Stock down, Hope up

September 17, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Two Israeli women who are refusing mandatory army duty have kicked off a North American speaking tour and plan to take their story to more than a dozen college campuses in the next month.
Shministim tour

Hoping to highlight their opposition to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, Maya Wind and Netta Mishly, both 19, will appeal to their American counterparts during their “Why We Refuse” tour from September 12 to October 10. Both women describe themselves as Shministim, a group of high school seniors who refuse to serve in the IDF.

“We believe it is important to spread information about the Israeli occupation and about the movements that work against it,” stated Wind, who said that she was detained for 40 days because of her refusal to serve in the IDF. She was released in March. “We hope to empower people our age to take responsibility by taking a more active role in the resistance movements,” she said.

Their month long tour is being organized by the anti-war groups CODEPINK and Jewish Voice for Peace. According to their itinerary, the young women will visit more than a dozen schools in California, New York and Washington DC, starting with the University of California, Hastings on Monday and finishing with the University of Maryland on October 8. They will make stops at Cornell, Columbia, New York University, Brown, Brandeis and other schools on the way.

“There’s a lot of interest outside of Israel to understand what’s happening inside, how different people express their opposition to what’s happening,” said Sydney Levy, the campaigns director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Last year, the organization collected tens of thousands of letters from North American Jews who supported the Shministim, calling their detention a violation of human rights and international law.

“When you speak with them, you get a sense of what is going on there from an Israeli point of view,” Levy said.

But others said the women’s perceived credibility was precisely why their campaign could have dangerous ramifications.

“I definitely do not agree with what they’re trying to do because I think they’re misguided,” said Dani Klein, the North America campus director for StandWithUs, which advocates for Israel on campuses. Klein said if the campaign gains traction, it could backfire by further empowering anti-Israel students.

“When they see Israelis come out against their own country or their own army, in this instance, it gives those who want to be anti-Israel the fodder to do it,” he said.

The two young women, he said, could inadvertently educate people to hate Israel.

He compared their campaign to Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who openly criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. “I definitely understand that Israelis have the right not to agree with their government. That’s fine,” Klein said. “Every citizen in a democracy has that right. But you take that up in your country. Once you take that abroad, what does that gain you?”

So far, it is unclear what kind of reception Wind and Mishly will receive during their tour. Levy said demand to hear them speak was high and that time constraints forced him to turn down several speaking engagements on their behalf.

Indeed, campus observers said that political events of the past year – including Operation Cast Lead and the second Durban conference – fueled anti-Israel rhetoric that they expect to continue.

“Last year sort of motivated Israel’s detractors to be more vocal and do more programs,” said Lawrence Muscant, deputy director of The David Project. “My feeling is we’re going to see the same thing carry over into this semester.”

Like Klein, Muscant expressed concern about the campaign, based on knowledge of similar ones in recent years.

“On the one hand, if it were inside Israel, they’re talking about internal Israeli policies. When they speak to the outside world, it often gets lost in translation and it plays into the hands of those who delegitimize the State of Israel and question its right to exist, even if that’s not their goal,” he said.

“Whether this group prescribes to this idea or not, I believe there will be people who use their message to further their own agenda.”