Conscientious Objectors in Israel chronicles the personal experiences of two generations of Jewish Israeli conscientious objectors as they grapple with their consciences under the pressure of justifying their actions to the Israeli state and society.
2014 | 216 pages | Cloth $55.00
Anthropology / Law
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Interrupted Sacrifice
Chapter 2. Every Tongue's Got to Confess
Chapter 3. Confronting Sacrifice
Chapter 4. Pacifist? Prove It! The Adjudication of Conscience
Chapter 5. The Yoke of Conscience and the Binds of Community
Conclusion. False Promises
Conscience twinges. It pinches, tugs, stabs and pricks. It must be wrestled with, when one is not plagued by it. It calls and dictates. It is a worm, and a court. Conscience is articulated in these ways as the most solitary, individual, and idiosyncratic of faculties. Yet, as both a personal ethical experience and a potent public discourse, conscience also dramatically reshapes the social terrain. Conscience can make the illegal legal and the offensive admirable, or have the opposite effect. Beliefs regarding the inviolability of conscience in Western ethical traditions persist in close relation to idea that religious beliefs need to be protected and privileged above other social obligations. Despite these claims to precedence, conscience does not displace other social obligations, loyalties, responsibilities, and sacrifices that refuse to be slighted without consequence. The following ethnography of the social life of conscientious objection from military service in Israel exposes the tension between the liberal protections of individual rights the state provides and an idea of citizenship that requires great and specific sacrifices. The links between citizenship and sacrifice shape the politics of both consent and dissent. Although conscience is a strong cultural claim, carrying the weight of its long and exalted philosophical genealogy through Socrates, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant, military refusal challenges Israeli state sovereignty in a fundamental way. It questions the state's moral authority and challenges the state's coercive capabilities. Yet conscience sits precariously and partially outside the jurisdictional bounds of state power. The war of position described in what follows, over the ideal relationship between the ethics of the individual, the community, and the state, has many guises, sometimes strategic, sometimes visceral, and often agonizingly played out in the most intimate of spaces.
Conscientious objection forces a number of difficult questions to the fore. What do religious and ethnic belonging entail? Why is it legitimate for the state to require you to risk your life in war, but illegitimate to ask you to risk your conscience? Refusal of military service in Israel reflects more than ethical qualms over violence: it also reflects the central ontology of the Israeli state and its notions of community, loyalty, obligation, and betrayal always tied to the question of Palestine. The social negotiation of conscientious objection takes place with a constant eye to the Palestinian other, who is the ethical object of refusal. This dissent is with regard not only to the occupation, but also to broader beliefs on ethical responsibility to others and the limits of such responsibility. Many who have investigated zones of conflict are familiar with the ideological and discursive processes that can lead an individual to take part in violence, such as dehumanization and the cultivation of fear. On the contrary, conscientious objection investigates whether an individual is allowed—ethically, socially, legally, or politically—to refuse participation in sanctioned violence.
Conscientious objection in Israel unearths fundamental tensions regarding social relationships and obligations in modern rights-oriented democracies. Claims of conscience expose a different side of the individual's responsibility to the group than accounts of modern politics usually consider. Many anthropological accounts focus on the centrality of rights-centered individualism to Western conceptions of personhood. Their point is well taken that supposedly neutral secular liberalism in fact harbors a cultural specificity that privileges the individual and establishes separate realms for the private and the public, thus creating an uninhabitable space for those whose cultural traditions do not lend themselves to such divisions. Yet conscientious objection reveals the ways the individual in a liberal democracy is still deeply bound by communal obligations. The demand for great sacrifice in the nation state is strong and insistent. The flag of conscience offers some uneven and fragmentary protection, but claims are certainly not taken at face value. Soldiers who claim conscience may not be immediately sent to jail, but they often pay a heavy price. Much of their fate lies in their ability to defend their actions as they are called to appear in trials of conscience, which take place variably in the courts, in the media, and often in the home.
Yossi recalls the moment he decided to refuse to serve in the military as one of epiphany and profound humiliation. As a combat soldier serving in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he had a visceral experience that crystalized previous qualms and apprehensions about his activities in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Following security protocols led him to aim a gun at a young boy who had frozen in fear. Struck in the moment by the scene he was involved in provoked a sense of disgrace, fundamentally at odds with how he had pictured himself until that point, as an elite and self-sacrificing soldier. His understanding of the world, the Jewish experience, and his role in it, began to crumble beneath him and he experienced a period of existential unease that culminated with his decision to refuse to continue military service. Yossi describes coming to this decision like arrival on dry land, as a resolution to a period of confusion.
