What Makes Refusal Legitimate?

Not all refusals are equivalent. Their motives are obviously different, but the sharpest contrast is in the rhetoric and the actions both sides use.

Dahlia Scheindlin
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Dahlia Scheindlin

With settler leaders now advocating refusal of military orders, do the far left and the far right suddenly share a common cause? Or do they highlight each other's mutual illegitimacy? Both claim the moral high ground, both are crying foul. The fashionable solution has been to condemn refusal on both sides.

Not all refusals, however, are equivalent. Their motives are obviously different, but the sharpest contrast is in the rhetoric and the actions both sides use.

While both involve insubordination, refusal by left-wingers to serve in the territories breaks a law to avoid violating international human rights and civilian rights. Refusal to dismantle settlements is also insubordination, but it's aimed at undermining legislation passed by Israel's government: the disengagement and evacuation- compensation laws.

Some settlers argue that "transferring" them from their homes is illegal because it violates their civil rights, thus their refusal is legitimate. But the word "transfer" is misleading. Transfer of Palestinians would involve an occupying power uprooting a people with no self-determination, while settlers will be evacuated by their democratically elected government.

Democracies do make mistakes and citizens have the right to civil disobedience. But resorting to such action also carries a grave responsibility. How it is done may be just as important as why it is done.

To use the potentially explosive tool of refusal effectively, while causing the least damage, certain terms need to be met. Refusal challenges the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Refuseniks need to demonstrate acceptance of those institutions in all other matters to preserve their legitimacy. Next, refuseniks should take full responsibility for their actions - undergoing a deeply personal, decision-making process that should be as free and independent as possible. Finally, civil disobedience should never include violence.

The methods of those settlers encouraging refusal do not meet these terms, and that is why they endanger Israeli democracy more than those supporting refusal on the left. The main groups among the latter - Yesh Gvul and Courage to Refuse - bend over backward to affirm support of state institutions.

The "Combatants' Letter" of Courage to Refuse includes a commitment to serve "in any mission that serves Israel's defense." It targets a policy, not the army or any other institution. The Israel Bar Association wrote that refusal to serve in the territories is not rejection of the law because the refusenik has exhausted all means within the law: asking not to serve there, standing trial and accepting judgment.

Right-wing refusenik David Matar declares: "This insane order is patently illegal .... Every soldier, Jew or non-Jew, should adamantly refuse to obey." He then slams other state bodies: "This remains true even if 1,000 `disengagement' laws are passed by all Knesset members, with the combined sanction of a popular referendum, Israel's Supreme Court, the UN." So much for preserving the legitimacy of democratic institutions.

The public statement of Asaf Oron, a signatory of the 2002 combatants' letter, describes ongoing emotional turmoil and three reserve stints in the territories: "Why didn't I refuse outright? I don't know. It was partly the pressure to conform, partly the political process that gave us a glimmer of hope that the whole occupation business would be over soon." He expresses trust in political institutions, but ultimately decides to refuse, explaining that "no one but me will have to look [my children] in the eye. This time I was not going."

It is hard to believe that soldiers opposed to settlement evacuation are undergoing a similarly wrenching process. Supporters of refusal within the settler community have launched a massive, sophisticated campaign to persuade others to refuse. They have made refusal socially acceptable in their community, they have made it easy. What's more, the campaign calls on people not only to support them, but to join them in breaking the law.

When it comes to personal responsibility, perhaps the most offensive blow was that delivered by former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, who issued a call for refusal along with 60 other Haredi rabbis. Thousands look to them for guidance. Those who refuse because they are following Shapira's directive are abandoning all personal accountability; someone else decides for them.

Finally, the most stunning difference between left and right is the settlers' threat of force if the evacuation proceeds. Last week, a halakhic ruling by Rabbi Avraham Auerbach stated that settlers are allowed to strike soldiers. Many on the right have spoken out and repudiated violence, but incitement against the elected government continues. Refusal on the left has never been accompanied by threats - overt or latent - of violence.

Dahlia Scheindlin is an international political consultant and public opinion analyst based in Tel Aviv.




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