The Dissenters Are Israel's Citizen Heroes

The debate over disobedience and its boundaries, and about democracy and its limits, is reduced, among us, to the military sphere exclusively. That is a mistake.

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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A Unit 8200 intelligence soldier at work.
A Unit 8200 intelligence soldier at work. Credit: Moti Milrod
Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

We must never, but never, give up. One may not surrender even when the forces of evil seem like they are gathering strength and power, and the forces of good are in shamed retreat. Enormous, herculean strength is not always required to defeat the well-oiled, powerful machine. Sometimes all it takes is the courage of a few individuals – like the alumni of Unit 8200.

Discussion about their letter ought to go far beyond the act itself. It touches two very sensitive places in Israel: the place of the army, and that of conscience, in our lives. The bottom line, as of now, is that the army takes up a place in our lives that is too large, even total, while almost no room is left here for conscience. That is why the disobedience of the intelligence and surveillance troops contributes something toward a different balance in the equation of Israelis’ lives: less militarism and more conscience.

I am in favor of disobedience, on the right and the left, for reasons of morality and conscience. This is because a society that has no ability to contain the conscience of the individual is doomed to become a society with no conscience at all. Let the governments of Israel know that there is a boundary beyond which the fiction known as consent cannot be stretched. For this reason, even as the coalition and the opposition join in sweeping condemnation of their courageous civil act, I wish to add my support to them and to their letter.

Every country is justified in keeping a defensive army, and intelligence units are an inseparable part of this military act. The same people who signed the letter deserve credit for thwarting many plots, and many lives have been saved thanks to their fellow soldiers. But, as expected and as is well known, not everything in the dark kingdom is legitimate. It seems that the situation in which they are required to work has become utterly intolerable, compelling them to rise up and act.

A soldier serving in the intelligence branch, like any citizen who is anxious over the future of his community and his place, needs to take part in the defensive operations. But no government may make cynical and sweeping use of these citizens’ willingness to sacrifice their lives just to avoid making painful national decisions – or even worse, hide behind the army and its troops to commit political acts that run utterly counter to the good of those citizens.

The lines are clear: defense of life and protecting what is vital and existential – yes! And anything beyond that – absolutely not!

Here in Israel, we love to cling to the idea that “the Israeli army is the most moral army on earth.” I have no idea who the control group was or how one compares the morality of armies. To me, it is a hollow statement because the army is only a tool. It is not an ethical tractate, a policy or an ideology. The army is nothing but a weapon in the hands of the political leadership.

The problems in the Israeli army are not the embarrassing deviations that come to our attention on occasion, nor even the transition that happened to all of us: from a defensive army to an occupying one. The army cannot be the most moral in the world when the policy that guides it is absolutely immoral. The problem is not with the troops or their commanding officers. The problem is the political leadership that gives them their orders.

Is there anybody here who is willing to stand up and state that Israel’s policy is the most moral in the world? That is doubtful. As long as the alternatives to occupation and oppression exist, are available and rejected, there is no justification at all in participating in an act that is a crime against peace, in the oppression of a people for nothing. The act of disobedience is therefore a legitimate civil act that seeks, by taking personal responsibility, to convey a message that is sharp and clear: There is a limit to deception, and there must also be a limit to the malicious governments that have been taken over by the forces of occupation and settlement.

The debate over disobedience and its boundaries, and about democracy and its limits, is reduced, among us, to the military sphere exclusively. That is a mistake. It is wrong to put Israel’s entire burden of moral responsibility on the shoulders of young men and women who have only begun their lives as citizens. Disobedience should be much broader: Let the judges in the military courts disobey. Let the senior and junior clerks disobey. Let the teachers, sanitation workers, mail carriers and dock workers disobey. Each person can disobey a little wherever he is. They can delay a decision, stop action from being taken, let the public know of the injustice that he or she is being asked to commit.

The more Israelis, as individuals or in groups, refuse to continue the disregard, apathy and euphoria of the occupation’s injustice, the better it will be for us, because the one who disobeys is the best and most moral kind of citizen in any society.

Anna Quangel, the bereaved mother in Hans Fallada’s novel “Every Man Dies Alone,” wonders whether one postcard of protest will be enough. Her husband, Otto, hopes that their postcards will give other people the idea of writing similar ones, so that in the end there will be dozens and hundreds of people sitting and writing, flooding Berlin with postcards and so bringing an end to the war. But in another place in that same painful, courageous and universal novel, the question is asked: “And you really think it’ll bring results? Your little bunch and this bloody great machine ...”

“First of all, we’re not a little bunch, as you put it. Every decent German, and there are still two or three million of them, will make common cause with us. They just need to overcome their fear. At the moment, their fear of the future the Nazis are creating is still less than their fear of the present. But that will change before too long ...”

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