A Familiar Plague Infests Israel
Last week 43 Israeli soldiers from Unit 8200 of the IDF Intelligence Corps sent a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Grantz that has gone viral. Claiming that “during the course of our service we learned that the Intelligence Corps is an inseparable part of the military control over the territories,” they declared: “We refuse to take part in activity against Palestinians and refuse to be tools to deepen the military control in the occupied territories.”
Their proclamation of refusal, so soon after the havoc of Operation Protective Edge, elicited a prompt and furious response signed by more than 200 members of their Unit, decrying as an act of “political insubordination” the protesters’ “cynical and politically motivated use of their legal and moral duty to serve.” Nor were they alone. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon condemned the letter as a contribution to “the unfounded and undeserved delegitimization efforts against the State of Israel and the soldiers of the IDF.” Knesset member Yariv Levin, chairman of the Intelligence Subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee, declared: “Anyone who refuses to help protect the country essentially crosses the line from being a supporter of democracy to being a supporter of Palestinian terrorism.”
So the battle lines were drawn between Israeli soldiers and their nation – not for the first time. The struggle between conscience and country is hardly new. Five years after independence, 18-year-old Amnon Zichroni, claiming that he was a pacifist, refused to carry weapons. Israel’s first public conscientious objector, he was sentenced by a military tribunal to seven months in prison. In 1970, one hundred graduating high-school students issued a “declaration of intent” to Prime Minister Golda Meir: “We are wondering why we should fight in a repeated war which holds no future.”
Seven years later another student cohort asked Prime Minister Menachem Begin: “How do you expect us to go to war when we are not sure that the road that leads to war is just?” In a letter to Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, twenty-seven high-school students, inspired by “opposition to the occupation and suppression of the Palestinian people,” indicated their intention to refuse to serve in Judea and Samaria. Gad Elgazi, one of the signees, kept his word and was court-martialed and sentenced to one year in prison. Rejecting his appeal, the Supreme Court ruled: “No military organization can tolerate the existence of a general principle according to which individual soldiers can dictate their place of service, be it for economic or social reasons, or for reasons of conscience.”
During the first Lebanon war, which provoked unprecedented military disobedience (not coincidentally because Israel had its first right-wing prime minister), Colonel Eli Geva notoriously refused to lead his tank brigade in an attack on West Beirut. An organization named Yesh Gvul (“There is a Limit”) broadened its focus from the “occupied territory” in the West Bank to include Lebanon. Co-founder and reserve major Ishai Menuchin proclaimed: “It never occurred to me that I might be used as a tool of occupation or be asked to fight in wars of choice, as opposed to wars of defense.” Other soldiers cited Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (revealing sources for Israeli refuseniks) and employed Holocaust and Nazi analogies to justify their disobedience.
The eruption of the Palestinian intifada in 1987 multiplied the number of dissenting reservists and soldiers, most of whom had already been active in leftist political and protest groups. In a letter to Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Adi Ophir insisted that “occupation” was “a far greater menace to Israeli democracy and to the rule of law” than refusal to serve. A demographically identifiable segment of the population belonged to the refusenik movement, and still does: secular, Ashkenazi, highly educated, from elite sectors of Israeli society. Their political affiliation prompted a prescient warning from Haaretz lest left-wing disobedience become a precedent for future resistance from those on the political right.
Indeed, left-wing disobedience in the 1980s became the model for right-wing religious Zionists a decade later. The regional council of Jewish settlers declared that any government prepared to relinquish territory was “an illegal government” whose orders should be disobeyed. Former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, reiterating the supremacy of the biblical command to settle the land, cited Maimonides: “even if the King gives an order to transgress the words of the Torah, we do not listen to him.”
The Israeli Supreme Court has summarily rejected the principle “whereby soldiers can dictate . . . where they will serve, whether for economic or social reasons, or for reasons of conscience.” But the fundamental question remains: among competing sources of authority – the State, military orders, halakha, individual conscience, God – what will Israelis honor? The question is as old as Jewish history. The Biblical renegade Korach and his followers were swiftly punished by death for challenging the divine authority claimed by Moses and Aaron. For Josephus, who deserted his soldiers and surrendered to Vespasian, the source of legitimate authority was Roman power.
In contemporary Israel the ultimate source of legitimate authority may remain contentious. But the current challenge from several dozen disaffected reservists, now lacerated across the Israeli political spectrum, has deservedly undermined the left-wing political agenda they so avidly embrace.
Jerold S. Auerbach, a frequent contributor, is the author of Jewish State Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy (2014), where some of this material originally appeared.