For God - or country?

For God - or country

The phrase "dual loyalty" is generally used to refer to Western Jews who must decide whether they support Israel, or the foreign country in which they reside. But now, this same dilemma is occurring among our IDF soldiers, who increasingly are being asked to choose between the immutability of military orders, and their sacred religious obligations. This is by no means a new phenomenon. There has always been a tug-of-war between the requirements of war and Halacha. Observant soldiers, particularly in combat roles, face, early on, situations that present a clash of values: Is it permissible to violate the Shabbat - by riding in a vehicle, using a walkie-talkie, or missing prayers - while in the field? What if there is no time to don tefillin, or no succa to eat in on Succot? To what extent should one risk his life to extract a slain fellow soldier so he may be properly buried? These and other potential conflicts have been researched by leading rabbis and written up in army manuals that are made readily available for observant recruits. But now another flashpoint has developed; one that not only affects the individual chayal, but threatens the unity of the entire military structure: Can - or should - a soldier participate in the evacuation of a Jewish settlement, resulting in Israeli land being ceded to the Palestinians; or should the soldier refuse his orders on religious grounds? This problem has become infinitely more acute since the 2005 disengagement - when Israeli soldiers participated in the eviction of the Jewish residents of Gaza - and is coming to a head over fears that the present government, under intense American pressure, may evacuate as many as 63 more Jewish communities in the West Bank and Jordan Valley. Already, several soldiers have been jailed for holding up signs signaling their refusal to be part of such an action, and many more have gone on record - even before their induction - as saying they will decline, if asked, to be part of such a mission. THE ARGUMENTS on both sides of this Gordian knot are powerful and persuasive. On the one hand, as part of its "purity of arms" policy, Israel has always allowed for conscientious objection to actions judged to be immoral or illegal. As a people who know all too well what atrocities can happen when soldiers "just follow orders," and we respect the right of individual soldiers to refuse to participate in extreme measures which they deem ethically unconscionable. Torah law may be interpreted by some to allow ceding land for the purpose of saving lives, but the bitter experience of Gaza - where land turned over to the Palestinians immediately became a terrorist base from which to fire missiles at our civilians - may certainly militate against any further withdrawals. Furthermore, many of these soldiers are graduates of religious establishments whose leading rabbis have been outspoken in their condemnation of dismantling settlements. Thus the soldiers must now make a painful choice between adhering to the command of their revered rabbi, or that of their company commander. On the other hand, refusing to follow orders has serious ramifications. First and foremost, it can undermine the entire system of discipline upon which any army depends. Reacting without question or hesitation to the directives of qualified commanders not only maintains ranks, it saves lives. Army officers like to recount the story of IDF soldiers who captured an Egyptian tank in the Yom Kippur War. They were riding the tank back towards Israeli lines when an Israeli tank approached, unaware that the tank in front of them held their own comrades. The Israeli tank prepared to shell the Egyptian one, until at the last second the command came over the radio to hold their fire. It took every bit of discipline to follow that order - which seemingly put their own lives at risk - but it saved their fellow soldiers' lives. Refusing orders is very slippery slope. Today, a soldier refuses to evacuate a settlement. Tomorrow - also on moral grounds - another soldier refuses to defend that settlement. The next day, a brigade questions its mission over enemy skies. Soon, the whole chain of command is jeopardized. Perhaps most crucially, we are not a banana republic or South American dictatorship where the government is controlled by the army, where the generals tell the presidents what to do. The opposite is true; the military is an obedient wing of the elected government, which - hopefully - reflects the will of the people. The Knesset decides on issues of war and peace, evacuation or expansion of settlements, and the army carries out the orders. Any other scenario would be deadly for democracy. BUT, HAVING said that, the government must not only be right, it must be smart, too. It should do everything possible to avoid a crisis of conscience. It should, whenever possible, use means other than soldiers to wage domestic battles. It should take into account the background and sensibilities of its members, and deal mildly, not mercilessly, with those who voice legitimate concerns about their orders. After all, we automatically excuse the majority of Arabs from serving in the IDF, on the premise that fighting against their brethren would pose for them an impossible dilemma. Why can we not show a bit of the same compassion for our own Jewish soldiers? At the same time, our brave young men and women in uniform must also be smart. They should honor their convictions, if that is their decision, but in a humble, rather than haughty manner. No signs or screaming, no slogans or soliciting of fellow recruits. Just a staunch adherence to what they believe in their hearts to be right, and a stoic willingness to pay the price for taking that stand. The Israeli army has always been "the great equalizer" in our nation, united across ethnic, age and gender lines in defense of the entire citizenry. It has always been the one, incorruptible institution that rises above petty politics to form a protective wall against our many enemies. But for that to continue to happen, we are all going to have to step away from the mirror and see the bigger picture. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana.