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Tel Aviv school board summoned over rally where 200 students said they won’t enlist

The Education Ministry on Thursday summoned the board of a prestigious Tel Aviv high school for a hearing after students held a rally outside the school in which they declared their intention not to enlist in the IDF in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul and of Israel’s decades-long military rule over the West Bank.

In a letter sent to the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium board, Education Ministry director Meir Shimoni said that it had “violated the conditions and obligations for which the school had been given a license, recognition and budgeting” from the government, the Haaretz daily reported (Hebrew).

The hearing will be held later this month, after which the ministry will determine whether or not to revoke the school’s license or cut its funding.

The school board had actually barred the event from taking place and had informed the Education Ministry of that decision. Incensed by the move, the school’s principal Zeev Degani submitted his resignation to the board.

Nonetheless, organizers managed to stage the rally outside the building, but still on the grounds of the north Tel Aviv campus. Some 200 12th graders and alumni unveiled a letter declaring their refusal to serve in the IDF.

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The letter’s invocation of the judicial overhaul came amid mass protests and warnings by thousands of reservists that they would stop showing up for volunteer duty, charging that the government’s plans to weaken the judiciary will turn Israel into an undemocratic country.

Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium principal Zeev Degani addresses a rally outside the school in Tel Aviv on September 3, 2023. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Degani spoke at the protest, expressing his solidarity with the participants and declaring that he had decided to withdraw his decision to resign.

The school board will now be tasked with deciding whether to allow Degani to return to his post.

Shimoni’s Thursday letter claimed that Degani had repeatedly violated Education Ministry protocol over the years and that the school had been warned ahead of time that there would be repercussions if the event took place, according to Haaretz.

Mass enlistment refusals have taken place over the years, but this week’s was one of the more high-profile instances and the first since the rollout of the judicial overhaul in January.

Israel allows military service exemptions for a number of reasons, including mental health and medical problems and religious objections, and for Arab Israelis, but rarely for conscientious objectors, and there have been instances in which some of them have been arrested. Refusal to serve is one of the most divisive issues in Israel.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks past a sign for the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, August 16, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi responded on Wednesday to the decision by the Tel Aviv teens, saying, “For the youth who are considering not enlisting, there is a clear statement: We will always live here, in the State of Israel. Because of this, we must defend [it].”

“Anyone who is considering not enlisting should ask themselves what would happen if everyone behaved like them,” Halevi continued. “In days of controversy, however difficult they may be, one must not lose their direction. The IDF is the right place to be.”

Opponents of the judicial overhaul note that backers of the reform in the government are currently working to pass legislation that will formally allow ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students not to enlist — a privilege not afforded to other Israelis. Accordingly, some anti-overhaul activists argue that the government and its supporters have no right to criticize those Israelis who refuse military service for moral reasons.