What does it mean when a soldier puts down his arms? Well, as the Canadian writer T.C. Haliburton observed, “Circumstances alter cases.”
By 1943, National Socialist Germany had invaded countries including Austria, France, Greece, and Poland. That year it called Austrian Catholic Franz Jaegerstatter to military service. He refused to serve in the Nazis’ genocidal machine, and they executed him.
Jaegerstatter is a hero, as would be North Vietnamese soldiers who refused to participate in the invasion of South Vietnam or Russian soldiers in the invasion of Afghanistan. In such cases, defiance of orders would have been anything but dishonorable.
But what about soldiers who refuse to fight in a just war?
On September 24, twenty-seven pilots in the Israeli Air Force released a letter that stated in part:
We, who were raised to love the state of Israel and contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in Air Force attacks on civilian population centers. We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians. These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength…we shall continue to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force for every mission in defense of the state of Israel.
The pilots’ declaration extends the Ometz Le'sarev (Courage to Refuse) movement launched last January, which 559 officers and soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces have joined. Being a morally grounded institution, it is not surprising to see such developments in the IDF.
Specifically, Israeli soldiers learn the concepts of tohar ha-neshek (purity of arms) and degel shakhoor (black flag). The former states, “Israeli army servicemen and women will use their weapons only for the purpose of their mission, only to the extent necessary and will maintain their humanity even during combat”; the latter, coined by Israeli Supreme Court justice Benjamin Halevy, refers to what figuratively flies over an illegal order. Israeli rabbi Shlomo Riskin notes, “Questions regarding the ethics of warfare came up early in the history of the nation…purity of arms is a subject studied in just about every high school here, and is constantly discussed in military forums.” (Less honorable was the Jewish Agency’s policy of havlagah [restraint] during the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, which opposed retaliation for anti-Semitic attacks. Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky remarked that havlagah created “a situation in which everything is forbidden the Jew and everything permitted the Arab, a situation in which one side may commit any crime, and in which the Jew can be compared to a terrified mouse, while the Arab feels at home everywhere. Is this a moral situation?”)
The IDF is so preoccupied with moral hygiene that it often jeopardizes soldiers’ lives to avoid unjust use of force. “My son's blood was less important to the Israel Defense Forces than Ahmed's blood,” said Moshe Keinan, whose son Avihu was killed fighting terrorists in the Gaza Strip on September 25.
Aerial anti-terrorism operations have of course resulted in deaths of Arab civilians. Writing in the decidedly un-leftist Jerusalem Post, Matthew Gutman notes, “Inevitably dozens of innocent Palestinians have been killed in the attacks, putting the burden for the deaths on the pilots who release the bombs or fire the missiles.”
The addition of pilots to the refusal movement increases its image since they represent a military elite in Israel. A saying in the country goes, “The best become pilots.”
Only nine of the refusal letter’s signatories were active-duty pilots, however; and only two piloted the Apache helicopters and F-16s used in targeted killings of terrorists. The left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz remarked in a September 29 editorial, “…the group of signatories describes itself as ‘we, pilots of the air force.’ This, despite the fact that many retired years ago, and of the few who are still in the reservist squadrons of the air force, not one was ordered to carry out a mission whose legality he questioned and whose execution he refused.”
The pilots also cheapened their refusal with a histrionic style, posing for photographs in flight suits with helmet visors down. Ha’aretz media writer Roger Alpher wrote in an open letter to them, “Your photographs in pilot's fatigues and helmets look like ads for fatigues and helmets (or for beer, in the case of a slightly more sophisticated campaign).”
Some will point out that the refusing pilots are a tiny minority within the Israeli Air Force, just as members of Courage to Refuse don’t reflect a consensus view in the IDF. While true, that doesn’t determine whether their refusal is just. Right and wrong aren’t about percentages.
As to the substance of their grievance, the pilots misrepresent attacks on terrorists where civilians have died—and among whom terrorists hide—as “attacks on civilian population centers.” It’s a reckless error at best, and refusal to serve in a mission with any possibility of civilian deaths amounts to calling for the abolition of the Israeli military.
The pilots pledge to serve “for every mission in defense of the state of Israel,” but defending Israel against terrorism entails missions where the terrorists are, e.g., the Gaza Strip and West Bank. A pledge to defend Israel that lets its enemies operate with impunity doesn’t inspire confidence.
The pilots’ supporters include Yesh Gvul (There Is a Limit), a leftist organization that funds refusers and whose website links to the anti-Israel International Solidarity Movement. Yesh Gvul has distributed the refusal letter among other reserve pilots and has been funded (along with Courage to Refuse) by the leftist Shefa Fund in Philadelphia.
Israeli Air Force commander-in-chief Major General Dan Halutz grounded the letters’ signatories, which tends to happen when men in uniform engage in public disobedience. No one should be forced to take up arms—hence the provision for conscientious objection—but such conduct in the ranks hardly seems becoming, in contrast to a case where resignation preceded protest.
Israel is a country of diverse convictions, but is it to do nothing when soldiers twist its virtues into viciousness?