Refusal to Serve

Sarbanut in a Jewish-Democratic State.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with the permission of the author.

On January 3, 2005, a reserve unit of the Israel Defense Force was called in to evacuate two illegally installed caravans at the outpost of Givat Shalhevet in Samaria. The soldiers and police officers were met by hundreds of settlers who, throwing up a roadblock, attempted to prevent the unit from entering the outpost. Rocks were thrown, abuse was hurled, settlers branded the soldiers "Nazis."

During the clash, Yossi Filant, a Yitzhar resident and sergeant in an IDF combat unit, called on the soldiers to refuse their orders to evacuate the caravans. Still in uniform, he joined the demonstration against the soldiers. Filant was arrested and tried before a court martial and sentenced to 28 days imprisonment for "inappropriate behaviour and obstructing the work of IDF soldiers and reservists," for defecting to the side of the settlers and urging his comrades to refuse orders during the evacuation.

A Legal Ruling

Yossi Filant is not the only person calling on soldiers to refuse orders. After the announcement of the Disengagment Plan, dozens of rabbis associated with the settlement movement published halachic (Jewish legal) rulings prohibiting soldiers from participating in the evacuation of any part of the land of Israel.

One such halachic ruling, issued by the Union of Rabbis for the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, an organization headed by former Chief rabbi and spiritual leader of the settlement movement, Avraham Shapira, reads as follows:

israeli defense forces"All aspects of our lives are determined according to the Torah. It is clear to every Jew that religious observance is above any directive or law that contradicts Torah law. It is inconceivable that a ruling by the Rabbis forbidding Shabbat desecration should be considered as sowing disunity in the IDF and an incitement to disobey an order. This ruling, referring to the evacuation of army settlements and the army bases protecting them, is no different. And it is unthinkable that an act forbidden by Halacha shall be made permissible because of a military order of one kind or another…

"The Halachic ruling is based on decisions of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for over twenty years, that have forbidden evacuating parts of the Land of Israel and handing them over to non-Jews. Moreover, abandoning the land endangers many Jewish lives. Therefore such an act contradicts halacha and one must avoid taking part in such activity…"

According to this pan-halachic perspective, the Torah prohibits the handing over of any part of the land of Israel to non-Jewish control. Since halacha takes priority not only over military orders but over democratic decisions, religious Jews, it is argued, have a clear responsibility to disobey orders to evacuate settlements. In fact, since lives are considered to be in danger, the refusal to participate in the evacuation of settlements falls into the category of pikuach nefesh (the saving of life)--one of the supreme duties for any religious Jew.

From Left to Right

For right-wingers, sarbanut--refusing to obey orders--is a new phenomenon. In recent years, conscientious objection of any sort has been associated with the Left. In 2002, two IDF officers, David Zonshein and Yaniv Itzkovitch, initiated what came to be known as the Combatants’ Letter. The letter was published with the signatures of 50 IDF officers.

The letter made a twofold declaration. On one hand, the signatories defined themselves as Zionists, emphasizing their long years of reserve duty and declaring themselves ready to sacrifice themselves to protect the State of Israel. On the other, they described their realization that serving in the occupied territories has nothing to do with the defence of the state but serves only to "perpetuate our control over the Palestinian people." The letter continues:

"We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this Occupation exacts from both sides; we, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the Occupied Territories destroy all the values that we were raised upon; we, who understand now that the price of Occupation is the loss of IDF’s human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society; we, who know that the Territories are not a part of Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated; we hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements."

On the eve of Rosh Hashana 2003, another voice was added to the refusenik phenomenon. 27 Air Force pilots announced their refusal to take part in attacks against civilian population centres. They argued that "these actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting the Israeli society."

Competing Visions

In fact, refuseniks of all colours are trying to defend their image of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state. Both groups are equally committed to the diverse conceptions of Israel that they believe in. To the settlement movement, any withdrawing from Judea, Samaria and Gaza strikes at Israel’s Jewish foundations. To those on the Left, continuing the occupation undermines not only Israeli democracy, but demographic foundations of Israel’s Jewish identity. In their own terms, each group of sarbanim is as Zionist as the other. What’s less clear is which of the two visions of Zionism has more legitimacy.

