Haggai Matar, an 18-year-old Israeli high school senior, first strikes the eye as a quiet, studious, and modest young man. He may be all of that, but when he speaks, he speaks with conviction and power, and his message packs a wallop: Matar, along with 62 other Israeli Jewish teens, have publicly stated that they will refuse to serve the Israeli government’s “aggressive and racist policy” against the Palestinian people.

“We strongly resist Israel’s pounding of human rights,” reads their statement. “Land expropriation, arrests, executions without a trial, house demolition, closure, torture, and the prevention of health care are only some of the crimes the state of Israel carries out, in blunt violation of international conventions it has ratified.”

“We will obey our conscience and refuse to take part in acts of oppression against the Palestinian people,” the statement continues, “acts that should properly be called terrorist actions. We call upon persons our age, conscripts, soldiers in the standing army, and reserve service soldiers to do the same.”

Their statement has caused an uproar in Israel. Several of these young refusers have already been jailed, and Matar matter-of-factly states that “I myself will probably be sent to prison in July.” Interestingly enough, since the statement was published last August and, despite the Sharon government’s crackdown, the number of signers to the “Seniors Statement” has more than doubled.

Matar was among the initiators of the statement, and his message to a crowded banquet hall was this: keep up pressure on the U.S. government to end its support of Israel’s war against the Palestinian people. World pressure is critical, he said, and especially from the U.S.

Matar’s talk was peppered with numerous anecdotes. As part of a newly-formed Arab-Jewish Partnership, Ta’ayush, Matar has participated in several food convoys to besieged Palestinian villages in the West Bank. Such convoys have been subjected to constant harassment and punitive measures by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). He also related several incidents of extreme brutality and viciousness on the part of IDF personnel against Palestinian Arabs that he has personally witnessed, both in the occupied territories and within Israel itself.

Matar’s appearance here, which included speaking engagements at five high schools in the Chicago area and a number of interviews with the media, was part of a multi-city tour organized by the “Courage to Refuse” project initiated by a Jewish peace group, Not In My Name. The project involves the cooperation of groups like Yesh Gvul (“There is a limit”) and New Profile, a woman’s organization.

Other resisters will be touring the U.S. this Spring in Minneapolis, Madison, San Francisco, New York and again in Chicago. For more information on these speaking engagements, visit the Courage to Refuse web site at www.couragetorefuse.org.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org