The New Politics of Conscientious Objection in Israel

Driving through the West Bank recently, I picked up two hitchhikers. Both wore the long, thick sidelocks and extra-large skullcaps that have become the mark of young men on the religious right, especially among settlers. Since they were what Israelis call army age (what Americans would call college age), the conversation turned to military service.

Despite Israel's universal draft, the hitchhiker in the back seat said he didn't intend to serve. The Israel Defense Forces, he argued, hurts Jews -- a point he presumed was obvious from the "uprooting" of settlements in Gaza four years ago and the occasional dismantling of tiny, illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank more recently. Besides that, he said, the IDF "doesn't want to kill Arabs because it wants to look nice in the world." He didn't want to die because commanders were too concerned with Arabs' lives. As a student at a yeshivah -- a religious seminary -- he had a deferment, and he intended to keep it till he was past draft age.

"I share his opinion," said the hitchhiker sitting next to me. He'd received a call-up order, ignored it, and was arrested and sent off to basic training. After three months, an army committee ruled him unfit and discharged him. Given the views he shared with his friend, I was happy to hear of the committee's decision, but I politely refrained from saying that.

My passengers' choice of evading service isn't unique, but it does belong to a small, radical fringe. The Israeli army's real dilemma with the religious right isn't draft evasion. Over the years, the army has come to depend on the enthusiasm of religious draftees for serving in combat units and becoming officers.

But it's increasingly clear that some of those soldiers believe in a right-wing version of selective conscientious objection: They won't carry out orders that conflict with their pro-settlement principles. In their view, they answer to a higher law, which says Jews have the right to live throughout the Whole Land of Israel, which includes Judea and Samaria, a.k.a. the West Bank. Many have also studied under clerics with a harsh view of combat ethics that doesn't fit the IDF's official stance of seeking to minimize Arab civilian casualties. In recent weeks, political controversy within the ranks has become glaring.

The tempest creates a curious challenge for the left in Israel (and beyond). For years, it was the left that argued about selective disobedience -- particularly about refusing to do reserve duty in the occupied territories. Now that the right is claiming that soldiers can't be asked to violate their principles, the left can't simply demand obedience. Careful thought about refusing orders is necessary.

In the latest incident, on Monday morning, six soldiers in the Nahshon Battalion -- part of the brigade that polices the West Bank -- unfurled a sign on a rooftop at their base declaring that they would not evict settlers. The two ringleaders, who were jailed and demoted, had studied at a yeshivah in the settlement of Elon Moreh, known for its ultra-nationalist atmosphere. The protest followed the demolition earlier that day of two illegally built houses at the settlement of Negohot. The head of the Elon Moreh yeshivah, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, said afterward on Israeli Radio that ordering his students to evacuate settlers was "illogical, insufferable, [and] opposed to all of their personal morality."

The Nahshon incident followed a similar protest last month, during a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall for soldiers who'd completed basic training in another battalion of the same brigade. As the brigade commander addressed the troops, two soldiers raised signs saying "Shimshon Battalion Won't Evacuate Homesh." Homesh, in the northern West Bank, was originally evacuated in 2005 at the same time as the Gaza settlements. In recent months, Shimshon soldiers have repeatedly had to remove settlers who moved back in. A political protest at a swearing-in ceremony is unprecedented. Soon after, 25 Shimshon veterans who serve in the unit's reserve wing sent their commander a letter supporting the protesters.

In fact, using troops to remove settlers is exceptional twice over. The government has done little to evict settlers from illegal outposts. And since the Gaza pullout, it has preferred to use police rather than soldiers for such jobs. The unspoken reason is a fear of breakdown of discipline.

The army's dependence on religious troops, most of them somewhere on the political right, reflects a social shift. For most of Israel's history, the IDF drew its officer corps and combat soldiers largely from the secular side of Israeli Jewish society, especially the middle class and the kibbutzim. Most ex-officers who entered politics belonged to the center or left. The Peace Now movement was founded by reserve officers.

As political sociologist Yagil Levy has written, the military's allure gradually began to fade after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when an Egyptian-Syrian attack caught Israel by surprise. The utterly unnecessary invasion of Lebanon in 1982 further tarnished the army's appeal, as did confronting Palestinian protesters during the first Intifada. Meanwhile, as a market economy developed, long military service was no longer the key to social status. The secular middle class didn't divorce the army, but the relationship grew more strained.

Starting with the 1982 Lebanon invasion, a small number of left-wing reservists began to openly refuse occupation duty, at the cost of going to jail instead. "Gray" refusal -- quietly finagling one's way out of serving in southern Lebanon, or in the West Bank or Gaza, was more widespread. For a generation, Israeli leftists have argued over whether selective refusal is a moral necessity or unconscionable politicization of the army.

In the meantime, more and more yeshivot and pre-army academies sprang up to boost the motivation of young religious men to volunteer for combat service and the officer corps. With one or two dovish exceptions, the institutions are arrayed from the center right to the radical right. The army welcomed the infusion of gung-ho troops who wouldn't refuse occupation duty. Yet ever since the Oslo Process began, the right has also been debating the limits of obedience, and the decibel level keeps rising.

Simply insisting that armies are built on discipline isn't a sufficient answer. Under Israeli law itself, a soldier is obligated to refuse a manifestly illegal order. That rule was established after a 1956 massacre in which police followed orders to shoot anyone returning to an Arab village after curfew. In a Jewish state, a decade after the Holocaust, the defense of "following orders" was rejected. A soldier cannot absolve himself or herself of all moral autonomy. At some point, higher principles do outweigh orders.

But at what point, and what principles? The latter question is fairly simple. Left-wing reservists who refused to do occupation duty during the Second Intifada said they wouldn't "dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people." This is an appeal to the universal value of human life and dignity. The higher law to which the extreme right now appeals is the right of Jews to live wherever they want in the Land of Israel -- regardless of other people's rights, the law, or democratic decisions. The difference between these approaches is the difference between ethics and egotism.

The more difficult problem is where obedience ends. On the left, the "refuseniks" reject occupation duty as such. Their more numerous critics say that ending the occupation is a political fight that belongs in the civilian arena and that soldiers should only reject specific, clearly immoral orders. On the right, the argument is between those who attach greater value to the land and those who stress the state's authority. This is a very distorted reflection of the left's internal dispute.

Meanwhile, even the vague premonition that settlements could be evacuated is affecting the right's ardor for the military. The lesson is this: The army can ban political activity in the ranks, but it can't entirely escape politics. It carries out policies, and policy affects motivation. That's probably the only thing that my hitchhikers and I might have agreed on.

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