Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Zeev Sternhell: Not all refusal is the same

27 December 2009

By Zeev Sternhell, Haaretz – 27 Dec 2009

Since the first evidence of the organized Jewish uprising in the West Bank, which is now assuming unprecedented proportions, great efforts have been made to create an artificial symmetry between the systematic rebellion in the settlements and the refusal to serve in the territories that was prevalent at the beginning of the decade.

To understand how fundamentally distorted this comparison is, we should point out a few facts. Early in 2002 a group of 50 officers and sergeants from combat units signed a document in which they refused – for ethical reasons – to take part in the acts of oppression required by service in the territories. Soon afterward 600 combat soldiers added their signatures. When about 40 of the refuseniks were sentenced to time in a military prison, several hundred faculty members in the universities and colleges published a letter supporting the refuseniks, many of whom were students. Among the signatories was this writer, one of whose more talented students was sitting behind bars.

In those days, that was a proper and worthy act. Since then the Israel Defense Forces has learned to live with fighters who would not hesitate to risk their lives on the battlefield but are not willing to be a cog in the occupation machine: The problems are solved quietly, without statements being released, on the level of the army unit. At the same time, a colonial police force has been established – the Kfir Brigade – to release combat units from carrying out the occupation’s daily tasks.

An ethical uprising, anchored in adherence to universal norms, completely personal in nature and accompanied by a willingness to pay its full price, has nothing in common with the violent and organized rebellion that is taking place today in the settlements. This rebellion is essentially political. By the same token, it is absurd to draw a parallel between the hesder yeshivas that combine Torah study and military service with the universities, or between rabbis and professors. These yeshivas are not pluralistic institutions that encourage skepticism or represent the entire range of viewpoints and opinions. They are not institutions that include men and women, secular and religious people, Jews and Arabs, leftists and rightists.

The yeshiva is a way of life, not an institution you enter just to study. It is a monolithic institution, led by an autocrat, that encompasses all the spheres of a student’s life. There you learn to obey, not rebel against the consensus or some intellectual authority. True, we can reasonably assume that there are differing viewpoints within the hesder yeshivas, and that there are differences of opinion between them and their leaders. But when it comes to public declarations and political decisions, the ranks there close. The fact is, the head of the Har Bracha yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, received loud and unhesitating support.

Indeed, to an outsider it would seem that the intention of the hesder yeshivas, particularly the more extreme ones, is to impart first to the army and then to all society the values of halakha and the principles of extreme nationalism; this approach rejects the very concept of equality among people, nations and cultures. The settlement leaders and the hesder yeshiva rabbis, the IDF chief rabbi, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, David Rotem, all have the same objective: to subordinate reason, autonomy of the individual and the right of free choice to halakha and the principles of the supremacy of the Jewish people, the only natural ruler of the entire land. That is how the prevailing norms at Har Bracha are meant to shape the face of all Israeli society.

However, the immediate goal is to protect the settlements by constantly flaunting the ultimate threat of a civil war. In this battle the hesder yeshivas are playing the role of a strike force, so they are the apple of the settlements’ eye. In fact, these units are devoted, disciplined and readily available. This is where the future leadership is being educated; using the hesder yeshivas, the settlement movement aspires to gradually increase its influence over the army and ensure that within 10 to 15 years, much of the senior command will be in its hands. This means that the chauvinist and clerical right wing will acquire even greater influence over Israeli politics.

Indeed, the entire goal is political, and to achieve it the yeshiva heads will sign any understandings with the army we want, as long as they can continue with their work. The time when they have enough power to paralyze the government’s ability to act on future peace agreements is steadily approaching.

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