Aya's final clash with her high school principal resulted in her expulsion from the school. Located in Tel Aviv, and specializing in fine arts education, her school had gained some notoriety for the high number of students who did not serve in the military. The media had deemed this evidence of systematic shirking of military duty and had cast the school and the city of Tel Aviv itself as self-indulgent and unwilling to sacrifice. Her principal, relatively new to the school, was determined to change this impression, and to make sure that his students would not dodge their military service. He introduced a special curricular emphasis on the connections between Jewish peoplehood, nationalism, and military service. Because Aya was determined to avoid military service for reasons of conscience, she had frequent run-ins with the principal over her objections to these activities. For example, with other students she protested the visitation of military representatives to the school and student trips to military bases, both intended to inform and excite students about their upcoming service. It was a trip to Jerusalem focused on "our Jewish heritage" that ultimately led to her expulsion. Feeling that the trip supported ethnic nationalism, she stayed home. When she refused to do a make-up assignment about what her Jewish heritage meant to her, she was expelled.
Amos insisted that the worst moment of his life was when he sat in his family's living room and told his father that, after many years serving in the military, he planned to sign the letter of refusal to serve. "Sitting there, I would have preferred to tell him a thousand times that I am gay, rather than have to tell him even once that I was signing that letter." In becoming a combat soldier, Amos had followed in the footsteps of his father, who had served in the Six-Day War. He struggled to find a way to explain to his father that he believed things were different than when his father had served, that the occupation had turned soldiers from defenders into aggressors. He knew that his father would never be able to accept that Amos truly believed this was the right thing to do. His father's generation, for whom Jewish self-defense was a radical revelation and a new lease on life after the Holocaust, would never be able to see his refusal as anything but a dangerous step backward. After that encounter, it was more than a year before he spoke with his father again. Amos's wife and her family were supportive, but the rift was very difficult for Amos, who had enjoyed his tight-knit family and their emotional and material support.
Growing up in the United States, I was like many of my compatriots, ignorant of and quite indifferent to my own mixed-up family history. As such, I was struck by the public and private significance of familial, cultural, and ethnic genealogy in Israel. I was also struck by the central role of the military in Israeli life, which is what drew me to this topic (for a vivid account of how military force acquired so much legitimacy and centrality in Israeli society, see Ben-Eliezer 1998). My hometown, a village of six thousand in the northeast United States, still has multiple stores specializing in 1960s-style tie-dye T-shirts, and the local political cultural of nonviolence and antiestablishment sentiment made military service seem quite remote from my life. My religious education made it even more so. When I met my Israeli boyfriend (now husband) and visited Israel for the first time, I became fascinated by this cultural difference, not only the prominent problems of militarism, but also the ethos of volunteerism, cooperation, and communal sacrifice. I also met those who refused to serve in the military, and discovered the life complications they faced as a result.
After spending several summers in Israel, I conducted extended fieldwork there from 2007 to 2009 with the two main groups currently associated with conscientious objection. One organization is Combatants for Peace (CFP), whose members are former elite officers in the Israeli Defense Forces. Based on their experiences as soldiers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, these ex-soldiers have come to the conclusion that the occupation is morally wrong, and have decided to refuse to perform their reserve military service until this unjust situation is rectified. This group is made up of mostly men in their thirties. The other group is composed of young women and men in their early twenties who have never served in the military. It includes many pacifists and is loosely associated with the organization New Profile, a feminist organization that favors demilitarizing Israeli society. These two groups are associated with far left-wing politics in Israel, and are uniformly against the occupation or de facto control of Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip on Israel's west, and the West Bank on Israel's east.
During my fieldwork, I lived in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is the economic center of the country; it is the second largest city in Israel and considered the more secular and liberal counterpart to Jerusalem, the capital. Many conscientious objectors from both groups were from Tel Aviv or its suburbs. I traveled to Jerusalem to meet with refusers there, and occasionally to more peripheral areas. Over time, I got to know members of Combatants for Peace and younger conscientious objectors. I conducted interviews and also met people informally and socially. I spent time with them at home and met their families and friends. I participated in the meetings of both groups. These include meetings for members conducted in Israel and in the West Bank, as well as organized presentations that invited Israeli audiences. I also attended solidarity events in support of Palestinian communities that my interlocutors participated in. Requesting contact information from friends and acquaintances in this group, I was also able to meet other conscientious objectors not formally involved with any activist organization, as well as people who considered refusal but ultimately decided against it. I worked with a New Profile youth group in Tel Aviv for young people considering refusal. When the leaders of the group were looking for a new meeting spot, I offered to host the group at my apartment. I followed a number of these young people as they appealed for exemption from service on the basis of pacifism. That process entailed going before what is popularly known as the military Conscience Committee, which evaluates the appellant's pacifist conscience for authenticity and sincerity. I also conducted interviews with members of the Conscience Committee, the Israeli military prosecutor, lawyers representing conscientious objectors, and legal scholars writing on the issue.
