+972 Magazine / May 24, 2023
Left-wing high schoolers describe how the anti-government protests have provided a window for the mainstreaming of views long deemed illegitimate.
On April 1, in the midst of one of the weekly mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plans, a group of around 10 teenagers gathered to burn their military draft orders, after announcing that they would refuse to serve in the army in protest of the occupation and apartheid. This symbolic act gained a great deal of attention, perhaps buoyed by the recent wave of refusal threats by hundreds of reservist soldiers as part of the protest movement against the government.
From conversations with several of these high school students and young people, it is clear that the protests against the judicial overhaul and the political awareness that it has brought about has accelerated the process of radicalization. Moreover, they feel that other young people are becoming more willing to hear about the occupation, while the issue of army refusal in various forms is growing much more widespread.
“People are getting more into politics because there is no choice,” says Sofi Or, a 17-year-old from the northern town of Pardes Hanna, and an activist with Mesarvot, a network that guides young people through the process of conscientious objection. Before the protests, she says, most young people did not think much about politics. “Now, young people who were not in the political scene are open to hearing about politics — and not only ideas from the mainstream. Even within the protests themselves it is easy to start conversations.”
“If young people learn about the committee for the appointment of judges [which the government is trying to control], maybe they will also learn about apartheid in the occupied territories,” explains Tal, a 17-year-old from Tel Aviv.
Ayelet Kobo, another 17-year-old from Tel Aviv, is also active in Mesarvot. “People around me have really changed,” they say. “At the beginning of the protests, I organized students to come to the ‘anti-occupation bloc’ [a group of protesters at the sidelines of the main demonstration who hold banners and chant slogans against occupation and apartheid, and wave Palestinian flags]. I met people who in the past might have spoken about politics, but were not active. Now they are joining many protests and coming every week.”
Kobo says the change is due to the fact that the demonstrations are accessible to everyone. “It is expected that young people will be more radical,” they explain. “The problem is that you hear about terrible things but then don’t know about left-wing organizations and how to join them. The [current] protests are so big that you do not need to get to the other side of Israel to see them. You can just leave the house on Saturday and find people who will speak to you. This knowledge gave people the courage to join in.”
Many of the high schoolers who spoke to +972 are not sufficing just with the weekly anti-government demonstrations in Tel Aviv, but are also participating in civil disobedience and direct action. Some are joining Palestinian-led protests in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem, against the eviction of Palestinian families by settlers and the state.
Iddo Elam, a 16-year-old from Tel Aviv and a member of Banki, the youth wing of the Israeli Communist Party, says that he has been politically active since the age of 14. “Suddenly, I see friends who never cared about such matters making throw-away comments like ‘It’s so terrible what [the government] is doing.’ Many come to the demonstrations every week and are open to hearing about issues such as occupation and apartheid. Many friends come to the radical bloc and wave the Palestinian flag for the first time, when a year or two ago they would ask me why I’m waving it.”
Elam claims that it was the power of the protest that brought about this change – “you can’t ignore them.” What’s more, he says, other young protesters who are not part of the anti-occupation bloc pass by it on their way to the main demonstration — “they see what we’re talking about, they ask their parents, and they watch the news,” Elam explains. He also believes that the need “to fight against more fascist people like [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich makes it illogical to ignore the occupation.”
Defying their elders
In February, Uri Lass, the principal of Tel Aviv’s Ironi Dalet High School, was reprimanded by the Education Ministry for calling on his students to join a youth demonstration against the government’s judicial overhaul. The day before the demonstration, Lass sent a message demanding that students refrain from waving Palestinian flags; some of his students defied him, forming their own anti-occupation bloc within the youth march.
At the demonstration, one of the administrators asked a student to stop waving the Palestinian flag. When the latter refused, the administrator asked the police officer supervising the demonstration to forbid the anti-occupation bloc from entering the main square with the rest of the protesters, where the speeches took place.
Kobo views that demonstration as a great success. “We appealed to young people we know, and the response was amazing,” they say. “I didn’t think there were more than five or six left-wing kids in my year. But I started talking and sharing things in the [student] WhatsApp group and realized that we have a presence in the school — that we have a voice. A few months ago, [students] didn’t know how to organize, and now they send me selfies from [demonstrations in] Sheikh Jarrah. It’s really impressive.”
Kobo was offended that the teachers denounced the bloc, but was ultimately unsurprised. “In the end, the teachers’ job is to preserve the establishment. They teach us history and civics with the aim of making us think that Israel is the most moral country in the world and that we need to enlist in the army.”
While Kobo and Elam were active in left-wing groups before this wave of protests began, Tal became active only recently. “I was raised on values of respect for other people, but I never went out to protest,” he says. “At the first demonstration [on Jan. 7, organized by the Jewish-Arab socialist movement Standing Together], I went with my mom and listened to the speeches. The speech by Ayman Odeh [head of the left-wing Hadash party] was amazing.”
At the next mass demonstration a week later in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, Tal was already looking for Palestinian flags. “When I arrived, someone asked me if I wanted to hold a flag,” he recalls. After he took one and started waving it, he says he experienced “verbal and physical violence,” but that this only strengthened his desire to go out to the streets and protest.
