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Israel’s Conscientious Objectors


Some years ago, when the jury for the annual Israel Prize announced its award to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, I decided to invite him to give a lecture to the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, the group that established the first contacts with the PLO.

“I am ready to come,” he said, “on one condition: I shall speak only about the duty to refuse to serve in the occupied territories.” For him, that was the alpha and omega of the fight against the occupation.

I told him that he was free to speak about whatever he saw fit, even if I myself did not quite share his view.

(The lecture, by the way, had an unexpected result. In his usual provocative style, Leibowitz compared the Special Units of the Israeli army to the Nazi SS. His words were published, aroused a storm of protest and the prize jury wanted to cancel the award, whereupon Leibowitz himself announced that he refused it.)

Since then I had an ongoing debate with myself about this hard and painful subject.

I am not a pacifist, in the sense of totally refusing to bear arms. My heart is certainly with Yonathan Ben-Artzi, who is standing trial now because of his uncompromising pacifistic stand. He is a wonderful and admirable youngster. But as a member of a generation that experienced the war with the Nazis, I cannot accept the principle that every war is evil. Once the Nazis had taken hold of Germany and started to carry out their aggressive designs, there was no way of stopping them other then by force of arms.

As long as there is no world order and no world government, no world legislature or world police (all of which I hope will be in place by the end of the 21st century), no country can do without with a defense force. And as long as there is no world government that enables every people striving for liberty to attain its goal by peaceful means, freedom-fighters will need to use arms.

But Leibowitz was no pacifist. He did not advocate a general refusal to bear arms, but the refusal to serve the occupation. He believed in the moral value of this refusal, in the duty of every moral person to draw a line between himself and an unjust regime and to declare that he will not lend his hand to a policy that is inhuman, immoral and illegal by its very nature. He also believed that the personal example of the objectors was bound to influence the general public.

This approach is beset, of course, with several pitfalls, which made me hesitate.

First, it undermines the democratic order. The army is supposed to serve the legal government that was elected by the citizens. If you refuse to follow the orders of the legal government, you shake the very foundations of democracy.

Second, you legitimise the same actions by your opponents. According to the “categorical imperative” of Immanuel Kant, you have to behave “as if the principle by which you act were about to be turned into a universal law of nature”. If A has the right to refuse to serve the occupation, B has the right to refuse to remove settlements.

Third, you corrupt the army. If all moral people leave the army, it will remain in the hands of the immoral ones. The checkpoints will be manned exclusively by Arab-haters, operations will be executed by sadists. But if the decent people remain in the army, they can influence its spirit, preventing by their very presence injustices and atrocities, or, at least, bringing them to light.

I have always had a lot of respect for conscientious objectors. I know how much courage is needed for a young person (and an old one, too) to withstand the social pressure of family, comrades and neighbors and to bear the consequences. I am impressed much more by such moral fortitude than by physical heroism in battle, when you know that all the people are behind you. (And I speak as one who has served in a so-called “elite unit”.)

Therefore I have always supported an individual’s right to refuse. But I myself was not ready to call upon young people to follow this line. My position was that persons must decide for themselves where they will best serve the fight against the occupation–inside or outside the army.

But I feel that my position is changing.

First of all, many soldiers have convinced me that it is almost impossible to withstand the pressure inside the army. The brainwashing is intense and unrelenting; those in the higher ranks are more and more like robots with blunted senses, the products of the occupation; not to mention the members of the religious academies connected with the army, Arab-haters and settlers with “knitted kippas” (associated with the extreme right-wing national-religious party.)

Second, the occupation itself has become a monster that nobody can serve without losing his humanity. When the members of the “cream of the Israeli army”, the Sayeret Matkal (General Staff commandos) say so and refuse to go on, their testimony is persuasive. When the Airforce combat pilots revolt against their commander, who has said that he “feels nothing but a slight bump” when he releases a bomb that kills women and children, respect is due to them. When five 19-year old youngsters choose to go to prison rather than enjoy the freedom of the occupiers, Kant himself would have saluted them. The protest against an immoral regime is a categorical imperative.

Does this refusal prepare the ground for the refusal of right-wing soldiers? There is, of course, no symmetry between freedom-lovers, who refuse to take part in an ongoing injustice, and the settlers, who are themselves part of the injustice. But if one recognizes the right to refuse for reasons of conscience, one must apply Kant’s principle to them, too. If there ever is an evacuation of the settlements, the right of a soldier to refuse to take part for reasons of conscience must be assured.

Is this a blow against democracy? Most certainly. But this is a blow for the good. Israeli democracy is being whittled away with every day of occupation. We are witnessing an continuous decline: the government has become Sharon’s kindergarten, the Knesset attracts general contempt, the Supreme Court has largely become an instrument of the occupation, the media are marching in step. It is the refusers who have introduced a moral dimension into the public discourse.

The accumulation of refusals, with one act inspiring the next and one military unit influencing another, is bound to have a lasting effect on the general public. It is both an expression of change and a stimulus for change.

But above all, the act of refusal shines like a beacon in the darkness. It drives out the despair that has infects every part of the collective body. It restores faith in the State of Israel and its younger generation.

Of course, the objectors are few. They are a small minority of the people and the army. But the course of human history would have been quite different without such minorities–people who had the courage to march on when the chorus of conformists shouted: “Stop!”

And not least: these people allow us to be proud again. A nation that has sons like these can have hope.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at:



URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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