Conscientious objection in Israel (sarvanoot le'sibot matzpooniot) relies on the premise that conscience is a privileged status requiring protection, even above physical well-being. The military can require all manner of physical sacrifice from soldiers, including missions with a high probability of death, but it does not have the right to require moral compromise. Indeed, many cultural norms govern the physical risk to which the state can expose a soldier. The limits of such risk are often in dispute and concern serious cultural matters such as how to define necessary risk, the appropriate ratio between risk and monetary expense, and the value of an individual life. For example, recent public debates in Israel have centered on whether all soldiers need bulletproof vests, and whether the defensive materials used on transportation vehicles need to be of the best quality available. How high a price to pay for the return of a captured soldier is another controversial deliberation. Yet conscience and moral good are not negotiated in the same way. Conscience is thought of in absolute terms. The state cannot directly ask a citizen, even a soldier, to do something they have already concluded is wrong. Likewise, although giving one's life for the state is considered the ultimate sacrifice, going against one's conscience for the state is not similarly esteemed.
How did conscience come to acquire such protections against the normative expectations requiring sacrifice? Some anthropologists have recently suggested ethics as a productive anthropological category. They note that, worldwide, people have varied ethical traditions concerning how to do the "right thing," that is, on the rules and norms that govern social interactions. Conscience is an ethical idea that developed and became important in Europe and in the Western tradition. It came to be considered one of the truest and most authentic forms through which an individual could take a stance in society. Conscience is the idea of an internal faculty that judges our actions and informs us of its conclusions through feelings of guilt, shame, purity, and innocence. The modern meaning of conscience incorporates a sense of an individual ethical regulator, and that the dictates of conscience require the individual to privilege these imperatives above other social obligations. As a result, when someone testifies or witnesses to their conscience, there is public recognition that it is authentic and compulsory, despite the lack of other evidence. Conscience has become a powerful idea that is simultaneously a way through which some people experience and understand their ethical encounters, and a cultural symbol and rationality through which people explain their actions to their community. A long-term interaction of intellectual thought and popular culture has contributed to the high cultural reverence for conscience. From Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment to the film Blade Runner, to dramatic acts of political protest, conscience has been reinforced as a cultural value with new idioms in each generation. Jewish thinkers, steeped in European philosophical traditions, have contributed greatly to this tradition as well. Among those who developed the idea of conscience and contributed to its current importance are Baruch Spinoza, Hannah Arendt, Michael Walzer, Emmanuel Levinas, and Judith Butler. The value of conscience followed Israel's European founders into the state's institutions and laws. However, not everyone in Israel is equally steeped in this European tradition; we will see that influence of conscience is uneven.
Wendy Brown (2008) cites liberal tolerance as an outcome of early European religious wars that ultimately separated political and religious authority in the West. When the idea of universal rights emerged in the human rights framework, conscience was a category thought worthy of protection. Ideas of human rights were formalized after World War II in the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With this declaration, conscience evolved from a peculiar Western European belief about the relationship between consciousness and ethics to a sanctified and universal human attribute requiring protection. Human rights discourse has gained hegemonic status, and its verdicts on a given state's protections for conscience (most often concerning political prisoners) can contribute to that state's global reputation as a liberal democracy or an oppressive regime. Despite Israel's sometimes-contentious relationship with the United Nations, and the not-infrequent claims of human rights violations lodged against the state, human rights remain of great importance in Israel. The significance of human rights is part of the historical and institutional legacy of being a somewhat deviant branch of the European colonial project, as well as Israel's self-understanding as a rights-oriented democracy. This understanding is used to make claims about the legitimacy of the state, and to offer a favorable comparison vis-à-vis the other countries in the Middle East, which receive worse human rights reports, especially regarding women, homosexuality, and political dissent.