“Going to protests means experiencing radicalization every time afresh. Police violence, tours in Hebron — every time I go out to protest it strengthens my opinions,” he says.
‘People are getting used to our presence’
The anti-occupation bloc, which has grown to around 1,000 people each week, has become a meeting point for left-wing youngsters. A significant number of them are members of the youth wing of Banki, coming to demonstrations after meeting earlier at the Left Bank — the organization’s headquarters in the city center.
“A lot of young people are joining,” says 18-year-old Einav Zipori, secretary of Banki’s Tel Aviv branch. “There is a lot of interest. The protests helped young people who might have been aware of these issues to enter and do things.”
Zipori says that at the beginning there were arguments among the leftist youth about whether to join the big demonstrations at all. “In the first weeks it was problematic, but little by little connections were made with other organizations and new people, the [anti-occupation] bloc was formed, and people joined other activities as well.”
And whereas members of the bloc initially faced a lot of aggression from other protesters, the level of violence toward them decreased as the weeks went on. “Many people who come to fight are also ready to listen,” Zipori continues. “People are getting used to our presence. More people are reaching out to us, and there is more awareness that Banki exists.”
“The message we are conveying is that there is no democracy if it is not for all,” says Or. “The current protests, which are supposedly about democracy, are really a struggle to preserve the status quo — returning to what we had before, where democracy was granted to Jews only. We want to remind this protest movement of the occupation, the oppression that Palestinians are experiencing, and their flag.”
“We oppose the reform, but we don’t only want to settle for that,” says Kobo. “The mainstream protests demand a return to the values of the Declaration of Independence. But we know that there has never been a democracy here. Not only because of the occupation; before that there was the Nakba, when people were deliberately expelled to create a Jewish state.
“The protests say that if the laws are passed, Israel will not be a democracy,” Kobo continues. “We say that if the laws are passed, they will serve Israel’s anti-democratic essence since 1948. The weakest people will be harmed: Palestinians in the West Bank, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union.”
Kobo is conscious, however, that while the anti-occupation bloc has managed to assert itself as a legitimate voice in the protests, change doesn’t only take place at demonstrations. “Protests are not the place to change people’s opinions,” they say. “That happens in more intimate forums, such as tours or ceremonies. The idea of a joint [Jewish-Palestinian] ceremony [such as the joint Memorial Day ceremony that took place at the end of April] appeals even to non-radical youth.”
Tal’s experience shows that the anti-occupation bloc is sparking conversations with other young people in the crowd. “There have been countless discussions,” he recalls. “People are surprised by what we think. At first they approach us aggressively. When we explain that we just want everybody to live in equality, we don’t want to throw the Jews into the sea, and that there is no reason for one people to rule over another people, they will say: ‘That’s not so bad.’”
But despite the optimism, Or is aware that most young people do not accept these positions. “The majority of young people in Israel are right-wing. It has to do with the society we grow up in — a society filled with militaristic, nationalist, and inflammatory messages, which we are fed from a young age. There is still so much work to be done before the message ‘democracy for all’ is seen as normal.”
‘We’ve reached the mainstream’
One of the issues preoccupying the radical youth in these protests is conscientious objection. Some are preparing to go to military prison as a result of their refusal, while others hope to get exemptions for health reasons. The protests in Tel Aviv have seen future conscientious objectors addressing the crowd in the anti-occupation bloc. And according to those who spoke to +972, the fact that army reservists are now openly talking about refusing has made it easier for them to speak to other young people about refusing to be enlisted altogether.
The first conscientious objector to be sent to military prison since these protests began was Yuval Dag, 20, who is now serving his third term behind bars. I met Dag twice — once right after the elections in November 2022, and a second time after the protests started.
During our second meeting, he explained how the reactions to his decision to refuse had shifted over the past half year. “I feel that there is more support [for my decision]. You see many more people who go to the main demonstration with Israeli flags, and then encounter the anti-occupation bloc and say, ‘Well done, we are with you.’ This has given me more strength.”
Dag attributes this change to the extremism of the current government. “It has become clear to everyone that there is a deeper connection between Israel and the occupation. There is a tangible example of what the government allows, what it lends a hand to, and what it consists of. Suddenly people are talking about Palestinians in the middle of Tel Aviv.”
Elam, who plans to refuse, says that the issue came up at school: “We are now having a discussion in civics class about conscientious objection, and many friends who may still want to enlist now understand why people refuse to do so,” he explains. “They also see conscientious objection by reservists and understand that the army and militarism are not some supreme value, but something that should be doubted to a certain extent and even rejected.”
Or, who graduated high school this year, will likely be sent to prison in the coming months upon declaring her refusal to enlist. “I am not refusing as part of the protest movement, like the reservists. I am refusing because of the occupation and apartheid,” she says. “But the general discussion about conscientious objection has allowed us to reach the mainstream. People are far more willing to hear it, despite the fact that there is still a lot of hatred.”
Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, reporter for Local Call, and a founding member of the Activestills photography collective