The Moral Imperative to Refuse an Immoral Order
Israel is one of the few nations that allow for a soldier to refuse an order, if he deems the directive from his commander to run against the moral grain of his conscience. It applies the letter and law of the moral code that emerged from the Nuremberg Trials, which established the principle that a soldier cannot say that “he was only following orders,” if these orders are immoral.
One example when this applied was in 1956 in the Arab-Israeli village of Kafr Qasim, when Israeli troops were engaged in full-scale combat with Egypt.
A curfew had been ordered in the village. A truckload of villagers violated the curfew, returning from work after dark. The local IDF commander gave an order to open fire on the curfew-breakers, and more than 50 villagers were shot to death.
After conducting an investigation, the IDF determined that the officer in question had issued an illegal and immoral order. Every soldier involved in the operation, down to the lowest private, was indicted by the IDF court and convicted of carrying out an illegal and immoral order, in what came to be known as the Kafr Qasim Massacre.
A second example involved the late Israeli novelist, Amos Kenan, whom I interviewed when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in 1970 and heard his first-hand account.
Kenan recounted that when he was a reservist in the IDF following the 1967 Six-Day War, a senior officer gave him the order to demolish Arab villages in the Latrun area, where his unit was based. he refused.
Facing possible court-martial, Kenan went a step further and galvanized wide public support for opposition to the order, and as a result, it was rescinded.
Writing in the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot and later in English, in the October 1968 issue of Midstream magazine, a publication of the World Zionist Organization, Kenan penned a seminal piece, entitled “A letter to all good people,” in which he said, “The action that I undertook was in flagrant violation of any military law. According to military regulations, I should have been court-martialed. I have no idea what would have been the sentence of a Red Army soldier were he to violate national and military discipline in such a manner…”
After the village-demolition orders were revoked by the IDF, Kenan recounted, he asked for and received permission to visit every area that Israel acquired after the war, to make sure that no similar orders would ever be issued again.
In passionate support of Kenan, Prof. Eliav Schochetman, dean of the Sha’arei Mishpat Law College, testified in 2005 before the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that any Israeli decision to demolish Arab or Jewish communities would represent a clear “human rights infraction,” in violation of Israel’s “Basic Human Rights Law” that governs the country’s democratic institutions in the same way that the US Bill of Rights does for American citizens.
In his testimony, Schochetman noted that the government decision to demolish Jewish communities — because of a new map — constituted a blatant violation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which all democratic governments are signatories. He cited Clause 9, which states that it is illegal for sovereign governments to expel their own citizens and ethnic minorities from their homes, private properties or farms.
He also cited clauses in the San Remo Treaty — ratified by the League of Nations in 1923 and by the new United Nations in 1945 — which provided international recognition of the right of Jews to purchase and dwell in the “Jewish Homeland,” defined as any land east of the Jordan River.
The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee could not find a single law professor in Israel who could or would contradict Schochetman’s assessment that the government’s intention to destroy and exile entire communities would indeed represent a massive human rights violation.
Since the only group that Israel is now slating for expulsion is Jews, it should be recalled that the government of Serbia was held liable by the International High Court of Justice in the Hague, charged with “ethnic cleansing” for singling out a minority for expulsion, solely due to its religion.
The moral imperative facing Israeli soldiers under current orders to destroy and exile an entire community, then, is clear.