Conscientious objectors find themselves neither here nor there. Having balked at the entailments of religious and ethnic affiliation, their dissent is considered a betrayal by most of Jewish Israeli society. Yet they are not at home, in security or culture, with Palestinians. Their attempts to do the right thing are often frustrated in the midst of social encounters not with a single other, but with many others (Jewish others as well as Palestinian), all of whom make incompatible demands. They find that responsiveness to one responsibility often means the betrayal of another. We will see that they also cannot rest in the satisfaction that their decision was correct. Rather, they are constantly pulled to "give account" (Keane 2010) of their actions and gain the acceptance of their society through public confessions and testimonies and through appeals to military and government institutions for recognition.
The task of giving account is made especially difficult by forces and intellectual genealogies beyond their control. Their claims that conscience motivates their actions sometimes make their acts of dissent somewhat palatable in Israeli society. Yet the historical process through which conscience acquired its protected status prevents conscientious objectors from fully translating this conscience into political activism. Conscience once meant shared knowledge, making you an ideal witness in court. The genealogy of conscience has been traced to older understandings of conscience in Greek literature, such as syneidesis, which is the awareness of something. The Latin conscientia had similar connotations. Scholars in the Middle Ages used both nearly interchangeably for some time. Historian Anders Schinkel has meticulously traced the slow separation, during which conscience took on connotations of being a private inner ethical faculty as opposed to a form of public knowledge (2007).
The move to "witnessing" to conscience in the way we now understand it, as an inner belief, began to take place in the life and times of Thomas Hobbes, some four hundred years ago. Hobbes was less than smitten with this transformation in the meaning and found numerous problems in its application. He claimed that the new meaning of conscience was only self-witnessing, and as such unreliable, yet it maintained the old connotation of witnessing to a fact, and the inviolability that goes along with knowledge that is shared and verifiable. Hobbes suggested that the term opinion was more appropriate to such subjective positions (Andrew 2001: 69).
And last of all, men, vehemently in love with their own new opinions, though never so absurd, and obstinately bent to maintain them, gave those opinions also that reverenced the name of conscience as if they would have it seem unlawful, to change or speak against them; and so pretend to know that they are true, when they know at most, but that they think so.... for one man calleth wisdom, what another calleth fear; and one cruelty, what another justice. (Hobbes 1985: 53, 29)This detachment of individual conscience from collective ethical norms has remained an issue ever since and infuses current human rights claims of freedom of conscience. In many ways, the demise of the public, factual nature of conscience and the eventual dominance of inspirational authority over verifiable evidence is fundamental to the conflict surrounding conscientious objection in Israel today. For one, claims of conscientious objection face evidentiary challenges in the social realm of law. Though conscience is articulated as an utterly personal phenomenon (which cannot be judged by others), such an expectation is socially futile. Policy cannot be structured without normative cultural limits. So, even with the concerted efforts of the Israeli state to offer protection of conscience, those seeking to refuse military service must still convince Israeli society that their refusal is a legitimate matter of conscience. But how can one prove one's conscience to society? This is the question faced by Israeli pacifists who apply for exemption from military service through the Israeli military Conscience Committee. Departure from ethical norms raises questions about the limits of conscientious claims, which are still subject to social negotiation despite the relativist discourse of conscience. Emile Durkheim recognized that the moral is social, and that the construction of moral orders is mediated by collectives and by individuals engaged in their social worlds. As such, the private and public meanings of conscience are always mutually implicated. As one Israeli military prosecutor told me regarding cases of conscientious objection, "No one wants to give rights to a truly perverse conscience." In their testimony, conscientious objectors must walk the fine line of asserting a conscientious dissent from the dominant moral consensus, but not going so far as to exceed the bounds of reasonableness. Because conscience is considered a natural faculty, it is entirely subjective. It is also why attempts to change cultural norms on the basis of claims to conscience are taken as such an affront. People frequently perceive these attempts as trying to have one's cake and eat it too, and accuse conscientious objectors who conduct activism of hypocrisy or question the authenticity of their conscience. As a result, conscientious objectors are often torn between self-protection and public influence on ethical-political matters. Conscientious objectors often end up replicating state forms of power and dominance, including military patterns of obedience and heroism.
