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Israel’s mutiny movement

The defense of the Jewish people must not be held hostage.

Israeli soldiers in Jenin as part of a counter-terrorism operation, July 3, 2023. Credit: Israel Defense Forces.
Israeli soldiers in Jenin as part of a counter-terrorism operation, July 3, 2023. Credit: Israel Defense Forces.
Jeremiah Rozman
Jeremiah Rozman is a publishing adjunct at the Miryam Institute. He served as an infantryman in the IDF from 2006-2009. He is currently a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Over the past few months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have turned out to protest judicial reform. The discourse on this issue is fraught with doomsday hyperbole. As a result, there is the potential for serious economic damage and a rift with the United States.

However, this pales in comparison to the danger represented by a movement—championed by some prominent leaders and politicians—that calls on reservists to refuse their obligation to serve: In essence, a call for mutiny.

This is not within the realm of legal protest. It cynically seeks to hold Israel’s security hostage if unelected elements do not get their way, and does so in the name of defending democracy.

Contrary to hyperbole about judicial reform being the “end of democracy,” it would, in fact, make Israel’s Supreme Court more accountable to the Knesset, Israel’s elected branch of government. Clearly, this is not the end of democracy.

The dispute over reforms is a policy dispute. In fact, it is a rather mundane one, considering that, absurdly, it remains possible for Israel’s judiciary to rule against the reforms.

Gullible people might believe that judicial reform poses an existential threat to Israel’s democracy. The cynical people driving the movement know this is false. They claim it is such a threat because only extreme danger can justify extreme actions such as soliciting mutiny.

This attempt to coerce political change by threatening to degrade Israel’s security is akin to a toxic partner threatening self-harm if they do not get their way. Supporters of the refusal movement explicitly say so.

For example, a member of the Brothers in Arms organization stated outright, “If the overhaul bills are passed, we and tens of thousands more who are with us will stop volunteering for reserve duty. … The army is disintegrating before your eyes.” Addressing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, he stated, “We expect you to stand up and say that you will not vote for the laws.”

In a democracy, policy differences are addressed through voting. There is nothing wrong with opposing judicial reform. Peaceful protest is protected. But mutiny is criminal.

As IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi said, “Hezbollah and Hamas have one goal, and that is to destroy Israel; they do not care what kind of judiciary it has.”

Some 10,000 IDF reservists, including 1,000 Air Force reservists, have stated their refusal to serve in protest of judicial reform. Israel has a small active military. Mandatory reserves allow Israel to field a military capable of deterring and, if need be, defeating regional threats despite its small population.

Many reservists fill critical roles, especially pilots and elite soldiers like the Yahalom unit’s combat engineers. 160 such reservists recently refused to serve. These soldiers are expensive to train, meet difficult standards and conduct critical missions.

The refusal movement also threatens the active service. Defense analyst Amos Harel noted, “In brigades, they’re talking about ‘our’ units and ‘their’ units as solidarity erodes during the judicial overhaul.”

Ministers Miki Zohar and Itamar Ben Gvir stressed this point, sharing a staged video showing ground forces asking for aerial support and pilots asking them their position on judicial reform. A dying soldier then says, “My brothers, from right and left, don’t put politics in the army.” This political theater makes a valid point.

Israel won its independence because numerous identity groups worked together. There was a religious-secular divide, a socialist-capitalist divide, a Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide, a Western European-Eastern European divide and so on. But all these factions shared the goal of a secure Jewish homeland.

They almost failed to achieve it. When independence was declared, Israel had to decide whether to permit the existence of a separate military structure loyal to a separate political faction. But despite a bitter rivalry, the Etzel and the Haganah collaborated during the 1948 War of Independence.

Towards the end of the war, however, Diaspora supporters sent the Etzel a shipment of critical arms on a ship called the Altalena. The Haganah was ordered to fire on the ship if it refused to hand over those arms to the new Israel Defense Forces. It did so.

As difficult as this decision was, it is unlikely that Israel would have survived without a unified military that obeyed the lawful orders of the democratically elected government.

Imagine the precedent set by legitimizing refusal to serve on political grounds. Will soldiers serve only under governments they support?

The optimal solution to this crisis is top-down and bottom-up persuasion through an appeal to common sense and unity. 80,000 reservists have signed a petition against refusal and elite units have condemned refusal as well.

Those inclined to refuse must listen to those on their side of the political divide. Protest leaders and politicians should stress the need to protest through means that do not harm security or democracy. National Unity Party head and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz has done so, despite opposing Netanyahu and judicial reform.

Finally, only persuasion can retain the high-quality volunteers who serve in the reserves. A suboptimal solution is punishment, including dismissal, fines and the requirement to pay back benefits.

When soldiers refused to serve during the disengagement from Gaza, they faced military justice. Although punishment should be the last resort, it is preferable to capitulation, which legitimizes mutiny as a way to coerce policy changes. It is also better than ignoring the problem, which degrades readiness and divides the military.

In the lead-up to the destruction of the Second Temple, zealots failed to convince the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem to attack the Romans instead of waiting out the siege. They burned Jerusalem’s food and supplies stores to render that option impossible.

The resulting calamity is a warning against drastic unilateral action that harms Israel’s security. It is fine to have policy preferences and to use legal means to promote them. But Israel was established to defend the Jewish people. This defense must not be held hostage.

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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