Refusal to Serve

Sarbanut in a Jewish-Democratic State.

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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.

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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.