The word for conscience in Hebrew, matzpoon, is etymologically related to the word for compass, matzpen. The word thus invokes the image of a personal moral compass. Despite a vocabulary that focuses inwardly, on self-interrogation and revelation, the social life of conscience involves a relationship between the individual and the community. We can see the sleight of hand at work in conscience's sui generis vocabulary in writing of Emile Durkheim. For Durkheim, moral rules are social because they arise through collective sentiments, and manifest in a way that is not only coercive, but also compelling to the individual (1995: 223, 438). His use of the French conscience combines the English meanings of conscience and consciousness, implying that the moral is inseparable from awareness. The normative order, then, is expressed in the conscience collective, a shared moral awareness or consensus (1984: 319). As such, despite its articulation and legal status as a solitary exercise, conscience cannot escape its social underpinnings in morality. However, the conceptualization of conscience as a radically inward activity, in Israeli law and policy and often for my interlocutors, creates unique challenges and contradictions when the legitimacy and authenticity of this faculty are contested in military refusal.
The belief in an inward conscience is especially difficult because the refusal of military service violates central Israeli norms and values, including democracy, shared sacrifice, and a general ethos of Jewish self-protection. The military has a special significance in Israel and structures many parts of Israeli life (Lomsky-Feder and Ben-Ari 1999; Kimmerling 2001). The centrality of self-defense in Zionist thought temporally precedes the mass arrival of Jews in Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even when Uganda was being considered as a possible site for a Jewish homeland, self-protection was central to the vision of the project. The basis of this emphasis is the Zionist perception of a continual history of European persecution, expulsion, and pogroms against the Jews for centuries. Fighting against racist stereotypes of Jews as weak, vulnerable, and avoiding physical activity or conflict, mainstream Zionism sought to create a New Jew, who was physically active, strong, and not dependent on non-Jews for safety (Weiss 2005). Palestinian resistance to Jewish settlement, and increasingly antagonistic interactions with the British colonial government ruling Palestine, translated this ethos into a literal military force that subscribed to a Realpolitik worldview. This focus on political power and expediency would come to define much of Israeli policy, and would displace other forms of Zionism, such the visions of Brit Shalom, Martin Buber, or Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Buber 2005; Leibowitz 1992).
The Israeli Defense Forces was formed from the various Jewish defense and anti-British fighters present in Palestine before 1948: the Haganah, the Irgun, the Lehi, and the Palmach. After the 1948 war, during which Israel gained its independence and Palestinians lost their homeland, the national defense laws were drafted. Many of these laws would crystallize what would become dominant features in Israeli culture, such as the military draft of both men and women, reserve duty, and the exemption from service of Palestinian citizens and the ultra-Orthodox Jews. It was decided that men would serve three years in the IDF, and women two years. Women who sign up for combat roles (a more recent phenomenon), or other roles involving extensive training, serve three years. Women who serve in combat roles can be called for reserve duty. Exemptions are given to women if they are married or have children, and to anyone for certain medical conditions, including psychological problems. Israeli government policy divides the Palestinians of the region into Druze, Bedouin, and Arab, and encourages the naturalization of such categories. Druze are required to perform military service (except Syrian Druze communities), and Bedouins are often encouraged to do so. Arabs, who may be Christian or Muslim, can volunteer for service, though few do so, and they cause great controversy within their communities when they do (Kanaaneh 2009). At the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel gained control Egyptian territories of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, the Jordanian territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River, and Syrian territory in the Golan Heights. Though it was claimed that the intention was to trade back this land for political recognition and stability, only the Sinai Peninsula left Israeli control.
The occupation is the most tangible catalyst for many young Israelis to refuse military service for reasons of conscience. As we will see, however, the occupation is not a single policy issue, but instead a proxy for broader disputes in Israeli society regarding ethical responsibility and its limits. Much military refusal goes undetected because people can be released from their service obligations under certain conditions, real or feigned. Conscientious objection has always been present in Israel, but not always organized as a movement. In the early years, evasion was highly individual and private. When someone did not want to fight, they would often self-inflict injury or even desert. Anat Stern has investigated legal cases in the aftermath of the 1948 war, in which the parents of draft evaders were held legally responsible for their children's actions (2008). Joseph Abileah and Amnon Zichroni were lonely pacifists when they were tried for evasion in 1948 and 1954, respectively.
After the occupation had carried on for years, and the promise of land for peace had faded, a number of small movements against service were established. One of the first was that of Gadi Algazi, who went to jail for conscientious objection in 1979 to demonstrate solidarity with Palestinians beyond mere words by sacrificing something valuable. The conscientious objector organization Yesh Gvul was founded in 1982 by combat soldiers refusing to serve in the Lebanon War. This group challenged the popular image of sensitive Israeli soldiers who "shoot and cry," a state propaganda construct meant to demonstrate the compassion of Israeli soldiers and the practice of purity of arms (tohar ha'neshek), the humanitarian clause of IDF ethical doctrine. Cheekily, Yesh Gvul's slogan claimed, "We don't shoot, we don't cry, and we don't serve in the occupied territories." This was the first time that refusal was organized as a movement and had a major impact on public awareness. Yesh Gvul still operates and provides support for refusers, though it is no longer the only or the most active organization.
