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Wednesday, August 04, 2004
Midnight Dispatch: Right of Refusal?

I was a supporter of Sharon from the beginning, back when protests in front of Collis left associate professors of religion confessing their shame of supporting Israel next to fervent, if ill-informed, senior colleagues of mine who have since gone off to medical school. Back when it was fashionable to regurgitate the fashionably correct and ubiquitous condemnations of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's “history” as a mass murderer and a genocidal maniac in response to the equally strident and obnoxious "pro"-Israel lobby, I expressed public joy that Sharon was the sitting prime minister in Jerusalem and foretold that he would in fact have both the courage and fortitude to bully the professional political hacks of the Knesset into a peace process and into dismantling the settlements. Given Sharon's enthusiasm in supporting his buddy Menachem Begin as housing minister, making a well-timed phone call to then Prime Minister Begin at Camp David supporting an exchange of the Sinai for peace, I knew that this old warrior, whose disastrous intervention into a messy Lebanese civil war as defense minister almost chased him from public life forever, was the one who could make peace.

Mocked by Ha'aretz and detested by the European public intellectuals, this pariah politician rebuilt the Likud party that would ultimately become as much of stumbling block to him as the universal hatred of the political left. Sharon admitted recently, as reported by Ha'aretz, "I may have been mistaken in going to the [Likud party] referendum. But the question now is whether to endanger Israel with a severe political crisis with the United States that will bring about an immediate political decline...What is happening now is not an argument between me and [Netanyahu]. The issue on the table now is us versus the U.S. I want to warn those comrades who seek to exploit this hour of crisis to advance their personal political agendas. As one who established the Likud and rehabilitated it from 19 to 38 seats, there is no one in this room to whom the Likud is dearer than to me. The Likud is dear to us - but Israel is dearer."

The problems threatening to rend Israel asunder, of refuseniks, of national conscience, of the entire national project as a whole, jumped to the forefront of my consciousness, from the depths to which I had relegated them after vowing to never again address the "Israel Question" after the incivility of the entire affair from my first two years in college, after considering the two drafts of bills before the House and Senate today concerning [mandatory] national service. Many soldiers, of whom one expects adherence to the socialized and ingrained law of obedience to superior officers in most circumstances, have refused to serve in Israel's current day colonialist project (of which Sharon was a, if not the, major architect). In a nation whose founders’ consciousnesses were galvanized and forged during an era of the Soviet and Nazi determination to extinguish all occurrences of religiocultural and biological Jewishness, respectively, one would expect its citizens to be extra sensitive to any politico-military apparatus, like the German SA, and, in some cases the IDF units deployed in the territories, whose existence is a daily reminder of the sub-human status of the person brutalized by such a regime. Viewed in this light, the refuseniks, by opting out of the banalizing boot of occupation, grant voice and visibility to the victims of a necessary Israeli national project. However, given this courage when the national apparatus is handling a class of person deemed alien and type-casted as hostile, what shall become of the military when Prime Minister Sharon deploys it against the profound beliefs of many of its citizens, the other great Satan in this conflict, the "settlers"?

How many speakers invited to campus to speak on the Israel question, solidly on the left as many of them happen to be, unctuously preached to the collegiate choir "Israel must dismantle the settlements"? As political, moral, and strategic necessity, this is statement is quite true; there is no reasonable person on either "side" of this question who believes in the defensibility of the settlements. What is always left unspecified by such speakers, reveling as they are in being part of the moral majority, is the actual implementation of this idea in reality and the affect it would have on the Israeli national consciousness. The precedent set by such act of political boldness-- of a government forcibly relocating its most fanatical citizens, acting against massive protests, and facing a potentially huge level of conscious objectors-- would not be negligible. Such an action raises a whole host of questions, the foremost being: when ordered to do so should a soldier act against a fellow citizen?

If we learned anything from witnessing the universally condemned horrors of the Nazi regime, or of the totalitarian terror inside the Soviet Union (with whom a number of academics sympathized at the time), it should be this: soldiers, when asked by superior officers to execute an order against a non-combatant, especially a fellow-citizen, has a moral obligation to disobey. I have seen evidence in international newspapers and on private websites that rightist opposition to Sharon has invoked this legacy of the obligation to opt-out (they are, of course, silent on the question of their complicity with the maw of the occupation) through the rhetoric familiar to us: evacuating the settlements is population transfer, a crime against humanity, an illegal military order with a black flag waving over it. Legality aside (I believe that the Israeli Supreme Court has not permitted Israeli law to have dominion over the territories), when substantial portions of the Israeli and international left have been explicitly or implicitly legitimizing political refusal to obey military orders they have used a similar method of political argument in pseudo-legal dress (i.e the international illegality of the Israeli occupation).

In the back of our minds, I think that we always knew that a day would come when an Israeli government would have to decide to evacuate and dismantle the physical manifestations of its colonialism, the settlements, against the wishes of its settler-citizens. Soldiers and policemen would have to execute this decision, many of them in contravention of their own beliefs and conscience, going against the ethical idea of non-violence against fellow-citizens that is the essence of the post-Nazi nationalist project. When the debate in Israel inexorably turns toward the question of the duty of persons in uniform to obey orders concerning the evacuation of the settlements, what will those intellectuals who glorified and praised the refuseniks of the left have to say? The simple answer that the just beliefs of leftists justify refusal and the unjust beliefs of rightists do not will not suffice. The questions of who will protect the Jewish nation from external enemies in the face of often hostile world-- the Middle East is a rough neighborhood--- when any objector is allowed to refuse and is praised for this refusal is a compelling problem indeed.

This debate, seemingly in the obscure province of Israel, a state that most people are content to forget is attempting to negotiate its problematic existence, will have great relevance for American students if Congress passes S89 and HR163, the Universal National Service Act of 2003, which would reinstate the military draft in the Spring of 2005 without exemptions for students or women. Maybe the debate in Israel is not so obscure after all. Given that many of us have strong objections about what the military is and isn't doing (though I have come around on the Iraq question), and about the social and moral contexts of hegemonic projection of military power in an age of unipolarity, what shall we do when are called to serve a country that we are proud to be in but often ashamed to be associated with?

Princeton, NJ 2004