The contemporary settler movement equates Zionism with settling the Land of Israel and bringing it under Jewish control. In terms of the religious Zionist ideology formulated by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (son and disciple of the seminal Zionist thinker Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook), redemption of the land is a necessary condition for the redemption of the Jewish people and the entire cosmos. Conversely, the relinquishing of territory delays and even reverses the messianic process. Cooperation with the evacuation of settlements means standing in the way of the divine plan.

Since the Oslo Accords and the decision to trade land for peace, this conception of religious Zionism has brought segments of the settlement movement into direct confrontation with the Israeli State. Rather than embodying the Zionist vision and providing a vehicle for its realization, the State and its agents--the police officers and soldiers whose job it is to evacuate settlements--have become the enemies of Zionism.

For this reason, many mainstream religious Zionist leaders have repudiated the settlement movement’s radical fringe. While agreeing with the Kookian conception of Zionism as a stage in the messianic process, these thinkers argue that the existence of a Jewish State is a value in and of itself. Loyalty to the State and its institutions--first and foremost adherence to the rule of law - is a sine qua non of Zionist activity.

In recent years, Aviezer Ravitsky, a professor of Jewish philosophy and a leader of the moderate religious Meimad party, has argued that Zionism is not about the redemption of the land but about the redemption of the Jewish people. The implication of this position--that territorial compromise is permissible if it serves the interests of the Jews--has been backed up by heavyweight halachic authorities. In the 1980s, former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (who opposed the disengagement plan) published a legal ruling that permitted the handing over of land for the sake of saving lives.

Ideological Grounds

The right-wing refusal to evacuate settlements rests, it seems, on shaky ideological and halachic ground. Can the same be said of the left-wing phenomenon?

The left-wing refuseniks present their position in unabashedly moral terms. Moshe Ingel, a signatory to the Combatants’ letter, explains that he refuses to serve in the territories "because the activities we are told to carry out are immoral and have nothing to do with Israel’s security." Youval Andorn, another refusenik, adds that "illegality is built into the situation [of serving in the territories]. From the moment that we, as soldiers and commanders cross the ’67 borders, we have no choice … but to discriminate between Jews and Arabs."

Some refuseniks also have a political agenda. Israel’s presence in the territories is seen by the Left as a drain on Israel’s military, economic and moral reserves. By convincing soldiers to refuse to serve over the Green Line, the sarbanim hope to make the occupation untenable. This political goal explains why the refusal movement has been criticized not only from the Right but also by many centre-left politicians. They see refusal not as legitimate protest but as an anarchic attack on the rule of law and on Israel’s democratic decision making process.

But rather than undermining the democratic system by taking the law into their own hands, many left-wing refuseniks believe that they are defending democracy. Arik Diamant, a signatory to the Combatants’ Letter explains: "Israel defines itself as a democratic nation--and yet denies 3.5 million people, over a third of its population, the most basic civil rights [these numbers describe the situation before Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza]. The occupied territories are paved with new roads that are restricted for Jews only. Road blocks, massive demolition of homes and other means of collective punishment are applied for Arabs only, as are the imprisonment of people for years without trial, the punishing of relatives rather than culprits, the limitation of the freedom of movement, extra-judicial executions and the list goes on. All these acts contradict democracy."

The Question of Legitimacy

Whether you can fight for democracy by bending democratic rules and breaking the law is a moot point. Nonetheless, the emergence of sarbanut on the religious right has given some left wing refuseniks pause for thought. If principled refusal to obey orders is legitimate, then its validity cannot depend on whether we happen to agree with the principles in question. Refusal to evacuate settlements in an effort to prolong Israeli control of the territories is analogous to the refusal to serve in the territories in order to bring about the end of the occupation. Some left wingers have come to the conclusion that their reservations about refusal have been borne out. The struggle over the future of the territories must be carried out within the limits of the law, precisely to avoid giving legitimacy to acts of right wing extremism.

Yet this analogy is far from precise. Right wing refusal disregards the rule of law in order to advance a contentious ideological position. The left wing phenomenon is an attempt, albeit controversial, to fight for a vision that the majority of Israelis support: a democratic Israel with a Jewish majority, existing on part, but not all, of the Land of Israel. As to whether the tactic of sarbanut will help this cause more than it harms it: for now the verdict remains open.

This article was written prior to the implementation of the Disengagement Plan. In the end, fewer than one hundred soldiers disobeyed orders to evacuate the settlements in Gaza, and the evacuation met with far less violence than expected. Today, some right-wing religious Zionists continue to call for refusal to obey orders to evacuate the settlements in Judea and Samaria.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.