The refusal movement has always defined military refusal as a question of conscience. Some have referred to themselves as soldiers of conscience (chialey matzpoon) playing on the two possible meanings of the term: military soldiers who have a conscience (as opposed to those who do not), or the militarized image of soldiers fighting to defend conscience. Refusal organizations have published philosophical texts by noted thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek and Susan Sontag, defending the acts of Israeli conscientious objectors on moral, ethical, legal, and democratic grounds. The military has even extended partial recognition of refusers' claims by allowing conscientious exemption from military service for pacifists who can prove their status. The reason for the focus on conscience is clear: as controversial as military refusal is in Israel, conscience is a strong enough defense that it gives pause to those who would condemn the refusers, including the military.
A major wave of refusals surfaced in 2002 and 2003, during Operation Defensive Shield (Mivtza Homat Magen), in which several military units—including elite pilots and commandos—submitted letters to the military announcing their refusal. Some of these refusers formed the group Courage to Refuse, but the group disintegrated over time, due to widely varied political positions with regard to Zionism and the ideal relationship with Palestinians. Some leaders of the failing group made contacts with Palestinian groups in the West Bank and formed the joint Israeli and Palestinian organization, Combatants for Peace. The Palestinian side of the organization is made up of ex-fighters against Israel or the IDF, many of whom spent time in Israeli prisons before deciding on a path of nonviolence to end the occupation. It is in this later incarnation that I encountered this group during my fieldwork.
Rather different is the organization New Profile, formed in 1998, a feminist organization in favor of the demilitarization and "civilization and civilianization" of Israeli society. This group supports all conscientious objectors, but is most intimately involved with the Shministim group, high school seniors who refuse to go to the military before they perform service. New Profile includes a large number of pacifists and a majority of women. It organizes protests, organizes support for refusers, and holds youth groups, called Think Before You Enlist, that are meant to expose young people to a greater variety of ideas about military service than are available in mainstream society. Through my work I also interacted with members of Tay'ush, Women in Black, Anarchists Against the Fence, Breaking the Silence, and Machsom Watch.
The vast majority of self-identified conscientious objectors came from upper crust of Israeli society. They were often highly educated. All those I met had finished high school or were about to, and some were working on advanced degrees or were even professors at universities. A majority lived in the economic center of Israel, the Tel Aviv area or Jerusalem, though a few came from the north or Beer Sheva in the south. Their centralized location provided additional educational opportunities, but also more dissident information. Most of my informants were Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin), especially among those who had already been in the army. Being from the more dominant and privileged of the Jewish groups tied my interlocutors to the symbolic capital of the state's Ashkenazi pioneers, who take credit for the creation and implementation of the Zionist project. Mizrahis (Jews from the Middle East) and other minority Jewish groups arrived later on and are not credited with this foundational history, are often in more peripheral areas (as a result of government policy), and bear—as people from Arab countries—the added pressure not to appear as Arab sympathizers. Many Mizrahis reject military service for a variety of ethical and principled reasons, though they often do not invoke the language of conscience, and thus are usually punished for disobedience in a routine way and receive no media attention (see Amor 2010). These other "refusers" do come into my account. They go to the same jails as self-declared conscientious objectors, with whom they have interesting points of resonance and discord. Questions of the army, national defense, Jewish-Arab relations, and relationships between men and women are among the many topics they discuss in their shared time of incarceration.
