Voices of Conscience in Israel

Voices of Conscience in Israel

Why do patriotic members of an elite combat unit refuse to serve in the occupied territories?


An Israeli soldier stands beside a tank in Avivim near the Israel-Lebanon border May 23, 2010. REUTERS/Baz Ratner 

This article is adapted from Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

It is among the most famous acts of resistance in history. In July 1846, Henry David Thoreau left his shingled cottage near Walden Pond to visit a cobbler’s shop in Concord, Massachusetts. On the way he bumped into Sam Staples, the local constable, who was responsible for collecting the poll tax assessed on all male adults in the town between the ages of 20 and 70. Thoreau, then 29, hadn’t paid the tax for years and, owing to certain personal convictions, wasn’t about to. “Henry, if you don’t pay, I shall have to lock you up pretty soon,” said Staples. “As well now as any time,” replied Thoreau.

Thoreau was taken to the county jail and released the next morning, after someone, probably his Aunt Maria, heard what had happened and dropped off money on his behalf, for which some people might have been grateful. Not Thoreau, who, a year and a half later, appeared at the Concord Lyceum to deliver a lecture explaining why, had it been up to him, he might have settled in for a longer stay. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” he proclaimed. Refusing to pay taxes in a country that tolerated slavery and had recently launched an unjust war on Mexico was not a crime but a moral obligation, Thoreau insisted. Published in 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government,” his fiery speech attracted little notice at first. It would later appear under a more familiar title, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” and become one of the best-known ruminations on the subject of dissent ever written.

Thoreau’s essay has often been read as a stirring ode to nonconformists who put conscience above the letter of the law and the will of the majority. Yet for all his militancy, the author of “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” did not call on his fellow citizens to come together to end slavery. Rather, he sought to avoid its taint. “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong,” wrote Thoreau. “He may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”

Many decades after Thoreau drew this distinction, Hannah Arendt cited it to highlight a distinction of her own. Thoreau’s words underscored the difference between the “good citizen,” who was concerned with improving conditions in society, and the “good man,” who was preoccupied with maintaining his own moral purity. While good citizens waded into the messy world of politics, where absolute justice invariably proved elusive, good men saw politics as an expression of personal morality and little else. They could afford to be purists, Arendt argued, since the only test that mattered was whether they’d been true to their own subjective sense of right and wrong. Thoreau did not pretend otherwise. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” he wrote. “I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society.”

It is a bracingly uncompromising worldview. But if this is all that saying no entails, what, beyond salving one’s own conscience, comes of it? If one person’s subjective values can be invoked to break the law and resist government, why can’t another, radically different set of convictions be invoked as well? How do we judge someone who claims to act according to what he thinks is right? What if we don’t agree with his principles? What is to stop the principled defiance of a “good man” from being emulated by a dangerous fanatic?

* * *

During the course of his upbringing in Israel, Avner Wishnitzer gave little thought to the duty of resisting his government. He was far more concerned with the duty of serving it. At the age of 10, Avner sat at home leafing through a photo album of the 1967 Six-Day War: Mirage jets streaking through the sky, portraits of Israeli generals, soldiers trekking through the Sinai Desert. The pictures made war seem glamorous, and filled Avner with a desire to be like those soldiers: strong, dust-coated, valiant. They also heightened his unease about what he saw in the mirror—a gangly weakling with a scrawny build.

This would have been a potential source of insecurity for many 10-year-old boys. It was especially trying for one at Kvutzat Shiller, the kibbutz in central Israel where, in 1976, Avner was born. Founded forty-nine years earlier, the kibbutz had grown into a tight-knit community of several hundred families. By the 1980s, the utopian socialism that inspired its founders had grown a bit obsolete, but a spirit of collective purpose still suffused the air, and Avner soaked it up. He came to like working in the fragrant citrus orchards, where young people were required to spend one day a week doing manual labor, and to internalize the idea that virtue was measured by what a person contributed to society, nowhere more so than on the battlefield. The residents of Kvutzat Shiller were leftists who voted for the Labor Party, but they were also patriots who’d long taken pride in serving with distinction in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—the more elite the unit, the better.

