They are not your average teenagers. They have held M-16s as kids, watched suicide bombings from their backyards and grown up hearing the rumblings in the West Bank.
Maya Wind and Netta Mishly are Shministims (12th graders), Israeli high school seniors who refused to join the Israeli Army after graduation—compulsory for all Israeli high schoolers—because they oppose Israel’s policies toward Palestine and occupation of its territories.
Wind and Mishly, both 19, are scheduled to speak at the UC Berkeley Student Union Wednesday evening, after the Daily Planet goes to print, as part of a month-long “Why We Refuse” national tour which hit U.S. college campuses this week.
Organized by Jewish Voice for Peace and Codepink, the series hopes to spark debate and discussion on college campuses on one of the most controversial international topics, the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The tour comes on the heels of a United Nations report issued Sept. 15 which said that it had obtained ample evidence while investigating the three-week war in Gaza last year that both Israel and Palestinian militant groups might be responsible for war crimes, and maybe even crimes against humanity.
The New York Times reported that while the report “condemned rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups against Israeli civilians, it reserved its harshest language for Israel’s treatment of the civilian Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip, both during the war and through the longer-term blockade of the territory.”
Wind and Mishly kicked off their tour with an appearance at UC Hastings College of the Law Sept. 14, sponsored by the university’s International and Comparative Law Society, where they spoke out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, daring anyone in the audience who disagreed with them to challenge their statements.
“We wanted to raise awareness about the issue,” said Molly Franck, a freshman at Hastings who initiated the sponsorship. “Some of us are Israelis, we love Israel, but can’t support their policies.”
Franck said that although there was a lot of polarization on this topic at her school, there had been no organized resistance against the event.
“We are refusing to serve in the Israeli Army because we do not want to contribute to the occupation which we deem immoral,” Wind said to applause from about a hundred students, activists and other community members gathered inside the university’s Classroom B.
“We are not saying agree with us. We believe it is important to spread information about the Israeli occupation and about all the movements that work against it. It is important to inform the American people, specifically the Jewish community, as to their role in maintaining the occupation. We hope to empower people our age to take responsibility by taking a more active role in the resistance movements.”
Reading aloud from charts, maps, various peace offerings and negotiations, the two offered a short summary of the conflict raging in their country right now, demonstrating knowledge that went way beyond their nineteen years.
For someone who was just released after spending 40 days in prison for breaking Israeli law, Wind looked pretty calm, at times behaving like a normal teenager, her solemn expression giving away to giggles and high-pitched laughter.
Wind, the older of the two young women, grew up in Jerusalem during the second Intifida and attended a religious Jewish school, although her family is very secular, she said.
“Forty percent of bombings occurred in Jerusalem,” she recalled. “It was very terrifying. My questioning about the violence climaxed when I witnessed a bus explosion.”
At 15, Wind became involved in conflict resolution through “Face to Face”— a group encouraging dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth, and later worked in a number of co-existence initiatives in the West Bank.
In Dec. 2008, Wind was one of 10 core members who wrote the Shministims letter to the Israeli government and Minister of Defense for which she was detained.
Since then, 200 Israeli teenagers from all over the country have signed the letter.
“We object to Israeli defense methods, checkpoints, targeted killing, roads for Jews only, sieges and more which serve the land-seizing policy, annex more occupied territories into Israel and trample on Palestinian human rights,” said Wind, reading aloud from the letter.
“These actions are perhaps a temporary fix, but it is clear that in the long run it only exacerbates the conflict. It is impossible to harm and imprison in the name of freedom, and thus it is impossible to be moral and serve the occupation.”
Mishly said that Israeli checkpoints all over the West Bank, like the settlements, were helping to seize more land and control the Palestinian population.
The checkpoints are manned by soldiers, but are increasingly being handed over to private security companies, she said.
“Checkpoints make lives for Palestinians very very hard,” Mishly said. “No matter what the weather, Palestinians are made to stand for hours on their way to work, to hospitals and to visit relatives. If you are going to a checkpoint and are being abused every day, you can’t drop off that abuse when you come back home at the end of the day.”
She said that women, under oppression from a patriarchal society, often found it difficult to get good jobs in the army, often ending up in secretarial or administrative positions.
Today, Wind works for Rabbis for Human Rights and guides political tours in East Jerusalem and the West Bank for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, as well as co-leads the Jerusalem-based youth group New Profile, a feminist movement calling for the demilitarization of Israel.
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Mishly started demonstrating against the wall in the West Bank at the age of 15, witnessing violent crimes which changed her life forever.
A year later, she organized an alternative education project which exposed young people to radical activism and laid the groundwork for the Shministims letter, along with two other Israeli teenagers, Sahar Vardi and Raz Bar David-Varon.
After being jailed for 20 days for refusing to serve in the Israeli Army, Mishly started working with immigrants and refugees in Israel, becoming involved in anti-occupation actions as well.
“We are not being judged or blamed for refusing to go to the army,” Mishly said. “We are being jailed for refusing an order. We can be tried multiple times for refusing, it’s like a game between us and the Israeli Army like ‘let’s see who breaks first.’”
Wind said that on draft days, the Shministims often gathered outside the induction base with drums and signs, chanting loudly.
“Sometimes there would be media coverage, sometimes there would be parties outside the prison with music for whoever was inside as a means of support,” she said.
Both women said that their decision to desert the army had cost them almost all their friends.
“We are not so popular, people don’t like us,” Wind said, smiling. “There’s no such thing as not serving in the army.”