| Israel, Rabbis Battle for
Soul Of Their Army
Date: July 21, 1995
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.
"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."
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
Hillel Halkin, Israel, Rabbis Battle for Soul Of Their
Army. , Forward, 07-21-1995, pp