A 21-year-old Jewish anti-Zionist, who fled Israel in 2017, is pleading his case for asylum in the UK.
The hearing, scheduled for September 20 at a First-tier tribunal in Manchester, will address his appeal against the rejection he received in December last year from the UK Home Office.
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The rabbinical student, who has been granted anonymity order from the court on security concerns, and his lawyers believe his personal views, including his refusal to join the Israeli army, would expose him to persecution if he was to return to Israel.
His lawyers said he could be “deemed a deserter and liable to serve a prison sentence of up to 15 years for [military] desertion”.
The student has said he vehemently opposes Zionism and Israel’s existence due to religious and political reasons – views that are generally not welcomed by authorities or the wider Zionist Israeli public.
Anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews believe they should not be permitted to return to the land of Palestine en masse until the coming of the messiah.
“What the Zionist movement has done is sinful because it has returned Jews to the Holy Land against God’s will and in the process has forcibly displaced the indigenous Palestinian people and stolen their land,” he said in his witness statement which will be used as evidence for the court’s decision.
“The Zionists have engaged in theft and mass killing to create their Zionist state. They have rebelled against God in the gravest way. I am afraid of being forcibly conscripted into the military which would go against everything that I stand for … the State of Israel practices apartheid and is routinely involved in war crimes against the Palestinian people. I cannot serve in such an immoral army that carries out such atrocities on a daily basis.”
He was arrested and beaten up in 2015, aged 17, by the Israeli police during a protest by the Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem against forced military conscription.
According to his lawyers, during the protests and while in police custody, the teen was “handcuffed, pushed to the floor and dragged around by the handcuffs, spat at and beaten with a stick”.
He was also sprayed with skunk water – a foul-smelling chemical compound created by the Israeli military and used for crowd control.
He left for the UK in 2017 on a tourist visa after receiving a conscription letter and has not returned since, his lawyers added.
Setting a precedent
The Home Office rejected his initial asylum claim on the ground that he could have avoided military service on mental grounds.
But his lawyers argue the appeal must be looked at in a political framework and “it is simply not possible to properly consider our client’s case without addressing apartheid, which is a legal concept codified in the 2002 Rome Statute and the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid”.
His lawyer, Fahad Ansari, told Al Jazeera that the court must look at the case “in the framework of Israel being an apartheid state” and “not in a vacuum”.
“It would be unconscionable for them to say that he should be sent back and be forced to serve in a military that practices apartheid,” said Ansari before adding that “protesting against Zionism is so fundamental to his Jewish identity and his political views” that he also risks being persecuted by authorities again.
By law, Israel has made it mandatory for its citizens to serve in the military at 18.
Men have to serve just under three years while women serve two years.
Exemption from the military can be granted on specific grounds – citing mental health problems or claiming pacifism that is apolitical.
Those who outwardly state their opposition to the occupation as a reason are sentenced to repeated prison terms until declared unfit to serve by the Israeli army.
While Palestinians and most Orthodox Jews are exempt, during the past few years a heated debate and clashes with police on the ground over Haredi conscription have come to the fore as Israel’s secular majority argue the community should be drafted.
In September 2017, Israel’s High Court of Justice struck down the law exempting Ultra-Orthodox Jews from service while they study in yeshivas – a Jewish educational institute – saying it would take effect within a year.
In August 2021, the government presented a compromise proposal surrounding the issue, that would permit full exemption for yeshiva students at 21, but the age would later increase and still require them to perform civic duty and two years in the reserves.
The plan would still need to be discussed and approved by the Knesset.
The Israeli police routinely chase down individuals in the Orthodox community who dodge military service and attempt to conscript them.
Police have also routinely used force against them during anti-conscription protests, conducted mass arrest raids on their homes, and are often exposed to abuse in custody, according to reports.
Describing the state’s attitude towards the Orthodox community – particularly at protests – military refuser and rights activist Sahar Vardi said “relative to Jews, it’s the most violence police response we see.”
Vardi told Al Jazeera that many in the Orthodox community practice a “non-cooperation” method with the state, rather than requesting exemption.
“They ignore the military completely, and become deserters (someone who has been absent for more than 21 days),” said Vardi.
“The standard is they would get sentenced for half the time they deserted.” He added that they are held in military jails used for soldiers.
The UK-based lawyer Ansari said that “expert evidence confirms that [his client] would not be treated as exempt but as a military deserter because he failed to report for service and left the country.”
Since the student did not take part in the normal recruitment process for the military, his lawyers believe he would be arrested upon his return, even if he were eligible for an exemption.
Ansari said a positive ruling, however, could set a precedent for future asylum requests from not just Israeli Jews but also Palestinians.
“It would help Palestinian asylum seekers frame their cases in a more accurate way in the future where their suffering is viewed in the context of Israeli apartheid,” he said.
“It’s time the UK judiciary made findings about apartheid in Israel; considering all the evidence, this will be difficult for them to avoid.”