Things did not look promising for Avner on this front: he was too sensitive, too meek. But, as his parents soon discovered, he also had an indomitable will. At 14, Avner poked his head into the exercise room on the kibbutz one day, where a visitor from Korea was teaching a tae kwon do class. He took the class, and came home to tell his mother he’d found an engrossing new hobby. She laughed, “Yeah, yeah, you’re gonna quit in a month.” Instead of quitting, Avner turned the hobby into an obsession. He got a blue belt, then a red belt. Three years later, he was anointed the junior national tae kwon do champion in his weight class.

Avner was no longer a weakling, and he was soon invited to compete for something else: a place in the ranks of Sayeret Matkal, a k a The Unit, the most elite commando force in the Israeli army. Famous for operations like the 1976 hostage rescue in Entebbe, Uganda, The Unit was also known for a grueling training regimen, a reputation Avner discovered was well deserved. Solo navigation exercises through the desert at night, nonstop physical and mental drills: the more punishing the battery of tests became, the more he hated it. Yet as his mother could have predicted by now, he was not about to quit. Like his father, a former paratrooper, he wanted to risk his life for a country where ambivalence about military service was often perceived as an unaffordable luxury, if not an inexcusable vice. An idealist who longed for moral clarity, Avner had no ambivalence.

* * *

Avner served in Sayeret Matkal for nearly three and a half years. After being discharged he returned to Kvutzat Shiller, where he worked in the citrus groves while enrolling at Tel Aviv University. One day, his older sister Tamar, a filmmaker, invited him to a lecture. Avner went to the talk, taking a seat in the back. The lights dimmed, and some slides were shown—cisterns filled with stones, damaged agricultural equipment, burned wheat and barley fields. This was the South Hebron Hills, a lawyer said, an area of the West Bank inhabited by Palestinians who were being routinely harassed by Jewish settlers seeking to drive them off the land.

A right-wing soldier educated at a yeshiva might have dismissed the lecture out of hand. But Avner was not such a soldier. He was a liberal Zionist who had entered the army convinced that the 1993 Oslo peace agreement meant Israel would soon be leaving the West Bank. As the images flashed by, Avner fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair. Afterward, he decided to take a closer look, joining a convoy on a mission to deliver some blankets to a group of Palestinian farmers from the same area. The car he was in headed toward Susiya, a village south of Hebron, but pulled to a stop at a barricade where some settlers had blocked the road. A throng of Israeli police officers had also descended on the makeshift roadblock and set up a barricade of their own. “This is a closed military zone, and you’re breaking the law if you enter!” one of them blared through a megaphone.

Some of the activists clambered out of their vehicles and started marching forward anyway. Avner lingered in back. He’d never broken the law in his life, and when he saw the police start clubbing the marchers, he felt paralyzed by fear. He also felt unnerved by the cheekiness of the activists on the receiving end of their blows. Why were these troublemakers provoking conflict, he thought? If the security forces—our security forces—were resorting to force, he figured they probably had good reason.

Had it been up to Avner, the marchers would have turned around and gone home. Instead, they pressed on, and the soldiers eventually let those who hadn’t gotten arrested continue. Avner joined the procession that straggled to Susiya. They arrived around dusk to meet their hosts, shepherds in tattered robes who lived in tents and caves, scratching out a meager existence from barren hills dotted with parched vegetation and desert blooms. As Avner strolled around, the fear he’d felt before receded, and a profound sense of shame washed over him.

One might think that a soldier in the IDF would have grown inured to such feelings from manning checkpoints in the West Bank. But members of Sayeret Matkal weren’t assigned such tasks. Other than a few months of basic training years earlier, Avner had never served in the occupied territories. Before Susiya, he’d also never spoken directly to Palestinians. The settler violence they described shocked him, though he still wasn’t prepared to believe that the army—his army—would knowingly allow innocent people to be mistreated this way.

