As an Israeli researcher and political analyst, I follow the American political and cultural scene with great interest. It is not just a matter of pure intellectual curiosity, but of direct self-interest. Almost every development in the American socio-political theater has a direct or indirect impact on Israel. This influence stems not only from Israel’s almost complete economic, political and military dependence on the US, but also from my country’s movement within the American cultural and moral orbit. The Americans have become a behavioral model and a substitute for our own collective conscience.
One aspect of American culture that Israel is currently emulating is that country’s history of conscientious objection. This history extends as far back as the American Civil War, during which conscientious objection first achieved legal recognition. As during the Revolutionary era, the objectors included traditionally religious sects -- such as Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren. Seventh Day Adventists, who added an urban, working-class component to the pacifist population, have also been active participants in the movement. During the civil war, treatment of objectors varied, from relative tolerance in the North to harsh penalties in the South. According to the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, D.C., there had been an estimated 3,500 conscientious objectors in World War I; 37,000 in World War II; 4,300 in the Korean War and 111 during the 1991 Gulf War.
During the Vietnam War, the selective service denied exemption to men who were not conscientious objectors to war in general but objected only to that particular war. But that war, unlike World War II, was incrementally viewed as unjust, and the number of political objectors far outnumbered those who held deep religious convictions. By the mid-1960s, the peace movement had become a politically powerful and broad-based coalition of radical pacifists, civil rights advocates, non-pacifist liberals, and members of the traditional peace churches. This coalition encouraged those who were denied objector status to resist induction. By the end of the war, 50,000 conscientious objectors had fled the country or were in hiding from authorities. An estimated 250,000 youngster never registered, and about another 100,000 burned their draft cards. High levels of noncompliance with the draft, mass opposition to the war, and declining military morale forced the US government to end its involvement in Vietnam and granted an immense moral and political victory to the objectors.
As I write, there is a struggle over Sharon’s disengagement plan, with members of the far right acting on the American model of civil disobedience and conscientious objection.
Recently, in a letter published in a large-circulation newspaper, four Israeli reserve battalion commanders and 30 other officers, all residents of West Bank settlements, declared that they would refuse an order to evacuate any settlement following Sharon’s disengagement plan, because they will obey only rabbinical authorities who ruled that is forbidden by the Holy Scriptures to give up any territory in the Land of Israel to non-Jews. Another far rightwing activities -- that happens to be the brother of our Minister of Education -- claimed to collect 10,000 active and reserve soldiers signatures that they obliged themselves to refuse any order to evacuate settles. This was a dramatic declaration because it implied that other religious and secular right-wing soldiers should also refuse to obey the military and civilian chain of command. They claim to be conscientious objectors, but the authorities rightly regarded them more as rebels and promptly dismissed them from service.
In fact this act is a part of a larger effort by the hard core religious settler movement to create a nation wide “trauma,” not so much in order to prevent the evacuation of the 8,000 settlers of the Gaza Strip but to “defend” the larger colonization project of the West Bank by demonstrating either the impossibility of removing even a small portion the settlements or, if that fails, the immense “national price” involved in a successful evacuation.
Of course, conscientious objection in Israel has occurred among members of the Israeli left. A small number of pacifists refused to participate in the 1948 War. But the main wave of selective refusal to serve was during the adventurous Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Since then, an increasing number of COs -- but never enough to endanger the government policy -- have come forward during the first and second Palestinian Intifadas, arguing for their right and duty to avoid participating in the war-crimes committed. None of the left-wing political or spiritual leaders supported the movement -- in spite their perception that government policies were unjust if not criminal. This lack of support on the left seems to be one of the major causes of the failure and minimal appeal of the Israeli conscientious-objector movement, in contrast with the success of the American anti-war movement of the 60s.
Given America’s glorious tradition of conscientious objection and the influence it has had on my own country, I can only ask what has happened to it now that America is waging one of the most dubious and unjustifiable wars in its history. I have heard about one or two dozen military personnel (mainly in the Marine Corps), however it seems that more soldiers were brought to courts martial for war crimes and other inhuman behavior than for refusal to take part in the war.
I have never heard any convincing reason for this invasion of Iraq, even though I have read and listened to its most vehement protagonists and opponents. Even if the issue, as some of my colleagues suggested, was control of the Iraqi oil supply, it is questionable whether the oil is worth the exorbitant economic and human cost of the war.
Paradoxically, in this period, when most military service is regarded as “economic conscription,” and when most young people join the military for job skills or tuition, claims of conscientious objection have lost their moral and logical underpinning. This is a honey-trap that is costing young people their lives. By serving as “volunteers“ or mercenaries -- and not conscripted citizen soldiers -- the new American Imperial soldier cannot pretend to be a pacifist or conscientious objector. This is true even if federal advertisements deceive enlistees by presenting the enlistment only as a career opportunity or scholarship tool and not in the classic terms of “You,” where “Uncle Sam” calls the citizen to defend the country and its freedom. By “volunteering”, the young soldiers have surrendered their own freedom by signing employment contracts that replace the social contract obliging the government to wage only just wars. Critics of conscientious objectors rightly argue that it is disingenuous to volunteer during peacetime and then seek an escape when war breaks out, but they intentionally ignore the different social context of the present levy -- a levy that disproportionately targets the economic under classes.
Baruch Kimmerling is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent books are Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians (Verso, 2003), Immigrants, Settlers and Natives (Alma and Am Oved, Hebrew, 2003), and The Palestinian People (Harvard University Press, 2003) with Joel S. Migdal.