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Israel, Rabbis Battle for Soul Of Their Army
Date: July 21, 1995
Publication: Forward
Author: Hillel Halkin

MA'ALEH ADUMIN -- Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich, head of the Birkat Moshe Yeshiva in this West Bank town of 20,000 residents on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, quoted both John Locke and Maimonides, but it was the former he cited first.

"Locke actually uses the biblical word `covenant' to describe the relation of a ruler to his people," he said in explaining his participation in last week's halachic ruling, signed by 15 prominent rabbis from the "national-religious" camp, that called on Israeli soldiers to refuse to obey orders connected with the evacuation of West Bank military installations as part of Stage 2 of the peace process. The ruling, which was denounced by the government, its supporters, and most of the Opposition as illegal and an invitation to civil war, has for the first time raised the specter of mass insubordination in Israel' s citizens army.

Moral Issues

"According to Locke, a sovereign who surrenders territory entrusted to his defense has violated the covenant with his people and abdicated the right to rule," the Canadian-born and Baltimore-educated rabbi said in his office next door to the yeshiva. While two halachic principles, he observed, formed the basis of the ruling -- that of pikuach nefesh, or the supreme imperative of protecting Jewish life, and that of kedushat eretz Yisrael or the sanctity of the land of Israel -- it was the former that carried more weight with him. "Wherever the Israeli army pulls out, settlers' lives will be endangered. There is a fundamental moral issue here and the moral law supercedes any government. It is ironic that the same people who accuse us of being `ayatollahs' are the ones arguing that military orders are sacred. Haven't we learned from the Holocaust what depths of depravity the blind obedience of soldiers can lead to?"

It is ironic, too, that the same principle of pikuach nefesh has been the one most often referred to by rabbinic supporters of territorial concessions, most though not all of them among the ultra-Orthodox, who claim that the Jewish lives that will be saved by peace override the holiness of the land. But Rabbi Rabinovich, while agreeing that there is an element of subjective political judgment involved, denied that he and his colleagues were exploiting either religion or their students for political ends. "I educate my boys to be independent and to think for themselves," he said. "We rabbis have no authority beyond what people are willing to grant us -- and even that is not our own, but rather that of good sense and of tradition."

Religious Soldiers

Rabbi Rabinovich's "boys" were occupied with the tractate of Bava Kama in the large study hall of the yeshiva. Although not in uniform, they were all technically in the army, since Birkat Moshe is a hesder yeshiva, which means that its 300 students, who are drawn from the elite of the national-religious educational system, spend four and a half rather than the usual three years as draftees, two-thirds of which are devoted to their studies; at any given moment, therefore, only one-third of them are on active military duty. Yet the percentage of them serving in combat units and as officers is high; indeed, it is estimated that whereas religious soldiers in general make up only 15% of the total manpower of the Israeli army, they are today 30% of many crack fighting units and 40% of some officers' courses.

I sat with three of them: Yosi and Ya'akov, both in the tank corps, and Oren, a paratrooper. Were they familiar with the details of the ruling? Yes, they said: Rabbi Rabinovich had gathered them the week before and spoken to them about it. All three agreed with its halachic reasoning.

"Not blindly," said Yosi. "That's not the way we"re taught to think here."

"The rabbi made it clear that any decision would be our own," said Ya'akov. "He said we had to make up our own minds."

`My Limit Is Bloodshed'

"I don't have to be convinced about pikuach nefesh," said Oren. "I live in the settlement of Bet-El, north of Ramallah; my wife is stone every time she drives through it. What will happen when the army leaves?"

I asked how they construed the disobedience in question. Suppose, for example, they were ordered to dismantle a fence around an army base that was to be handed over to the Palestinians: Would they refuse?

Oren: "Of course"

Yosi: "My limit is bloodshed. I won't be violent toward another soldier. But if I myself am hurt while passively resisting army arrest, that' s a risk I'll take."

Oren: "We'd rather not think about the details yet. We still hope push won't come to shove."

Yosi: "Each of us will have to go by his conscience. There was a settler demonstration in Efrat last week which soldiers were told to disperse. That's an order I would have obeyed, because while I identified with the settlers, there was no pikuach nefesh."

Oren: "I would have felt torn in two. But I would have obeyed also."

Would they disobey orders not directly related to dismantling the fence if asked to perform the functions of other soldiers who would then be sent to dismantle it?

A troubled silence.

Ya'akov: "I don't think so."

Would they try to convince other soldiers to disobey orders too, which would make them guilty not only of insubordination but of the far more serious crime of inciting a rebellion?

Oren: "I'd try to walk the thin line between the two."

Yosi: "I'd explain my thinking. That wouldn't be incitement."

Ya'akov: "I'd try to convince others, of course."

Oren: "Many soldiers who are not religious are beginning to have qualms too. We hope they'll join us."

Ya'akov: "It's our job to wake people up. The country is losing its Jewish spine."

Oren: "The State of Israel is our house. We know that you don't wreck a house because you don't like the people living in it. But some of the neighbors frighten us. They want to eat, drink and not think about tomorrow."

Good, serious boys brought up to think, as Oren says, that serving in a Jewish army is one of the highest callings there is.

Hillel Halkin, Israel, Rabbis Battle for Soul Of Their Army. , Forward, 07-21-1995, pp


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