But if the IDF’s authority extended over such areas, why weren’t the settlers responsible held accountable? Or simply restrained? In search of answers to these questions, Avner began crossing the Green Line more regularly, and the more he saw, the deeper into disillusionment he sank. He soon organized a bus trip to the scene of another incursion, a gently sloping field where settlers had hacked up hundreds of olive trees that belonged to Palestinians. As in Susiya, the army arrived to cordon off the area. This time, Avner was in front, face to face with a young officer. As their eyes met, he felt a flash of recognition, as though he were looking into the mirror. He wanted to engage the officer as a comrade, to let him know he was not some yafeh nefesh—the Hebrew expression for “beautiful soul,” which in Israel connotes being naïve—but a kindred spirit. Instead, he found himself staring at a clutch of video cameras—the troops began recording the altercation, as a band of settlers stood in the near distance, gloating. Avner shuffled back to the bus with a sinking feeling, realizing that the soldier in whom he’d seen his reflection was just following orders, just doing his job.

In some respects, the awakening Avner felt himself undergoing was familiar, even predictable: a liberal Zionist raised on a kibbutz completes his military service, attends a lecture, goes to the territories and begins to register qualms about Israeli power. But Avner was not just any ex-reservist—he was a member of Sayeret Matkal who still performed regular reserve duty and counted its members among his closest friends. His awakening to the plight of Palestinians also coincided with the eruption of the second intifada, the uprising that began in the fall of 2000, after the failure of the Camp David peace summit. The collapse of negotiations, followed by an escalating spiral of violence, including a grisly wave of suicide bombings, all but eliminated the space for dissent in Israel, and eventually led Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to order Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, a massive incursion into the West Bank in which 20,000 soldiers were mobilized to serve.

One of those soldiers was a friend of Avner’s from Sayeret Matkal named Moshe Vardi. Like most people, Moshe hadn’t doubted the need for Defensive Shield. But he’d assumed it would lead, eventually, to a resumption of talks. Instead, a consensus had emerged that there was nobody to talk to because Israel’s generosity had been answered with terror. Moshe had gone with Avner on the trip to see the desecrated olive grove, witnessing how little generosity many Palestinians experienced in their daily lives. Now Moshe told him that several other members of their unit who shared their misgivings were thinking of informing their commanders that they—the IDF’s finest—would refuse to serve in the occupied territories ever again. Moshe was considering joining them, and had called to see if Avner might want to as well.

During the first few decades of Israel’s existence, few soldiers came close to reaching this point. For the generation of Israelis who grew up in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the army was an almost sacred institution, a symbol of collective virtue that inspired unshakable loyalty and trust. Even after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a joint attack by Syria and Egypt that shattered the IDF’s aura of infallibility, most Israelis placed undeviating faith in commanders they assumed would put their lives at risk only when the nation’s survival was at stake.

Then, on June 6, 1982, Israel launched Operation Peace for Galilee, an invasion of Lebanon whose stated purpose was to defend the country from Palestinian guerrillas. The real aim, it quickly became clear, was to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon and install a puppet regime there. One of the officers dispatched to the front lines was Eli Geva, a colonel who led his brigade on a sweep up the coast to Beirut, at which point he abruptly resigned, telling his superiors, “I don’t have the heart to look bereaved parents in the eye and tell them their sons died in an operation I felt was unnecessary.” He was not alone. By the end of the war, roughly 160 Israeli soldiers had chosen to go to prison rather than serve in a military campaign they had come to oppose.

The spirit of Thoreau had reached the Holy Land, eventually prompting some defiant soldiers to form a group called Yesh Gvul (There Is a Limit). In the late 1980s, hundreds more began refusing to serve in the occupied territories during the first intifada, a popular uprising that many Israelis concluded was justified. The refuseniks were often pilloried as traitors and radicals, but they rarely looked the part. Many were decorated combat veterans who took seriously the army’s claim to upholding high ethical standards, which is part of what made them so threatening.

Yet as time wore on, some soldiers found more discreet ways to avoid service, sometimes by obtaining a note from a psychologist declaring them unfit for combat duty, other times through a practice known as “gray refusal.” As Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev explained to me, “A soldier tells his commander, ‘Look, I really don’t want to serve in the territories; I won’t do it.’ The commander says, ‘OK, don’t worry, in this unit you’ll spend all your time sitting at this desk.’ Then he calls his superior and says, ‘Listen, I have one strange guy here; he doesn’t want to serve in the territories. Let’s keep it quiet.’”

