, Yuval lived with fear of Palestinian violence, as many Israelis do. But the more she learned, the more she saw that fear as a force created by the Israeli government. The separation walls, checkpoints and the military occupation are ways to keep people afraid. “I think that if you have a country that controls other people’s lives you have to make lots of effort to scare people,” she says. “Make them believe that there is a logical sense for why they need to serve two years in the army and why they need to depress other people.”

She came to the decision that she didn’t want to be part of the army.   

An opportunity to make something better

If you’re an Israeli who doesn’t want to serve in the military, finding information on exemptions is difficult. New Profile, an MCC partner, is an Israeli anti-militarization organization that works with youth to give them options for their future other than the military. It also works to expose how militarization is promoted in culture through TV shows, books and movies, and provides legal support to youth who have deserted the army during their term.

Yuval, left, and Jana. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

“No one in Israel is willing to talk about how you can not go to the army,” Yuval says. “Your teachers won’t tell you that, and your parents probably won’t know what to do in this situation.” New Profile volunteers and staff meet with teachers and social workers about how they can present alternate options to youth.

Yuval got connected with New Profile when she wanted to get an exemption and the organization helped her through the process. She’s now on staff with New Profile, working on an outreach project, getting their message into new communities. 

“I feel like everyone here is making decisions from fear and ignorance… not with knowledge and a critical way of seeing it.” — Jana 

Jana is also a volunteer with New Profile, and while she hopes and works for a more peaceful future, sometimes her experience makes that hard to imagine. “Having hope here, it’s like having two souls. One soul sees the reality and where things are going, and another soul is saying to me, ‘no Jana, you need to continue and believe that something will change.’”

Though it’s hard to be optimistic, she thinks more education is the way to get there. “I feel like everyone here is making decisions from fear and ignorance… not with knowledge and a critical way of seeing it.” Jana wants Israelis to learn more about what goes on in the occupied areas and about Palestinians generally. She believes that will change their actions.

Having only moved to Israel at 15, and after her negative experience in the army, Jana doesn’t feel the connection others do with the country. “I feel that I don’t have a home... I don’t feel a part of this culture and the people here,” she says. But she can take her parents decision to move to Israel and use the opportunity to create a more peaceful future. “The way I see it, it’s like my parents decided to bring me here—for me it’s the opportunity to make something better.” 

 *Last names withheld on request 


1. Y Net News 


Jana and Yuval's story is part of an MCC campaign called A Cry for Home. Learn more about the campaign and see how you can get involved. 

Read more stories from the A Cry for Home campaign 

View A Cry for Home fact sheets