The obligation to refuse false democratic-discourse

[This piece was originally published on the Times of Israel]

Moriel Rothman
Rabbi Dr Zvi Leshem, whose biography lists him as living in Efrat, recently wrote on this site a piece called the “The Right to Refuse.” Rabbi Leshem’s launching point was the controversy over the far-right wing politician Naftali Bennet’s recently made-and-then-retracted comments ”ostensibly condoning soldiers’ refusal to carry out orders to evacuate settlements.”

In his piece, Rabbi Leshem looks to American activists like Rosa Parks and Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the Jewish midwives in the book of Exodus who refused Pharoah’s orders to kill infants, and the negative example of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in order to arrive at his conclusion that ”sometimes refusal is not only a right – it is a moral imperative.”

My interest was immediately piqued upon seeing the piece’s title, not only on an intellectual level but on a personal one as well: I myself recently enacted an act of refusal and was released last month from three weeks in IDF Military Prison #6 for refusing to enlist in the IDF.

But it became clear that the compatibility between my views and those of Rabbi Leshem’s is limited and strained by, well, the Occupation.

Like Rabbi Leshem, I too was raised in the United States and I too have been influenced deeply by the radical American thinkers and activists that Rabbi Leshem cites, as well as by Jewish and Biblical imperatives to act justly and rightly. It was in part these influences, coupled with my own experiences and journey, which led me to refuse to enlist in the IDF. As such, I profoundly agreed with Rabbi Leshem’s conclusion that ”sometimes refusal is not only a right – it is a moral imperative,” and found much of his piece to be ethically coherent and soundly-reasoned. Except one detail, a detail which, when mentioned, leads his entire piece – and indeed much of the debate in Israel leading up to the elections – to collapse like a house of cards.

Rabbi Leshem uses the concept of democracy as a foundational pillar for his argument, writing that ”civil disobedience to immoral law is perceived as a fundamental protection of democracy.”

This is true about democracy, but Israel is not a democracy.

One could argue that Israeli democracy is genuine but flawed within the 1967 border, where Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel can vote and run for Knesset, but I would retort – as would Dr. King, Thoreau, and, I’m sure, Rabbi Leshem – that true democracy goes much deeper than simply the right to participate in elections (and even that much-lauded factoid is looking unclear as of a recent decision to ban MK Hanin Zuabi from running).

With that, I recognize that the discussion of whether Israel within the 1967 borders is a democracy is a complicated one. And it is also one that can be safely tabled in this context due to the following fact: when Rabbi Leshem and Naftali Bennet speak of “Israel” and “Israeli Democracy” they are not speaking of Israel in its pre-1967 borders. They are speaking of Israel as including Efrat and Ma’aleh Adumim and Gilo and E1 and Givat HaMatos and Yizhar and Hebron II and perhaps even Sheikh Jarrah/”Shimon HaTzadik.”

And suddenly, the discussion is less complicated: An Israel that includes Efrat within its borders is not and could not be a democracy unless one of the three following conditions were fulfilled: (1) Efrat were to be annexed into Israel proper as part of a peace arrangement with the Palestinians, or (2) All of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were given the same democratic rights and privileges afforded to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (including, but not limited to, the right to vote for the government which controls much of their lives), or (3) if there were no Palestinians. Of course, neither scenarios one or two are likely to happen in the near future, with even the mainstream so-called “Left” leaders of the coming Knesset, like Shelly Yachimovich, falling over themselves to assure that they will leave the “settlement budgets untouched.” 

As such, Rabbi Leshem and Naftali Bennet, along with the rest of the current government (Netanyahu, on the recent decision to approve Ariel academy, located deep within occupied Palestine, as a University: ”After decades, the State of Israel has another university”) and Jewish institutions like the Ein Prat pluralistic Jewish learning program, located in the settlement of Alon, or Birthright trips, which take participants into the settlement playground known as the “City of David”, choose to base their discourse around option three as they speak of democracy and liberalism and equality in the State of Israel from the Jordan to the Sea. That is: to speak as if Palestinians don’t exist.

Returning to the context of Rabbi Leshem’s recent article and the discussion of refusal as a moral imperative, I commend Rabbi Leshem’s and even Naftali Bennet’s willingness to put certain values above the value of absolute, unquestioning loyalty to the state and its military. However, I want to draw into serious question Rabbi Leshem’s co-option of Henry David Thoreau, of Rosa Parks, and yes, even of the Jewish Midwives: these activists were opposed to systematic inequality and discrimination. By choosing to live in the settlements and failing to mention once in his article the millions of Palestinians who suffer as a direct result of the settlement enterprise, Rabbi Leshem has placed himself alongside forces of anti-equality and anti-democracy.

Like Naftali Bennet and Rabbi Lehsem, I believe that refusal in the current Israeli context may well be a moral obligation. But the sort of refusal I advocate is different: I call on all of those who truly believe in democracy and equality to refuse to take part in systems and in discourses that manage to give the impression that the Palestinians do not exist. First we create a discourse in which the Palestinians are not a factor, and then come actions. It is time to refuse: perhaps not everyone will be willing to refuse as I did and do, but everyone who truly believes in democracy can refuse to take part in the ”intra-Jewish” discourse that talks of ups and downs in Israeli democracy while conveniently bracketing the 45-year “temporary” occupation of the Palestinian territories and the systematic denial of basic rights to millions of Palestinians. This land is not, just as it was not in 1897 or 1948, a land without a Palestinian people, and God forbid that it one day becomes that.