In a small country bound together by a powerful collectivist ethos, the desire of such soldiers to keep a low profile was hardly surprising. But if opting out merely cleared the way for less conflicted soldiers to take one’s place, what, in the end, would it accomplish? The “oldest charge” leveled against conscientious objectors was “the charge of irresponsibility,” noted Hannah Arendt. And in her view the accusation was often warranted, since conscience “is not primarily interested in the world where the wrong is committed or in the consequences that the wrong will have for the future course of the world. It does not say, with Jefferson, ‘I tremble for my country…’ because it trembles for the individual self and its integrity.”

* * *

After fielding the phone call from Moshe Vardi, Avner didn’t need to hear the arguments against refusal; they were already deeply ingrained in his own mind. “You cannot overestimate the power of the reservations I felt within me to this kind of act,” he told me over coffee one day. We were seated in a patch of shade at a cafe in Jerusalem with outdoor tables. Tall and lean, with close-cropped black hair and an intense, slightly brooding manner, Avner wore a frayed Sonic Youth T-shirt, gray shorts and sandals. His voice was low and deep, and when he spoke his thoughts unspooled slowly and deliberately, in the manner of someone who has studied a matter from every possible angle before deciding what to do. He told me that after speaking to Moshe about the possibility of refusal, he had no idea what to do, and his uncertainty persisted through the meetings that he and a handful of other soldiers began to attend, emotionally draining sessions that often dragged on late into the night. “I was torn,” he said. “I was suffering, really. Hesitating. We had endless discussions: What are the consequences? What will it do? What will people in our unit say?”

When Avner entered the army, he swore an oath of loyalty to his country and his commanders. All Israeli soldiers recite such a pledge at their induction ceremonies, but the bonds forged in Sayeret Matkal were particularly intense. The team leader he’d trained under was “something of a father figure” to him, he told me, the person who’d guided him through the bruising trials that candidates underwent. Avner had enormous respect for him. He also respected the view of his actual father, Rafi, who’d spent many years doing reserve duty in the Gaza Strip, even though he believed Israel should have withdrawn from the territory immediately after the 1967 war. “He said, ‘We protest—we vote, but we don’t do these things through the army,’” said Avner.

It was a position Avner took seriously. Like most Israelis, he’d grown up believing the oath of loyalty was absolute. Yet he’d also begun to think about the fact that, through all the years his father had served, the settlements kept growing. If this were merely misguided, a shortsighted policy that gave rise to the occasional abuse, disobedience was clearly excessive. After his first trip to the territories, Avner clung to this view. After a few more trips, he wasn’t so sure. “I slowly realized these were not simply incidents—this Palestinian beaten, that olive grove cut down,” he told me. “This was a system.” The incidents started to fit into a pattern, in other words, and the pattern implicated not only messianic settlers but also the institution around which his identity was framed. Avner recounted the excursion he took to the desecrated olive grove, where he found himself facing the young officer blocking access to the site, as settlers stood watch. “It was then I realized that the army is part and parcel of what’s going on in the occupied territories,” he told me. Something inside him snapped at that moment—not because he didn’t identify with the state or the security forces but because he did.

Avner could agree that soldiers were obligated to carry out orders they might consider misguided. But what about an order that violated people’s humanity so blatantly that it was a crime? If an order was unlawful on its face, wasn’t it his duty to refuse?

* * *

That question had, in fact, come up in Israel decades earlier, in 1956, when some border policemen arrived to enforce a curfew in Kafr Qasim, a small Arab-Israeli village, on the first day of the Suez War. Everyone had to be inside by 5 pm, the soldiers dispatched to the village announced, a message that failed to reach some day laborers still out working in the fields. When the workers started returning home, the police began dragging them out of their vehicles, lining them up and shooting them. By the time the guns fell silent, forty-nine people had been killed.

