IDF soldiers training
Soldiers of the Golani reconnaissance battalion embarking on exercises. Photo by Itzik Ben-Malki
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I’m generally an optimist. And yet, I’m sometimes overtaken, if only fleetingly, by a cloud of doom. I look at the newspaper and see that 400 Israelis, among them leading intellectuals, have signed a petition, urging Israeli fighter pilots to disobey orders if they are asked to attack Iranian nuclear installations.

This petition is the signal of a state and society that are falling apart.

To be a member of a people is to have the ability to overcome our egos, at least to some extent; it is the ability to work as part of a team, and, therefore, not always as the leader. Golda Meir once humorously complained that it’s difficult to lead a country of three million (now about seven million) prime ministers. We all think that we know best. We all think that we have a right to lead. Recall what Korach told Moses, in the Bible (I paraphrase): We’re all holy; after all, we’re a holy nation; so, why do you, Moses, laud yourself over us (Numbers 16:3)?

In a sense, Korach was right. We are all equal. Every human being shares an incorrigible equality of worth and rights. And yet, a nation without leadership structures quickly collapses into chaos. Whenever things get really bad in the Biblical book of Judges we’re directly reminded by the narrator, as if by way of explanation, that, in those days, Israel had no King (e.g. Judges 21:25). As the rabbis put it: Pray for the welfare of the [ruling] kingdom, for were it not for the fear of it, people would swallow one another alive (Avot 3:2). One of the basic struggles of Biblical politics is this very tension between equity and hierarchy. We are all equal, and yet, a nation of seven million prime ministers simply cannot work.

When ultra-Orthodox parties go to the Knesset merely to get the best financial package for their community and to maintain their exemptions from national service; when national religious parties go to the Knesset merely to obstruct any path that could lead toward territorial concessions; then I worry that we are no longer a democracy. We have, instead, become a collection of competing interest groups with no concern for some larger, common good. A state of seven million prime ministers is no longer a state. It’s anarchy.

If the extreme right of the settler movement is correct, and territorial concessions will somehow lead to catastrophic wars in which the Jewish population of Israel will be violently exterminated, then it would only be rational for a soldier to disobey certain orders. Likewise, if these 400 petitioners are right, and an attack on Iran will bring about devastating consequences that far outweigh any possible motivation for the attack, then it would be rational for Israeli pilots to heed this petition and to disobey any orders to the contrary.

And yet, what would become of our state if every single citizen were to play the role of executive decision maker? We citizens cannot perform a cost-benefit analysis of a strike on Iran because we’re not privy to all of the data. Eventually, we’re going to have to trust people who are in the know. Without that modicum of trust, a state cannot function. Are our leaders trustworthy in this regard? I’m not sure. But, if they’re not, we’re doubly doomed: doomed if we don’t trust them, and doomed if we do.

A healthy society holds its government to account with popular protests, an official parliamentary opposition, a free press, and, in extreme circumstances, civil disobedience. But, in normal situations, none of these jobs are for the army. I recognize that, under Israeli law, a soldier has an obligation to disobey an immoral order. But an order to attack Iran so as to stop it from destroying us is not an immoral order. At worst, it is just wrongheaded. We could judge it to be based upon faulty appraisals of Iranian behaviour and intentions. We could judge it to have consequences that are worse than any likely success. But are those judgements for the pilots to make? Isn’t that what the government is for? And, if the government is wrong, isn’t it our responsibility, rather than that of the pilots, to hold them to account?

Rabbi Moti Elon is now, rightfully, a figure of great controversy, with serious allegations of sexual harassment hanging over him like a dark cloud. But I remember a remarkable thing that he said as Israel was pulling settlers out of Gaza. I paraphrase his words, addressed to his students in the army: It is my job, as a citizen, to protest against harmful Israeli policies. If need be I will engage in civil disobedience and face the consequences. But, as soldiers, it is your job to follow orders. If you disobey, then you disengage yourself from the state, and disengagement is, after all, what we’re trying to fight against.

There is wisdom in those words.

Those who believe that a strike on Iran would be a perilous misadventure should do everything they can to lobby and agitate against such a policy. That’s the role of the citizen. The role of the army, on the other hand, is to carry out the policies of the government that the citizens elect. If we become a state of seven million prime ministers, then we cease to be a state.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.