Refusal to Serve

Sarbanut in a Jewish-Democratic State.

Print this page Print this page

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.

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.