How Easy It Is to Follow Orders, How Hard to Refuse

It's inconceivable that conscientious objectors have to explain themselves while those who shot and killed 60 Palestinian demonstrators don't

Moria Shlomot
Moria Shlomot
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Israeli soldiers are seen stationed near the border with Gaza during mass protests along the fence, April 20, 2018.
Israeli soldiers are seen stationed near the border with Gaza during mass protests along the fence, April 20, 2018.Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP
Moria Shlomot
Moria Shlomot

I recently paid a visit as a lawyer to Ayelet Brachfeld, a conscientious objector who has been in military prison for more than 70 days over her refusal to be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. When I arrived, Ayelet was just writing her application to the committee that would soon review her case and decide whether she was “worthy” of an exemption from the army for reasons of conscience. (This only applies if her refusal is found to apply unqualifiedly rather than selectively, and that her worldview is found to be pacifist).

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Ayelet read me the arguments that she was making to the committee. With skill and sincerity, she laid out her young, wise and refreshing philosophy – linking her veganism, care for animals and the planet to her refusal to serve in an army that is carrying out a policy that harms, subverts and denies the freedom of millions of people.

Last Monday Ayelet once again reported to the induction center and was again tried and sent to prison for 30 more days, bringing her time in military incarceration to 100 days. Following the sentencing, Ayelet wrote these words: “While I was waiting for my trial here, 42 civilians were killed. I hope my refusal and that of others will help stop this senseless killing, and I am more certain than ever that it’s better for me to be in jail than to take part in this system of bloodshed.”

Ayelet, like other conscientious objectors, must formulate and conceptualize the action she has chosen. While reading books, she sits and thinks about how to present the public and the conscientious objection committee with the worldview that has led her to refuse induction. As she writes, she has already been asking herself weighty questions about solidarity, the limits of obedience and the various ways to contribute to the country and to society. She ponders critical opinions and tries to totally address them, even if it is complicated.

Unlike Ayelet, most young people “called to the flag” are not required to ask themselves why they are taking the steps they are taking, and they are certainly not required to give an accounting to anyone. If every male and female 18-year-old were required to state one way or another in a few paragraphs why they decided to act as they have, it seems to me that we would be presented with a very different reality. If each of them would have to take full responsibility for their actions, I think a great deal of bloodshed would be spared.

How easy it is to follow orders, to go with the flow, to give in to public opinion without asking ourselves basic questions about our role in creating reality. The killing of 60 unarmed civilians on the Gaza border and continued control over another people are matters over which everyone should take an active position. It is inconceivable that people who go against the grain should have to explain themselves while people whose default way of life does not include asking questions can avoid asking why they have chosen – yes, chosen – to report to the army, to be drafted, to obey, shoot, kill, and suffer their whole lives from repressed torment.

The occupation, indiscriminate killing and denial of human rights are not a divine edict. Each of us lives in a realm where, by our actions or inactions, we permit these acts. Ayelet is not the only one who should offer explanations. Ayelet is not the only one who should take action in accordance with her conscience, action that is reasoned and substantiated. On the contrary, let those who fired at 60 demonstrators explain to us, the public, in their own words, with the imagery that they find, with the assistance of thinkers of their choosing, why they have acted as they have. For God’s sake, let those who are compliant squirm and explain their reasoning and take responsibility.

Moria Shlomot, a lawyer, is the former director of Peace Now.