In Prison Six, or Confinement Base 396 as it is officially known, a nineteen year old kid named Nathan Blanc is languishing through his 181th day of jail. If you’re of a certain age, as I am, he could be could be your kid. You might be proud if he were. Nathan Blanc has an open, shy smile, he’s well-spoken, and he’s got principles. His principles are what landed him in jail.
On November 19, 2012, after a year of volunteer work in a down-and-out Jerusalem neighborhood, Blanc reported to the IDF induction center but refused assignment to an army unit. The reason he gave was that Palestinians in the occupied territories are denied democratic rights, and the IDF is what allows this injustice to endure. Blanc asked to perform non-military national service, instead of joining the army. He was tried for insubordination, and sent to Prison Six. Upon release, he was sent back to the induction center for assignment, and when he refused again, he was retried, resentenced and rejailed. Last week, this cycle repeated for the tenth time.
Considering Blanc, some people say that if we let him off, then in time we will need also to let off kids whose conscience tells them opposite things, that – should it come to this – they cannot take part in, say, removing Jews from West Bank Settlements. They’re right; if the IDF allows for leftist acts of conscience, it will have to allow equally for right-wing acts of conscience.
So then people say that the army won’t work if kids can decide not to enlist if they don’t like what the army is up to. But here they’re wrong; the army can function fine without kids like Nathan Blanc. It already does. Twenty-six percent of draft age boys avoided enlisting this year; half of these are ultra-orthodox, and half are not. The numbers for girls are higher. Each year, thousands of kids avoid the army in less principled ways and for less principled reasons than Blanc.
Some worry that letting Blanc swap his army service for national service will encourage a great many other kids to demand to do the same. It won’t. Most Israelis have misgivings about this or that government policy, and few on either the left or the right find satisfaction in today’s reality in the territories. But almost none come to Blanc’s conclusion: that the IDF is not worth supporting. For this reason, Blanc is not a bellwether, he’s not a trend, he’s not a harbinger, he is not poised on the precarious edge of a slippery slope and he is not a dangerous precedent.
What Blanc is, is a kid doing what we want our kids to do: trying to make a difference, heeding his conscience and exercising his ideals, while willingly paying a price for all that. Whether you agree with him or not, there’s a way you should want your kid to be like Blanc.
In the event, I disagree with Blanc. In objecting to the army en bloc, and not to specific army actions or policies, Blanc aims too broad. His protest fails to acknowledge that, if the IDF administers an occupation he finds immoral, it also protects us from energetic enemies seeking to maim or kill Israelis. And in failing to acknowledge that our politicians, not our generals, are responsible for the policies he decries, Blanc’s protest further politicizes the army.
But though I disagree with him, Blanc gives me hope. He reminds me how after generations of troubles – wars, terror, and the tragedies they’ve visited on Jews and Palestinians alike – we retain the heart and muscle for moral self-criticism. I disagree with the kid, but still I see in him the best of us.
So instead of killing days in an army jail, Nathan Blanc should be teaching woebegone kids in depleted schools, as part of the national service he’s asked to be assigned (and as a recently-launched online petition demands). Instead of finding in Blanc’s protest a cause for furrowed-brow concern, we should find reason for hope. Instead of criminalizing his act of youthful conscience, we should celebrate it.