Eighteen-year-old Israeli Tal Mitnick has just been sent to prison for refusing to enlist in the army and participate in what he calls a “war of revenge” in Gaza. He’s a hero.

Tal Mitnick, the eighteen-year-old who refused to serve in the Israeli army in opposition to the occupation of Palestinian territories and the bombing and killing of civilians in Gaza, speaks during a special interview in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 25, 2023. (Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu via Getty Images)

On Monday, an eighteen-year-old Israeli named Tal Mitnick quoted on Twitter/X a particularly striking verse of “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?”, written by the late folk singer Anne Feeney.

The song starts with a blunt statement that “laws are made by people” and “people can be wrong.” The lyrics continue with examples like laws against unions and laws allowing child labor in coal mines and laws denying women the right to vote. The conclusion is as simple as it is undeniable. Some laws need to be broken.

A teenager might post song lyrics to social media for any number of reasons. But Feeney’s song had an obvious personal significance for Mitnick. The day after he put up the verse, he was sentenced to thirty days in jail for refusing to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

In a long and eloquent statement, Mitnick explained his refusal to participate in what he called a “war of revenge” against the people of Gaza. Mitnick’s statement shows infinitely more moral and practical clarity than the vast majority of what’s been said about “the conflict” by politicians in Israel and the United States.

“The Land Has a Problem”

Mitnick lays out his case precisely and forcefully. “This land,” he begins, “has a problem.” Nothing that Israel or Hamas does can erase either the Israeli or the Palestinian population. Both are here to stay. The problem is “supremacy” — “the belief that this land belongs to only one people.”

Next, he describes in grim detail the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 — the “likes of which,” he notes, hadn’t been experienced in the country’s history. He doesn’t flinch from describing these horrors. But he’s equally clear-eyed about everything that’s happened since October 7:

After the terrorist attack, a revenge campaign began not only against Hamas, but against all Palestinian people. Indiscriminate bombings against residential neighborhoods and refugee camps in Gaza, full military and political support for settler violence in the West Bank, and political prosecution on an unprecedented scale inside Israel. The reality we live in is a violent one. According to Hamas and also according to the IDF and the political echelon, violence is the only way. Continuing this cycle: “an eye for an eye” without thinking about an actual solution that would provide security and freedom to us all, only leads to more killing and suffering.

I refuse to believe that more violence will bring security. I refuse to take part in a war of revenge.

Mitnick grew up, he says, in a home where “discussion is valued.” That training in critical thinking serves him well as he considers and rejects the idea that letting himself be drafted into the IDF would benefit the innocent hostages that Hamas captured on October 7. Indeed, those hostages who were brought back home were returned by an (all too brief) negotiated cease-fire.

Meanwhile:

Because of the criminal lie that “there are no innocent civilians in Gaza”, even hostages waving a white flag shouting in Hebrew were shot to death. I don’t want to imagine how many similar cases there were that were not investigated because the victims were born on the wrong side of the fence. The people who said “no negotiations with Hamas” were simply wrong. period. Diplomacy, political effort, and policy change are the only way to prevent further destruction and death on both sides.

Crucially, Mitnick distinguishes between “ordinary people” and the “generals and self serving people who sit at the head of the system.” Ordinary Israelis like him and his family didn’t decide to prop up Hamas to politically divide Palestinians and prevent a two-state settlement. Nor did they decide to divert troops to the West Bank days before October 7 to protect militant settlers. And yet, after a “long-standing policy that was always destined to explode” has finally exploded, “we are the ones who are sent to kill and be killed in Gaza.”

While “the cycle of violence is indeed a cycle,” Mitnick homes in on the reality at the root of the problem — what he calls the “status quo of apartheid and Jewish supremacy in between the Jordan and the sea.”

He doesn’t lay out a specific vision of the future — a “two-state solution,” a unitary democratic “one-state solution,” or a federated option in between. That seems fine to me. I don’t think it’s the job of eighteen-year-olds who should be on the brink of going to college — but are instead facing prison for declining to participate in a monstrous injustice — to hammer out the details of a solution that breaks the cycle of violence. But Mitnick does rightly call attention to the failure of the politicians to even show an interest in formulating such a solution.

Nothing that’s happened since October 7, Mitnick notes, has moved the land an inch closer to the “just peace” that could end the bloodshed. “Just the opposite.” Oppression, violence, and even political prosecution of Israeli Jews who criticize the government have all intensified.

So what can be done?

He concludes:

The change will not come from corrupt politicians here, or from the leaders of Hamas, who are corrupt as well. It will come from us — the people of the two nations. I believe wholeheartedly that the Palestinian people are not an evil people. Just like here, where the vast majority of people want to live a good and safe life, have a place for their children to play after school, and to make ends meet at the end of the month, so do Palestinians. On the eve of the seventh of October, support for Hamas in Gaza was at a low of 26%. Since the outbreak of violence, it has grown significantly stronger. In order to change, an alternative must be put in place, an alternative to Hamas, and an alternative to the militaristic society in which we live. . . . I do not want to take part in the continuation of the oppression and the continuation of the cycle of bloodshed, but to work directly for a solution, and therefore I refuse. I love this country and the people here, because it is my home. I sacrifice and work so this land will be one that respects others, one where you can live with dignity.

And so Tal Mitnick is going to jail.

He’ll spend the next thirty days sitting in a cell because he refused to join an army that’s displaced the vast majority of the civilian population of Gaza, killed tens of thousands of them in less than three months, and doomed God knows how many more to slower deaths from starvation and disease. When the thirty days are up, he may well be sentenced to another. Some Israelis who have flouted the draft in previous outbreaks of violence, or who simply decline to join the army of occupation during “normal” times, have been sentenced again and again.

Mitnick isn’t the kind of young Israeli whose actions with regard to this war are going to get him labeled a hero in the Israeli press. But that’s exactly what he is.

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