The First Refusenik

Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

Despite the sweltering heat and the distress of war, the courtroom was completely full on Monday, August 30, 1948. Joseph Abileah sat by himself on the defendants' bench in the Supreme Court of the recruiting center in Haifa and listened calmly to the judge's remarks. In a small bag at his feet were his washing kit, pajamas and books. The 33-year-old violinist was prepared to go to prison. The following day Haaretz reported that "a Jewish disciple of Abdullah is refusing to be drafted for reasons of conscience."

Abileah did not use the services of a lawyer. "If I plan to tell the truth, why do I need my own lawyer?" he asked his father, Ephraim, a well-known Haifa piano merchant. Abileah read his defense statement from his notes, relates Anthony Bing in his biography "Israeli Pacifist: The Life of Joseph Abileah" (Syracuse University Press, 1990). He rhetorically asked himself how he could stand by while the nation was in danger, even at the moment of its birth and while others were dying so he could live in safety.

And he replied to his own question, setting forth his worldview at length, a mixture of "Ghandism without the nationalistic component" and Albert Schweitzer's philosophy of respect for life. Abileah spoke about music and nature inundating all his senses. He spoke at length about his travels, undertaken to become familiar with the land and its inhabitants, travels that brought him close to the Arabs and distanced him from Zionism. The first pacifist conscientious objector to make headlines concluded that he could not participate in military actions against people (Arabs) whom he viewed as his brothers.

In the summer of 1947, his memorandum to the United Nations investigating committee discussing the question of the land of Israel made headlines for Abileah for the first time. In it, he warned that only its annexation to the Kingdom of Jordan, under the enlightened rule of King Abdullah, could prevent a bloody conflict between Arabs and Jews that would have disastrous consequences. He reported extensively on his correspondence with the king, which discussed, among other things, plans for water distribution and joint development of the Dead Sea. Abileah's efforts to further the union of the two banks of the Jordan River distanced him from the Brith Shalom group, headed by Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who preferred a binational state in all the areas of Palestine - the land of Israel.

The defendant wound up his statement with the story of an encounter with an Arab on the outskirts of the village of Umm al-Fahm during the course of a hike with his younger brother Binyamin. Joseph passed away 11 years ago, at the age of 79. Binyamin, a Foreign Ministry pensioner and a volunteer in the international cooperation division, clearly remembers the large monkey wrench the Arab was holding. The man cast alarmed glances at the knapsack on Joseph's back. "What do you have in there? A bomb?" he asked. The older brother pulled out a sandwich, extended his hand to the Arab and said in Arabic, "Please have some, brother."

A tolerant verdict

One of the judges of the draft board's court asked whether the defendant believed that the entire Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) could act the way he did. To this Abileah replied that others lacked the profound belief in nonviolence, and therefore they had to bear arms. Those who are fighting the Arabs are not doing it for his sake, but rather for an abstract entity called "the state."

The emotional speech, apparently, did not convince the public prosecutor. Attorney J. Halevi said Abileah was a draft-dodger who enjoyed the state's services and the security afforded to him by others who defend it. He asked the judges to deal with him with all the severity of the law, as an example to others. The verdict was brief. The judges warned that the defendant's path was mistaken and could, God forbid, if many followed it, bring down disaster on the nation. The court disapproved of Abileah's refusal even to carry out missions that did not involve the use of force and were not contrary to his "conscience", and this at a time when the nation was fighting for its life. "It is only by the great bravery of our fighters and soldiers that the defendant, his wife and his children can remain alive and that he can continue his regular way of living here in this situation," the court wrote.

Despite these harsh words, and even though the young state was fighting for its life, the judges wrote that since the whole nation, except for a small minority, realized the situation, they could allow themselves to treat with utmost tolerance single cases of erring people. The court fined the defendant 50 pounds on probation. The condition was that Abileah report within one week to the army intake base to perform non-combat duties in sanitation, for example, essential aid and the like. They ordered that the defendant be exempted from the use of weapons and military training. Abileah rejected the arrangement, stating that as far as he was concerned, a soldier serving in a non-combat role is like a scout whose role is to warn burglars of the policeman's approach. He warned that if they made him a telephone operator, he would not put through to its destination any information that could lead to violence.

