Laws That Bind - or Not

Anat Kamm's story is one of insubordination.

Anat Kamm's statement to interrogators that she took secret documents with the objective of exposing some of the injustices of the occupation in the West Bank does not leave any more room for doubt: This is not some silly girl who did not know what she was doing, as she was portrayed initially. Her story is one of insubordination. A newly published book contains an article that contends that insubordination is the primary political idea that Judaism has contributed to Western culture.

The book, "Mahshavot al Demokratia Yehudit" ("Thoughts on Jewish Democracy," edited by Benny Porat, with Aviezer Ravitzky), was published by the Israel Democracy Institute. The article suggesting that insubordination is a central element in Jewish political thought is interesting mainly because of its author, Dr. Yoram Hazony - director of the Institute for Philosophy, Political Theory and Religion at the Shalem Center, one of the last bastions of American-style neo-conservatism. Previous employees of the Shalem Center have included Natan Sharansky, today the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Michael Oren, Israel's current ambassador to Washington, and others affiliated with right-wing politics in Israel. Hazony himself worked for a time with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most of the evidence Hazony brings to substantiate his theory is taken from the Bible. He cites a series of challenges to God's directives (stories involving Abraham, Moses and others), incidents involving rebellion and acts of disobedience committed for reasons of conscience.

For example, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill any male child born to the Hebrews - but the midwives did not comply, for fear of God. And the prophet Balaam refused to obey Balak, king of Moab, declaring: "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God" (Numbers 22:18). Balaam's donkey saw that its master's life was in danger; Balaam did not see the danger, and beat the beast. Hazony writes: "The lesson of the story is that the ruler who is afflicted with blindness, because he is used to being obeyed, might sometimes not notice that the path he has chosen is wrong and leads to destruction, even though the matter is obvious to any donkey. In a situation like that even the lowliest of servants is entitled and obligated to disobey ..."

King Saul's subjects rebelled when he ordered the execution of his son, Jonathan, and Jonathan himself disobeyed Saul's order to kill David. When Jeremiah thought that Jerusalem was about to be ruined because of the destructive policies of Zedekiah's government, he called for people to break the law and shift their alliance to the Babylonian enemy. Furthermore, a series of important figures, from Daniel to Mordechai, win praise in the Bible for their refusal to obey an order that would violate the strictures of their faith. This was also the context for the Maccabean rebellion and the Jewish War against the Romans.

Here then, Hazony contends, is evidence of a clear Jewish position: A country's laws can only be binding when they are just. When they are not just, a Jew and every other person must act contrary to the law according to his conscience. Hazony also ascribes to "the prophets" the role fulfilled by our modern media: "to critique the state, to expose corruption, to encourage the public to oppose unjust laws and acts of government."

Scholarly literature generally tends to find the origins of acts of refusal in Greek culture. Wrong, Hazony says: Western culture got the principle of disobedience from Christianity, which borrowed it from Judaism.