Despite an initial media blackout, news of the massacre trickled out, and eventually the perpetrators were brought to trial. Their defense rested on the claim that they had simply been following orders, an explanation that Judge Benjamin Halevy dismissed. Orders that are “manifestly illegal” not only can be disobeyed, he ruled; they must be disobeyed: “The distinguishing mark of a manifestly unlawful order is that above such an order should fly, like a black flag, a warning saying: Prohibited!”

Far from finding this ruling troubling, the IDF embraced the “black flag” prohibition as an enlightened standard to be taught to all recruits. So, decades later, did Peretz Kidron, a reservist who, in the 1970s, informed his superiors that “as a matter of conscience and conviction” he would not serve in the territories, becoming one of the country’s first refuseniks (and, later, a spokesman for Yesh Gvul). As he informed me when I visited him in Ein Kerem, a neighborhood in southwest Jerusalem, he viewed his act as a straightforward application of the IDF’s ethical code. “When a soldier gets an order that is illegal, it is his duty to disobey it—the army actually set the precedent; they wrote it up,” said Kidron. Born in Vienna in 1933, Kidron came to Israel after World War II from Britain, where his family had fled to escape the Nazis; he went on to serve in the Suez War. “I’m a Holocaust survivor, so the idea of a Jewish army carried terrific resonance for me,” he said. For much the same reason, the idea of following orders that harmed civilians—and violated international law—struck him as unconscionable.

But wasn’t there a clear difference between an order to massacre villagers on their way home from work, which no reasonable person could justify, and an order to detain Palestinians at a checkpoint that suicide bombers had recently crossed, which many Israelis believed prevented innocent people from being harmed? Kidron shook his head. The army almost never court-martialed refuseniks, he told me, mainly to avoid having to answer the claim that a “black flag” hovered over the entire occupation, whose legality was not recognized by any country.

Sometime later, I put Kidron’s argument to a senior Israeli officer. Nonsense, he said. “Look, the law is very, very clear in these matters,” the officer maintained. “The time when it’s appropriate to refuse is when your crime is a crime against humanity.” And why didn’t the occupation qualify as such? “Listen, to stand at a roadblock is not pleasant,” he said, but it was not a crime against humanity, and if soldiers started disobeying any order that clashed with their political beliefs, the army would disintegrate.

The officer in question had recently disciplined four young recruits who’d taken it upon themselves to decide which orders to obey. They were members of a battalion dispatched to Hebron to remove Jewish settlers from Arab shops that had been taken over illegally. The order to evacuate the settlers came from the Israeli Supreme Court, but the soldiers were yeshiva students who sought guidance from another authority: their rabbi. He told them participating in such an operation was forbidden.

The problem for these soldiers was not that an order from their superiors violated international law but that it contravened Jewish law. One consequence of the emergence of groups like Yesh Gvul had been to spread disillusionment among young Israelis from secular backgrounds. The vacuum this created in the IDF’s top units was slowly filled by a new generation of religious recruits, soldiers educated at yeshivas, who in recent years have begun to question whether they, too, should disobey orders—not to end the occupation but to preserve it.

One evening, I paid a visit to Elyakim Haetzni, a former member of the Knesset who openly encouraged refusal on these grounds. “Any legislation, order, decree, regulation, judgment, judicial decision, whatever, which rules out Jewish presence in the heart of Jewish land…is per se illegal” and had to be defied, Haetzni told me in the living room of his house in Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement adjoining Hebron. To Haetzni, one of the founders of Gush Emunim, the movement dedicated to establishing Jewish dominion over the West Bank, dismantling settlements amounted to “ethnic cleansing against Jews—in the land of the Jews.” Anyone who carried it out “should sit right next to Milosevic in The Hague, as a peace criminal. There are war criminals—I call them peace criminals!”