Baruch Kimmerling notes that the dominance of the secular Ashkenazi upper middle class has been under threat for years, targeted by demands for social justice and equality from oppressed groups, and suggests that their hegemony broke following the 1967 war (2001). Yet this group maintains a great deal of economic privilege, bureaucratic competence, and symbolic capital derived from associations with an idealized Europe, as well as the sacrifices of the Holocaust and Israel's War of Independence. The ethnography here shows that this privilege contributes greatly to their ability to publicly refuse military service. They conceptualize and discuss themselves in the vocabulary of conscience. They approach and attract the media with articulate and compelling statements that are repeated and reproduced. They organize their representation in groups. Unlike ethnographies of marginality that have appeared in recent years, I attempt to do anthropology in the center, close to the bone of state power (for compelling examples of the ethnography of marginality, see Tsing 1993; Das and Poole 2004). In doing so, I follow Ann Stoler's lead in researching "along the archival grain" (2010). This approach suggests that there is no need to read the state against itself. Rather, Stoler explains, in reading that is in line with the state's intentions, contradictions and anxieties emerge on their own. My interlocutors' experiences are to a large extent manifestations of such contradictions and anxieties, their dissent not being a foreign influence, but the result of contradictory political and ethical messages they have received from official and hegemonic sources. At the same time, the following chapters make plain that this group's status and abilities are in many senses a double-edged sword. The social understanding of conscience in Israel and elsewhere considers an authentic conscience instinctual, unstudied, and visceral. The rhetorical and analytical abilities of conscientious objectors are frequently judged to be scripted and pretentious, however, and fail to convince their audience of their sincerity. Israeli conscientious objectors try to persuasively perform what they believe, but they often create skepticism by appearing too smooth, too educated, and too self-conscious of their interests. This lack of control has implications for questions of hegemony, specifically, the limits of typically hegemonic identities and characteristics.
The dynamics of liberalism play a significant role in this account. An extended discussion of liberalism might surprise anyone familiar with the Israeli state, and it should. As many, notably Uri Ben-Eliezer, have pointed out, Israel is not liberal (1993). It has many characteristics of European Republicanism in being centered on civic participation as the basis for citizenship, mostly through military service. Oren Yiftachel has correctly noted that Israel is in fact an ethnocracy, which distributes both rights and privileges based on ethnic membership and policies of Judaization of the public space (2002). Moreover, commentators have noted that recent moves to legally incorporate the Occupied Territories, combined with increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, make the Israeli regime look less liberal and less democratic. We should nonetheless give careful consideration to the implications of conscientious objection on liberalism for a number of reasons.
One is that conscience, the reason for military refusal and the basis of the public claims for protection made by conscientious objectors, is deeply bound in the history of liberalism. Specifically, conscience and liberalism emerged hand in hand as part of European political philosophy that proffered the self-defining morally autonomous individual. Such an individual is ultimately responsible for his or her acts and behaviors, and conscience is a key concept to ensure that accountability falls on the individual and nowhere else. Wendy Brown shows that tolerance for a dissenting conscience follows from the "moral autonomy of the individual at the heart of liberal tolerance discourse" (2006: 7). Whereas Ottoman tolerance divided societies into communities based on religion, Western tolerance put an "emphasis on individual conscience" (9). This political tradition has clearly been influential in forming the subjectivities of conscientious objectors who invoke these discourses in their demands for political recognition. It is also represented in the political and institutional culture of the Israeli state.
Liberalism and tolerance reflect a significant part of the intellectual genealogy of the state's European founders, and as such made their way into Israeli law and policy. Israel's declaration of independence promises "complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," showing that, among other concerns, liberal values played a part in the early efforts to define the state. This stream of thought conflicted with the desire for an ethnically homogeneous society, and the tension of a self-defined Jewish and democratic state has never been resolved. In a moment, I discuss how these liberal values held by early legislators were manifested in partial protections for conscientious objection. The second reason we should consider liberalism is that the state represents itself as a Western-style liberal democracy. At various times, right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that "Israel is unique in the Middle East for having a vibrant, liberal democracy, where women are equal, minorities are free and where all are subjects to the rule of law" (Benari 2012); and that "Israel is a Western liberal democracy and as such its public space is open and safe for all, men and women" (Ravid 2011). My account is less concerned with whether we should accept these claims and more with the meanings they try to convey, what they serve to legitimate, and what political possibilities they open and foreclose.
The final and probably most important reason that we should pay close attention to dynamics of liberalism is that the experience of a liberal social order is the dominant experience of my interlocutors and greatly shapes their subjectivities. Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir have shown in their book This Regime Which Is Not One that the occupation regime that governs the Palestinian territories, clearly neither liberal nor democratic, should be thought of as part and parcel of the Israeli regime, which claims to be liberal and democratic. While keeping this entwinement in our minds, we at the same time must address the ways in which different groups are exposed to different faces of the regime. As we see in the ethnography, my interlocutors were encultured into liberal bureaucratic systems dependent on principles of self-regulation and upright self-conduct (Foucault 1991b: 87-104; Rose 1998). Until their refusal, their conformity with expectations was based on the internalization of hegemonic values and ambitious pursuit of their fulfillment. Others—like Palestinians, but also to some extent, Mizrahis and other Jewish others—face a more directly disciplining state. The state found little point in exposing its ideal citizens, beneficiaries of its ethnic hierarchy—Jewish, economically productive, European, and ideologically convicted—to the strong arm of the state.
