Israel Update – Week of July 16, 2023
Refusenik: According to Dictionary.com, a “refusenik” is “a person in the former Soviet Union who was refused permission to emigrate, in particular, a Jewish person forbidden to emigrate to Israel.” This definition was in force until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 followed by mass emigration of its Jews to Israel and the west. In 2023 Israel, the word “Refusenik” has very different connotations.
Last week, we described the judicial reform being forwarded by the Likkud Party and its coalition partners. Two weeks ago, the first legislation in the reform, known as the “Reasonableness Standard,” passed its first reading in the Knesset. Israelis who were against the reform, led by the opposition leaders, held a “Day of Disruption” in which they blocked highways and held demonstrations around the country, including Ben Gurion Airport. This week, unless something expectedly unexpected happens, the law will pass in its second and third reading.
The past week was characterized with large demonstrations around the country, the largest of which was held in Jerusalem across from the Knesset. And then the doomsday weapon was released. Rumors of its existence have circulated over the past few months, and the weapon was nearly unsheathed in March but then quickly returned into deep storage. The doomsday weapon that I refer to is the refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Israel does not have a very large standing army. The bulk of IDF’s fighting power lies in its reserves. While mandatory army service normally runs for two years and eight months, most Israelis must serve in the army reserves until around the age of forty-five, depending on their position in the army. The amount of reserve duty that a person must serve each year can be anywhere from a week to a month. When I was in the IDF reserves during the first intifada between 1987-1993, I was serving more than six weeks a year of reserve duty. Duty is divided into two types – proficiency training and active duty, usually spent guarding a border or a Palestinian town in Judea or Samaria. Officers serve longer stints of reserve duty than non-commanding personnel. In times of war, a large percentage of the IDF commanders come from the reserves. This is especially true in the Air Force, where pilots serve about seven days each month flying. If Israelis refuse to serve in the reserves, Israel’s defense posture could be severely impacted.
Here is a smattering of articles that have appeared over the past few days: “Cracks are emerging in Israel’s military. Reservists threaten not to serve if government plan passes”. “500 Israeli reserve pilots to suspend service over controversial judicial reform plan”. “1,142 Air Force reservists to end volunteer duty in protest of judicial overhaul”. “IDF Facing Most Serious Crisis in Its History”.
While the numbers are still hazy, the phenomenon is growing in number, and more people are willing to openly refuse to serve in the IDF reserves. While reserve duty is usually mandatory, certain positions, including pilots and commandos, require a person to volunteer to serve. These are just the people that are openly refusing to serve. This is not entirely unexpected. Until recently, a very large portion of recruits at Pilot School in the Air Force came from the Israeli elite – well-educated, wealthy, secular Ashkenazic Jews, usually from the Tel Aviv metropolitan area or from a kibbutz. Compare this with “Training Base #1,” the home of Officer Training School (OTS), which is more than fifty percent religious (Religious Jews make up less than 20% of the population, meaning that they are over-represented at OTS by a factor of more than 250%). The fact that these people are refusing to serve because the “Reasonableness Standard” is shocking. I heard a radio interview with one of the Refuseniks who was asked if the Syrians were at the gates, would he fly a mission. He answered that he would not – this government no longer represents him and he no longer feels obligated to serve the country that this government represents.
It is clear that we are not hearing the whole story. For each person who has openly stated that he will refuse to serve in the reserves, there are ten who have openly stated that they will. My friend, David Weinberg, published a well-researched article accusing the media of ignoring the large masses of people – on both sides of the political fence – that will serve no matter what, people who put Israel’s security before any other consideration: “They pointedly have failed to report on what I think is the majority consensus in Israeli society – that refusal to serve in the IDF, under the current circumstance and in almost all likely circumstances – is criminal at best, treasonous at worst. And in all cases, it is enormously damaging and dangerous. If you are not a regular reader of the right wing and religious press or a follower of nationalist social media feeds, you wouldn’t know, for example, that this week 150 very senior IDF military intelligence reserve officers published a public call against [refusal to serve]; a call to leave the IDF out of and beyond political debate, and a call on all military intelligence personnel to answer with enthusiasm and vigor, as always, all draft calls for reserve duty.” What David writes is correct and worth shouting at anyone who will listen. The mere fact that people are openly refusing to serve in the IDF means that a Rubicon has been crossed. It means that Israel’s future is no longer guaranteed.
The Jewish people have been down this path before, and it did not end well. This week, Jews observe the fast of the ninth day of Av, commemorating the destruction of two Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE, after which the Jews were exiled from Israel for seventy years. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE, after which the Jews were sent into an exile that, nearly two thousand years later, has not yet ended. The destruction of the Second Temple was preceded by a five-month siege of Jerusalem. The Roman historian, Josephus, writes that Jerusalem had the wherewithal to withstand a protracted siege; its barns were overflowing with enough provisions to feed the population for more than twenty years. Nevertheless, a group of zealots called the “biryonim (thugs)”, who were dead set against any kind of mediated treaty with the Romans, set fire to the barns and brought starvation on the city. The Romans could not have defeated the Jews had they retained their unity. Professor Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute, in an article penned three years ago, writes, “Translated into today’s terms, [the ninth of Av] can and must serve not only as a religious and national memorial day but also as a day on which a wake-up call is sent to Israeli society, cautioning it as to the immense danger that seems to be inherent to our genome. Every generation has its own barns, whose stock is the source of its national resilience. We have a supreme obligation to protect them against those who would set them afire to promote their own ideology or interests.” All Israelis have a “supreme obligation” to serve. Refusing to do so sets aflame our last storehouse.
Speaking as an Israeli, I am apprehensive. There is a scent of destruction in the air. Some of it comes from the two temples that were burnt to the ground thousands of years ago and some of it comes from the third one that we are trying to build. We have one nation and one country, and we must hold on to both tightly. I am fairly certain we will not be given a fourth chance.
Wishing you a quiet week,