July 24, 2005

In Israel, any moral stance we take has immediate consequences.During the 1960s, at the height of the American army draft, I was a young rabbi who urged soldiers not to participate in the war in Vietnam. And I counseled potential military recruits not to enlist in the armed services at all. Synagogues and churches served as sanctuaries for those who chose not to enter the army. Many were the draft-dodgers we helped get to Canada.

Our opposition to the American adventure in Vietnam saw us chaining ourselves to the gates of recruitment centers, stuffing flowers into the guns of National Guardsmen, blocking traffic and conducting street theater. We wanted to create a new social order; but many of us also loved the thrill and excitement of sit-ins, teach-ins, and sleep-ins. We shut down universities, corporations and hi-tech companies that fed the industrial-military complex. Turning in or burning our draft cards brought a rush of adrenalin beyond compare. Those were heady times.

Only in retrospect did some of us realize how self-righteous we were, even if the withdrawal from Vietnam ultimately justified our opposition to the war.

I can’t help but search for parallels in our current dilemma. But are there any?

Vietnam was far from America’s shores and was never considered a war of survival. Israel’s war with the Palestinians is in our backyard in our malls, restaurants, buses. Our war threatens the existence of the Jewish state.

We do not have the luxury, as we did in the US, of not being intimately affected by war. Here there is virtually no one who has not suffered the loss of a family member or friend to the terrible scourge of terrorism. In Israel, any moral stance we take has immediate, practical consequences. Therefore, the question of what constitutes legitimate protest – for the Left or the Right – is one of profound significance.

For us liberals the issues are far more perplexing than they are for conservatives because we consider ourselves defenders of civil disobedience, from whatever ideology it stems.

That being the case, I ask myself: How can I, who as a rabbi vigorously supported the right of refusal to serve in Vietnam – and later, here in Israel, empathized with those in Yesh G’vul who refused to serve in Lebanon – now condemn those rabbis who tell their flock to disobey military orders when it comes to dismantling the settlements in the Gaza Strip?

Further, can I justify lying down in front of a bulldozer to try and stop the IDF from demolishing a Palestinian home in east Jerusalem, and not validate settlers’ forming a human chain to prevent the army from carrying out an evacuation order?

Can I oppose administrative detention for Palestinians, but not for right-wing protesters? Can refusal be justified only as a matter of moral conscience, and not as matter of religious belief?

This would be the height of hypocrisy. After all, we rabbis who stood by those who refused to serve in Vietnam or Lebanon or the territories did so out of religious conviction. The liberal world view says that matters of belief and conscience should rise above national loyalties. Threatening as it is to the delicate fabric of Israeli society – we are a small, vulnerable country surrounded by implacable enemies – the right of refusal to obey an order one feels is illegal or immoral must be safeguarded. It makes no difference whether the reasons for refusal are motivated by secular ethics or Orthodox piety, by democratic considerations or religious inspiration.

Of course, you must take responsibility for your actions; a soldier or citizen who adopts a position of rectitude that leads to defiance of a law adopted in a democratic process must be prepared to face the legal consequences. And acts of violent protest must never be tolerated.

What constitutes an illegal order can often be determined by objective criteria. But defining an immoral order is far more complex.

After the command was given last year to drop a one-ton bomb on a building in the middle of Gaza where the terrorist Salah Shehadah was holed up and 14 innocents, including three children, were killed as well, we liberals denounced the air-strike as an act of moral decadence. However, Shehadah was planning a cyanide attack in Israel.

Suppose he had succeeded and hundreds of Israelis had been killed. Refusing to carry out the order to assassinate him out of moral or religious concerns – even had the pilots known there might be collateral deaths of innocents – would have been an act of moral negligence.

So the lines are often blurred – most certainly in the present environment, when Jew is pitted against Jew.

But there at least needs to be a level of constancy. If those of us in the liberal camp want to occupy the moral high ground when it comes to support for, or condemnation of, any issue on the social or political agenda, fairness must supersede prejudice, principle must supplant politics, and consistency must override selectivity.

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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