Saturday, January 15, 2005


“I believe that in matters intrinsically linked to the rights of man and citizen that cannot be negated, a free man is permitted, and at times, even obligated, to disobey formalistic instructions, if the essence of those matters impairs those rights, on the condition that he is prepared to take the consequences for his act”.

The above statement could have been spoken by Mahatma Gandhi, Bertrand Russell or Martin Luther King, all heroes of enlightened societies everywhere. The words represent the core belief of all non-violent protesters over the decades to come to terms with their consciences even, and especially, at the risk of punishment. I could have found the statement be in any collection of ‘quotable quotes’ but I didn’t. And although spoken by an Israeli, none of the various left-wing refusal groups over the years such as Yesh Gvul and The Courage to Refuse have adopted these words.

Indeed, it would be very surprising for the five high school pupils who recently underwent a military trial, or the pilots who refused to bomb targets they thought irrelevant to Israel’s defense or the soldiers in the Sayeret Matkal who last autumn expressed their unwillingness to serve across the Green Line to discover that it was Menachem Begin who said these words in the Knesset on June 18, 1955.

Genuine refusal, as Begin makes clear, takes into consideration the very real probability that the government of the day will apply all legal and judicial instruments to force the conscientious objector to retreat. No one has promised those who refuse a flower-covered path. While in most cases, that comes much later, ostracism, financial punishment and negation of freedom, including jail, are the usual lot of those who select to oppose government policy

The question, then, is can refusal be justified?

Some claim that civil disobedience campaigns such as that promoted by the Zo Artzeinu group in 1995 was illegitimate because it can be used only in oppressive, non-democratic regimes but has no place in Israel. Israel allows a large margin of protest activity.

This aspect can be now argued with since many, including several outstanding figures of the liberal camp in this country, would say that several fine lines dividing democracy from an oppressive regime have been broken. Despite the fact that the High Court of Justice declined to adjudicate the petition of the ministers fired by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the clamping down on free expression by dismissing ministers even before they voted to assure his cabinet majority, a move that would have be nullified if it had occurred in the directorate of any government or private company, academics such as Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer are extremely uncomfortable with that decision.

Sharon has reneged on his commitment to abide by the internal Likud referendum and ignored his party’s central committee decisions as well as exploiting near-dictatorial moves to fire his opponents. All this provides potential refusers with a moral basis that is very necessary in taking such a step.

Another aspect of a refusal campaign is that of basic human rights. The residents of Gush Katif and Northern Samaria are not terrorists nor criminals. In fact, their contribution to the economy of the state and its defense is immeasurable. They are living in areas the League of Nations decided would be the reconstituted Jewish homeland. Can they be turned out of their homes and factories and educational and social institutions? Is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically Article 17 regarding property and Article 18 relating to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, to be violated? Are the Gaza residents to be victims of discrimination, treated worse than Arab citizens of the state?

What do really moral people think? Well, here is one opinion: “If I would be obligated to destroy a house in the territories, where women, children and the elderly live, due to the fact that one of its members engaged in terror against Israel, I would refuse. He who was brought up on the ethics of our Prophets must refuse to destroy homes.”

These words were spoken by former MK and Minister Shulamit Aloni, an outstanding human rights activist, as recorded by the Hadashot news daily on February 25, 1990. One could assume that she would be the first to assert that what cannot be done to an Arab should not be visited on a Jew.

Refusing orders is an ancient Jewish custom. The first instance of what we now term civil disobedience seems to be in the Bible, Exodus 1:17: “And the midwives did not do what they were commanded because they feared God”. The Talmud, Sotah 11B, adds that their non-cooperation was based on their caution that what they were asked was an immoral crime. Their refusal was later on rewarded.

The current Attorney-General, Menny Mazuz, who already has expressed empathy for those who refuse orders, should reflect on his predecessor’s outlook. Michael Ben-Yair, Attorney-General 1993-96, wrote in Haaretz, on March 3, 2002, “their refusal [of those opposing Israel’s administration of Yesha – YM] to serve is an act of conscience that is justified and recognized in every democratic regime. History's verdict will be that their refusal was the act that restored our moral backbone”.

Can one, then, refuse not to refuse?

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