The judges sent Abileah to a medical board. At the end of a series of medical examinations the doctor in charge looked at him, muttered "Oh, you're Abileah?" and without bothering to glance at the opinion, stamped "Unfit" on his health form. Abileah threw the document into the trash can. However, the military authorities did not bother him until 1956. Then he was found fit for service and it was agreed that he would be assigned a civilian position, but a series of postponements brought him to the age of retirement from reserve duty.

His parents did not attend the trial, but according to Binyamin, his brother Joseph's refusal to serve, a rare phenomenon in those days of a consensual war, did not damage the family's social standing. Joseph did not preach to others, even his brothers, to follow in his footsteps. Binyamin was drafted a few months before Joseph's trial began and served in besieged Jerusalem, alongside their eldest brother, Aharon, who attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Communications Corps. Their brother Avshalom had served in the British Army. Eventually, Joseph's two sons and his daughter were also conscripted. Binyamin recalls that Joseph was disappointed by his elder son's decision to enlist and for a while did not open the letters he sent from the army. His daughter, Efrat Lifshitz, a professor of physics at the Technion, relates that their father forbade her and her brothers to participate in the activities of the Gadna Youth Corps when they were in school. In consideration of his feelings, she asked to serve as a soldier-teacher.

Legal efforts

In a comprehensive article published in "The Refuseniks' Trials," (Babel Publishing House, 2004), veteran refusenik Prof. Gadi Algazi notes that the 1948 Trial Law, which served as the temporary legal framework for the army's activity, included a provision that enabled judges to mete out lenient punishments to soldiers for acts they committed or refrained from committing - if they did so for reasons of conscience. A year after Abileah's trial, the Knesset began to discuss a new security service law. It was MK Zorah Wahrhaftig, a leader of Hapoel Hamizrahi (forerunner of today's National Religious Party), who proposed leniency in punishing a soldier who commits an offense for reasons of conscience, allowing the military courts to exempt him entirely from responsibility for the offense. MK Yaakov Riftin of Mapam (a forerunner of Meretz) proposed recognizing "justification for reasons of defending honor and conscience" of an act by a soldier "in order to defend his human honor or his freedom of conscience and his views." Both proposals were rejected.

Five years later, with the submission of a new formulation of the Military Trial Law, the freedom of conscience provision was eliminated. MK Yitzhak Rafael, also of Hapoel Hamizrahi, began his speech in the Knesset with congratulations for the release of conscientious objector Amnon Zichroni and proposed reinstating the conscience provision and instituting civilian service for pacifists. No one could have imagined that 50 years later, extremist clerics and their messianic flocks would invoke freedom of conscience and human dignity in order to impose "God's will" on soldiers.

Prof. Lifshitz finds an immense difference between the constructive refusal to serve of her father, who devoted his life to preventing bloodshed, and the destructive refusal by the right and the Jewish settlers in the territories.

"My father walked up the stairs on tiptoe, so as not to disturb the neighbors' rest," says Lifshitz. "When we formed our own opinions, he did not try to force his beliefs on us and taught us that the principle that every individual should live by his own beliefs can be realized only if your belief does not cause harm to the other and to society. Today we are witnessing wild incitement by people and the preaching of beliefs that are perhaps entirely foreign to many people. If thousands follow them, they will lead to total chaos."

Lifshitz is proud of her father and feels blessed with values she absorbed from him and that she and her husband are passing on to their children. She believes the most important value of all is the need to accept public responsibility. At present her son, the grandson of Joseph Abileah, decided recently, after careful consideration, to enlist in an elite unit.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer

Newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, poses for a group picture alongside Rabbi Yonatan Szewkis, Chilean deputy Helia Molina and Gerardo Gorodischer, during a religious ceremony in a synagogue in Vina del Mar, Chile last week.

Chile Community Leaders 'Horrified' by Treatment of Israeli Envoy

Queen Elizabeth attends a ceremony at Windsor Castle, in June 2021.

Over 120 Countries, but Never Israel: Queen Elizabeth II's Unofficial Boycott