Know When To Say No:Refusal in Jewish Heritage / Shamai Leibowitz, Attorney-At-Law


Our rule over three million Palestinian Arabs in the Occupied Territories has perforce put us in a position of committing a number of moral outrages.

Among the steps the Israeli army has taken is the enclosing of millions of Palestinians behind barbed wire and 30-foot concrete walls in their cities, towns, and villages. The occupation entails denial of basic rights to millions of human beings under Israeli control, among them the right to vote, to enact laws, to education, to fair and impartial trial, to emergency medical care, to employment, to freedom of movement, to freedom of expression and many others.

The continued occupation, becoming more brutal and vicious every day, has cost the lives of thousands of innocent Jews and Palestinians. While we did not set out intentionally to kill thousands of civilians (as of January 1, 2004, Israeli soldiers killed 2700 Palestinians most of whom were non-armed civilians) these are sine-qua-none results of a such a colonial regime.

The Foundation of the Occupation

This illegal and immoral regime exists only because there is enough manpower to support it. Without the combined participation of Israeli soldiers and policemen willing to serve the occupation, the occupation cannot continue.

More and more Israeli soldiers have come to understand this and decided to refuse orders to participate in this evil. Understanding that the infliction of collective punishments and suffering upon the Palestinians is both immoral and hazardous to Israel, they refuse to participate in the Israeli army’s assassinations, dropping of bombs in residential neighborhoods or in the closures and blockades. Some of them have refused completely to serve in the Israeli army which is administering this cruel regime. In this way, they are undermining the foundation of the occupation.

Conscientious Objection in Judaism

By refusing to serve in the occupation they have followed the path of conscientious objection. While many mistakenly attribute the ideas of conscientious objection and civil disobedience solely to thinkers such as Mahatma Gandhi or Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, we will analyze Jewish texts and show these ideas are deeply rooted in the Jewish sources.

One could consider our forefather Abraham as the first “conscientious objector to collective punishment” for his refusal to participate in or condone collective punishment. He was even willing to risk punishment himself in order to try to dissuade G-d from His intention to mete out collective punishment to Sodom and Gomorra. His argument with G-d is described in Genesis:

“If there are fifty righteous within the city, will You indeed sweep away and not forgive the city for the fifty?…It is far from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked… Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:24-25).

Here Abraham courageously questions G-d and appeals His decision to mete out collective punishment. Abraham’s questioning of the impending collective punishment succeeded in persuading G-d, so to speak, to reconsider. The implication is that collective punishment, where it includes innocents, is not acceptable, and only those who have sinned should be punished for their own wrongdoing.

Abraham contends that even G-d Himself is bound by this precept of natural law. Abraham argues resolutely with G-d, emphasizing that G-d cannot violate this precept. Abraham serves as a role model for standing up to Higher Authority in the name of moral principles. We learn from this a very important lesson: The first Hebrew in history objected to G-d and demanded from Him to refrain from collective punishment. By doing so, he signals a message to all of us: Object to the infliction of cruel punishments on innocent civilians, even when it comes from the highest authority.

Clash of Values

We read in the Talmud the principle that "the law of the government is a binding law" (Talmud Gitin 10b). This principle guided generations of Diaspora Jews as they dealt with the laws of the State they encountered in exile. It applies to statutory laws concerning monies, taxes, land, and so on, but not to religious ritual. It also does not apply to laws that are inherently arbitrary and discriminatory (see Maimonides, Mishna Tora, Hilchot Gzelah, Chap. 5, halakhot 12-14). Realizing there is a natural law above and beyond what the government dictates, the rabbinical sages ruled that we must honor the government and acknowledge its authority; at the same time, we must bound and delimit its authority.

This clash of values - between the value of government and higher values - is embodied in the story of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who refused to carry out the hideous order of Pharoah, King of Egypt, to kill all the male babies of the Hebrews (Exodus 1:15). Nehama Leibowitz, in her book New Studies in Sefer Shmot (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1986) describes two ancient traditions regarding who the midwives were: According to one tradition (found in Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and Ramban, and based on Sota 11b), they were Jews. According to the other tradition (found in Philo, Josephus, Midrash Tadshe, Abrabanel, Kli Yakar and Luzzatto) they were Egyptians.

The latter tradition is especially interesting because it transforms the story into an important philosophical text emphasizing the confrontation between an individual (Egyptian) and her own, rather than a foreign, government. This interpretation is also more reasonable. How could Pharaoh have specifically chosen Jewish women to carry out his murderous plan, especially if (as the Ramban argued) he wanted to keep it secret?

There is further proof that the midwives were Egyptian, rebelling against their very own government. The Bible recounts that:

"The midwives feared God and did not do as the King of Egypt told them; they let the boys live". (Exodus 1:17)

This verse would not be appropriate for Jewish midwives: If the midwives were Egyptian, their actions would justify the statement that they feared God; but if they were Hebrews, there is no need to bring up fear of God - everyone loves his own people.

Dr. Daniel Rohrlich has shown that the expression "fear of God" usually appears in the Bible in connection with how a nation treats a minority. He concludes from this that the midwives must have been Egyptian women, boldly disobeying the Egyptian government’s orders concerning the Hebrew minority. The treatment of the stranger who lacks power and protection is a true test for fear of God. Nehama Leibowitz sums up her study of the midwives with these words:

If this interpretation is correct, we must consider that the Torah shows us how, in a sea of evil and tyranny - and just after verse 1:13, which shows Egypt (the kingdom and the people) in their wickedness - an individual can stand up against evil, oppose an order, disobey it, and not shrug off the responsibility by saying, "Orders from my King".

This noble idea applies today to the responsibility of Israeli soldiers to stand up against the evil and tyranny of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. The duty to refuse to one’s own government when it enacts iniquitous laws is thus part and parcel of the Exodus heritage. It is for this reason precisely that the religious command to remember the story of Exodus is a major component of most Jewish rituals, and manifests itself extensively in the traditional texts concerning the Sabbath and the Holidays. It comes to remind us continually of the duty of the individual to disobey iniquitous laws, even when handed down by his own government.

The Dangers of Blind Obedience to Laws

Blind compliance can lead to bestiality, for animals live without morality. Obedience to the state law, while certainly is an important value, is not an ultimate Jewish value. The Prophets riled against those regimes in the Jewish past that used their legal powers to the disadvantage of weak p. They did not hesitate to call for disobedience to such wicked regimes. (E.g. see the episode over Navot’s vineyard involving Ahab and Jezebel in I Kings 21). Law abiding citizenship is encouraged; but obedience per se as a value is not sacrosanct.

The Israeli government established a regime in the West Bank and Gaza so cruel that the former Attorney General, Michael Ben Yair, has defined it as an “ apartheid regime ” ( Haaretz March 3 2002). The Jewish religion demands from the individual to stand up to this apartheid regime and refuse to obey its orders.

One might ask: Does not this attitude lead to anarchy? History has proven that non-violent refusal has never led to anarchy. The opposite is true: we have seen the most effective and life-saving way to bring down a dictatorship and substitute it with a just system of government is by violating those very laws that have made it into a dictatorship.

Israeli soldiers who decided to refuse to serve in the brutal occupation are a beacon of hope that eventually this highly immoral regime will collapse. The refuseniks, as they are called in Israel, may have to suffer the consequences of refusal, which can run the gamut from ridicule and social ostracism to imprisonment. But as Jewish soldiers, they are following in the great tradition of our forefathers and the Prophets. Therefore, they deserve our utmost admiration and constant support. It is our duty to assist those brave men that have been faithful to our most basic moral and religious norms.