There Is A Limit


 Murray Polner


 The Jewish Week


 Friday, 1 March 2002

“We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.”

— Excerpt from open letter of Israeli military reservists

     The refusal of courageous Israeli officers and soldiers to serve in the West Bank and Gaza because they believe the government’s conduct is immoral is the sharpest break since hundreds objected to serving during the invasion of Lebanon and then went on to organize Peace Now and Yesh Gvul (“There is a Limit”). 

Despite a seemingly endless war that the stone-blind and clueless leadership of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have inflicted on one another as well as on their own people, no central political or religious figure on either side has cried out, “Stop This Madness!” Arafat and the PA — with their corruption, deception and ineptitude — are surpassed only by crazed Hamas-types who specialize in murdering civilians. 

But equally culpable are the Israeli occupiers with their enormous firepower and unquestioning American backing. Sharon and his hard-line, pro-settlement fanatics have relied on collective punishment and the destruction of Palestinian homes. And now a Maariv poll reports that 35 percent of Israelis favor “transfer” (a euphemism for “ethnic cleansing”) of Palestinian men, women and children from their historic homes. 

All the same, something ethically and morally good has been happening in Israel that may help strengthen its reawakening peace movement. 

Cracks may be beginning to show, most significantly in the petition signed by almost 250 (at this writing) reserve officers and soldiers who refuse to be sent beyond the Green Line. Add to this number the continued growth of Yesh Gvul, which includes more reservists and current soldiers who will not serve in the occupied territories and the reappearance of Peace Now rallies. 

Not to mention the still small but increasing number of young Israelis who believe they are conscientious objectors who should be exempted from military service, as are so many yeshiva students. 

Shuki Sadeh, a reservist and paratrooper who signed the declaration of refusal to serve, told an Israeli daily he had witnessed the killing of a Palestinian boy. “What angered me at the time,” he explained, “was that our soldiers said, ‘Well, that’s another Arab who has disappeared.’ ” 

And Ariel Shatil, an artillery sergeant who had recently served in the Gaza Strip, added that, despite reports Israelis always fired in retaliation, in truth, “We would start shooting and they would fire back.” 

Quietly, some reservists have gone AWOL — the London Telegraph estimated the number in late January at 2,500 — while “thousands of others” have been manufacturing reasons why they shouldn’t have to report. Moreover, the IDF is “also having to deal with thousands of petitions from parents who do not want their sons to do their national service in the occupied territories.” The fact is many, if not most, reservists have no sympathy for settlers and tend to see them as religious fanatics. 

Here in the U.S., while many Jews have expressed their anguish at the mutual slaughter, too many timid, prominent Jews, organizations and Jewish publications rarely if ever speak publicly about what the war has done to ordinary Palestinians, the widespread hatred it has aroused, and the moral and physical toll experienced by all the antagonists. Nor do many dare raise the question of how much harm their silence may be doing to Judaism and its honorable ethical and humane traditions. 

Would they have the strength of character of Ami Ayalon, the ex-Shin Bet chief and onetime admiral, who expressed “ a lot of empathy for the reserve officers?” Troops, he said on Israel’s Channel One TV, should not heed commands that are “blatantly illegal … too few soldiers are refusing such orders. For example, [an order] to shoot an unarmed youth is a blatantly illegal order. I am very worried by the number of Palestinian children shot in the past year.” 

But still, what if all Israel men women didn’t answer draft calls? What would happen to the country’s security? It’s a debater’s trick question inasmuch as most do serve and many end up in Israel proper rather than forcibly occupying lands claimed by the Palestinians. Ruth Hiller, an Israeli whose son, Yinnon, 19, is trying to be recognized as a conscientious objector, explained, “It is time that we started looking at a very different type of army — a professional army that can operate in a professional way.” Which, I believe, would allow young Israelis to conscientiously refuse to serve in the military for moral as well as religious reasons. 

This, of course, will have to await a political, not a doomed-to-fail military solution. Taba and the Mitchell Commission report are two possible starting points. There are others if and when the damaged and badly compromised leadership of all sides ever move on. 

Still, these dissenting Israeli officers, soldiers and their civilian supporters make me proud to be Jewish.

** Murray Polner, who served in the U.S. Army, chairs the Jewish Peace Fellowship. The former editor of Present Tense magazine, he wrote “No Victory Parades: the Return of the Vietnam Veteran,” “Rabbi: The American Experience,” and co-edited (with Naomi Goodman) “The Challenge of Shalom.”

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