But what if a majority of Israelis decided it was imperative that Jews not settle land the rest of the world considered illegally occupied territory, I asked? He waved his hand dismissively and, knowing I was from the United States, cited one of his favorite American philosophers. “Ask David Thoreau,” he beseeched me. “What did Thoreau say? He lived in a democracy, and the duly elected, democratic government decided to invade Mexico, right? And to practice slavery. Thoreau said those two things are unconscionable, although the majority supported it, and although this was enacted by law or decree or order—legally! Thoreau said, I don’t pay taxes and I go to jail for that!” Soldiers who refused to evacuate Jewish settlements were simply carrying on the same honorable tradition. “We are speaking about people acting under the command of their conscience!” Haetzni thundered.

We were talking in a community where, some years earlier, a shrine had been erected to honor Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler who, in 1994, entered Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and opened fire, murdering twenty-nine Muslim worshipers. Not long after visiting Haetzni, I met a young settler named Moshe Frumberg, who a few weeks earlier had been summoned to a draft center to undergo tests the army conducts for new recruits. Before leaving, he and two friends had hung a sign at the entrance that declared, We Won’t Be Drafted to Evacuate Jews! So many soldiers with similar views now serve in the Israeli army that some analysts believe a large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank would trigger mass mutiny, making Israel’s leaders all the more reluctant to contemplate such a step.

The fear of emboldening zealots on the right is the reason some Israelis who opposed the occupation, such as Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, also opposed refusal. “I too recently guarded settlements and checkpoints contrary to my worldview,” wrote Oppenheimer in an essay on the subject. “I did this, among other reasons, because I believe that one day, when the IDF will be instructed to evict an outpost or a settlement, a segment of all the soldiers of the IDF will [have to] take part in the mission.”

* * *

The risk of opening a Pandora’s box weighed heavily on the soldiers in Avner’s unit as they debated what to do. The burden of feeling morally compromised weighed even more heavily on those who ultimately decided to send a letter to Ariel Sharon declaring their refusal to serve in the occupied territories. Not long after signing the letter, Avner Wishnitzer was summoned to his army base and expelled from his unit. Two years later, he became a founding member of Combatants for Peace, a group of Israeli and Palestinian ex-fighters who put their guns down to promote reconciliation and dialogue. Through the organization, Avner assumed what seemed, on the surface, like a new identity, the former combatant turned dedicated peace activist—and, on occasion, finger-wagging scold, as when he’d return from a visit to the occupied territories on Friday and make his way to a Sabbath meal with friends and family, a common ritual in Israel. “I’ve just spoken to people who have been beaten up by settlers,” Avner told me of these occasions, “and I want to explode. I want to”—he slammed the table with his fist at the cafe where we were sitting, sending a spoon hurtling to the ground—“I want to say to the people who are closest to me, ‘You know, fuck you all! Sitting here filling your stomachs with good food and paying lip service to your being uncomfortable with the occupation.’” He twisted his mouth in disgust. “‘Fuck you all. Do something. How can you not do something? How can you not act?’”

It was the frustration of a “beautiful soul” who found it increasingly difficult not to feel enraged among his fellow citizens. But it was also an illustration of the fact that acts of conscience can fuel more expansive and affirmative forms of political engagement than Hannah Arendt assumed. According to Arendt, the “rules of conscience” were “unpolitical” because they were “entirely negative”:

They do not say what to do; they say what not to do. They do not spell out certain principles for taking action; they lay down boundaries no act should transgress. They say: Don’t do wrong, for then you will have to live with a wrongdoer.

Arendt’s description fit some soldiers who engaged in “gray refusal” and then stopped thinking about the occupation, having washed their hands of the situation. It did not fit Avner, who after saying no—to the occupation, to his commanders—decided to say yes to a new cause that brought him into regular contact with Israelis and Palestinians who shared his beliefs about the futility of violence and the inhumanity of the occupation. And who, for all his anger, sometimes sounded like the patriotic soldier he once was, an irony that was not lost on him. “I believe you have to serve your society,” he told me on one occasion. “I believe it’s my obligation. And in a sense that’s not very different from what I felt when I was 18. In a sense, I refused and then became active in Combatants for Peace for the same reason that I joined the army, for the same obligation—or commitment; that’s the better word—to my society.” Only now, he said, “I serve my society in another way, a way I believe will take us in a better direction.”

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