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Why there will be no civil war in Israel

Because the right never threatens to turn over the board and walk away from the game.

Supporters of judicial reform demonstrate in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2023. Photo by Batya Sharabi/TPS.
Supporters of judicial reform demonstrate in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2023. Photo by Batya Sharabi/TPS.
Jerome M. Marcus
Jerome M. Marcus
Jerome M. Marcus is a lawyer in Philadelphia.

Readers of the mainstream Israeli press see an avalanche of articles and advertisements every day proclaiming that the country is on the edge of civil war and then blaming the right’s judicial reform proposals for bringing us there. But we are not there. 

One might pause and point out that the claim of causation is known to be false because the protests were planned before the judicial reform proposals were even released. In this respect, the protesters’ advocates are no different from PLO head Yasser Arafat, who claimed that the Second Intifada was “caused” by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September of 2000. In fact, we know the terror program was planned in advance. Sharon’s visit was simply used to justify it, as if anything could justify the mass murder of civilians.

But I wish to call attention to a different and more fundamental point, which is that the left and the right in Israel do not play by the same rules.

The left, well advised by expensive PR firms, has seized on the Israeli flag as its prop, and justified the intensity of its opposition to judicial reform with the age-old maxim,אין לנו ארץ אחרת—“We have no other country”—to add to their display about their team’s irrevocable commitment to Israel. At the same time though, protest leaders—a group coextensive with the high-tech, wealthy, secular, elite—have called for an exit to or reliance on exactly that: other countries. They threaten to leave for other countries; to move their money or their businesses to other countries; to send their children there. And they call for Israel to be stripped of the ability to defend itself unless their views of politics are adopted as binding upon everyone.

The latest example of this is a statement issued on July 20 by Nadav Argaman, the former head of the Shabak (Israel’s FBI) that passage of legislation, barring the courts from striking down Knesset-enacted laws simply on the ground that a majority of one court panel think the law unreasonable, will constitute a breach of the solemn contract between soldiers and the state. Therefore, he claims, the soldier’s oath to obey orders and to defend the country no longer applies.

Such a statement by such a man might make one tremble for Israel’s future. That is exactly the goal, just as the torrent of articles about hundreds of reserve soldiers who say they will not show up for duty when called might lead one to believe that most of the most important fighters will choose to leave the country defenseless if their demands are not met.

This is false, as is revealed by both recent events, not-so-recent events, and events from long ago. And the driver of these events is a politically incorrect fact that must be confronted:  the left and the right don’t play by the same rules.

While the sarvanut—refusal to serve—of some soldiers has received a wide broadcast from a sympathetic press, it is dwarfed to insignificance by the insistence on serving by tens and tens of thousands of other soldiers who know better. Letters circulated among reservists for one day—one day alone—promising never to refuse orders were signed by more than 60,000 people. In 24 hours. No mention of these letters appeared in any large circulation Israeli newspaper or website so far as I can tell.

But this commitment to the command structure and to that most basic principle of democracy—civilian control of the army—is part of a larger cultural fact: that when the Israeli government doesn’t do what the right wants, the right never threatens to turn over the board and walk away from the game.

This was true during the removal of all Jews from the Gaza Strip, which was passionately opposed by the right but ordered by the government. No political leader on the right encouraged soldiers to refuse to obey orders to carry out the directive. As committed as they were to the Jewish communities in Gaza, the right’s leaders were far more deeply committed to the State of Israel. And they knew that sarvanut—refusing orders, even orders that they were convinced were violations of deep religious principles about the holiness of the Land of Israel—would lead to a civil war that could destroy the state. So they did not refuse and did not encourage refusal. The few marginal figures who did publicly contemplate refusal were dismissed as unpatriotic. And such people were ignored.

We can go back further. In 1944, the right-wing Lehi assassinated a British official in Egypt. In a period known as the saisson, British forces were joined in their retaliation by David Ben-Gurion’s Palmach, which rounded up and tortured their opponents in Menachem Begin’s Irgun.

Begin’s men wanted to retaliate against the Palmach. But he refused to allow it because Begin knew that retaliation would lead to civil war. His men obeyed him. So there was no retaliation.

The same deep wellspring of commitment to the Jewish state is what led Begin to order his men on the Altalena not to fire back when Ben-Gurion’s soldiers fired on that ship in the midst of a struggle over who would have control over weapons on board, which had been brought to arm Jews defending the nascent state from those who sought to destroy it. The same principle was at stake, and the same action was taken: Shooting back would threaten civil war. So the right did not shoot back.

So it was then; so it is today and so it will be tomorrow. The right will not shoot back at the left.

In contrast to the menacing, if not outright violent, demonstrations conducted by the left, the right do not try to disrupt the operation of the country. It’s not only that they don’t try to paralyze the army or use the army to cause the rest of the country to do their will.  It’s also that they don’t try to shut down the country. They don’t shut down the airport or the nation’s train system; they don’t scream at their political opponents in restaurants or disrupt their opponents’ home lives or Sabbaths.

The right will also not do something else the left talks about and sometimes does: leave. While they march to the tune of אין לנו ארץ אחרת, the left has gone so far as to embrace a BDS campaign against their own country. They have called for the exit of investment cash and for the emigration of what they believe to be Israel’s most valuable citizens— themselves —if laws are passed with which they fundamentally disagree. Los Angeles, New York, Berlin (really? Berlin?) are the places to which such Israelis go. They do indeed have other countries. Or at least they think they do.

The right does not do this and, I believe, never will. When the right says אין לנו ארץ אחרת, they know it’s true. They don’t threaten to leave on the ground that their politics are not the dominant politics, and they don’t actually leave for that reason. After all, the right was the losing side of politics for the first three decades of the country’s existence. But there was no movement of Jabotinskyites or haredim threatening to move … anywhere. They were committed to the country (and to their families), which is why they are now the majority.

So the right doesn’t fight the way the left does, both because of this deep commitment but also because the right knows it doesn’t have to. This is true in part because it outnumbers the left, and because that population gap will only grow over the coming years as the fertility of religious and traditional families outstrips that of secular ones.

It is also unnecessary because the logic of the left’s position is clear, and it will be followed: If, in fact, you think that your commitment to the state is merely conditional—I promise to serve only as long as the government doesn’t do anything I fundamentally disagree with—then when you really think that commitment is broken you want to leave and you will leave. That’s what they say on the left, and there’s little doubt that at least some of them mean it.

So they will go. They may be missed by some, but contrary to these worthies’ estimation of their own importance, the state will survive.

Still, there is an alternative, which is that they will come to their senses and realize that they were right when they said we have no country other than this one. They will stay. They will realize they must fulfill their commitment to their country. They will live as free people in communities that share their values, and they will participate in the political process here just as minorities do in every democracy.

Of course, there’s also a third option: The Israelis who leave for what they think are greener pastures might soon find out that those pastures are not so pastoral. Perhaps they will go out for sushi in LA or to a supermarket in Paris and be reminded why their grandparents found it necessary to create a Jewish state.

Then they will see that they were right when they said we have no other country.

Jerome M. Marcus is a lawyer in Philadelphia.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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