As such, my interlocutors' main exposures at home, in school, and in their social circles were to liberal values. Thus, with state encouragement, my interlocutors have largely liberal subjectivities. By this, I mean that the liberal understandings of the individual, autonomy, and responsibility are fundamental to their worldviews and to their conscientious refusals to serve. Elizabeth Povinelli uses the term autological subject to refer to the discourses and practices that invoke such an autonomous and self-determining subject (2006). Of course, such a subject cannot actually exist, but the expectations and ideal of being such a subject frequently weighed on my interlocutors, especially in their conscious reflections on their ethical responsibility. It was only in later stages of adulthood that they began to discover, and more deeply understand, the ethnocratic aspects of the state and the very different experiences of others with the regime. It was at this point that they reacted strongly and refused military service. This trajectory is significant in its production of righteous indignation, in that other groups, not similarly sheltered, grow cynical about state ideology and are more invested in evading state surveillance than seeking accountability within the state. This suggests that among the factors that contribute to the emergence of viable counterpublics are ideological piety, hegemony, and privilege.
My interlocutors are also highly invested in the state and in seeking state recognition for their acts. Theirs is not the dissent that avoids and evades state power, quite the opposite. At times almost naively, they directly appeal to the state and to Israeli society for approval. The state does not chase them down, in fact, their appeal is often far more direct than the state would like. Facing potentially explosive claims of ethical wrongdoing and conscientious dissent, the state in most cases would actually prefer to leave matters of refusal unclear and out of the public eye, and is often willing to provide strong incentives to this discrete path by being quite loose with exemptions for other reasons. Getting released from military service is not difficult. Getting released from military service for reasons of conscience is quite difficult, but the path my interlocutors pursue nonetheless.
When conscientious objectors turn to the state with their dissent, they are faced with a highly conflicted social order. Liberal protections for conscience in the military contexts were a major concern for the first legislatures when drafting the first defense laws of the state that would require universal conscription for Jews. Before the state was established, Jewish underground defense organizations, such as the Palmach and Etzel, were volunteer, and the change to making military service mandatory for all was not taken lightly. Initially, the ad hoc military service laws explicitly recognized conscience, allowing judges to suspend punishment for acts (or the failure to act) if done (or not done) for reasons of conscience. In 1949, a year after the state was established, talks began in the Israeli parliament regarding the new defense laws. Freedom of conscience, the right to conscientious objection, and the necessity to maintain human dignity were brought up repeatedly in the context of international law and humanist discourse. Legislatures had come to Israel from places such as Poland, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Germany. They brought with them not only European ethical traditions, but also a memory of the pacifist traditions during the world wars and also in pre-state Israel. Brit Shalom, a peace movement that claimed such prominent members as Martin Buber, Hugo Bergmann, Gershom Scholem, and Henrietta Szold, was mentioned explicitly in defense of inserting a conscience clause in the law.
The religious parties often showed the most concern for the protections of conscience. Binyamin Mintz of the United Religious Front (Hazit Datit Meuhedet) argued against the idea of having "discipline of a dog" as the ethical mode of the Israeli military. "We don't want our soldiers to be machines without souls and without a heart. We do not want that upon the enlistment a person of Israel to our military, that he will seal off the source of his soul and his conscience, cease to think and be accountable to himself for his actions, and turn into a tool devoid of thought and feeling in the hands of commanders" (Algazi 2004: 16). With these words, Mintz preempts the later narrative of robotic obedience, the "cog in the machine" that would emerge from the prosecution of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Israel, and would inspire many of my interlocutors to refuse service. Parliament member Moshe Unna, also of the United Religious Front, noted that freedom of conscience needed special protection because it was meaningless if it applied only to what was already legal. "The principle of freedom of conscience is emphasized, and I ask: when is it possible to realize this principle if not when the conscience is opposed to the law" (Algazi 2004: 16). In contrast, the minister of defense preferred leniencies for conscience to be at his discretion, arguing that creating a category of conscience within the law was not necessary. Clearly, there were concerns beyond that of freedom of conscience, such as discipline and the need for a consistent fighting force.
The debate was hashed out over years. In the end, only women were given the full right to exemption from military service for reasons of conscience. This was a compromise between those who were against exemption, and the religious parties, who were both concerned with conscience and opposed to the enlistment of women into the military. Parliament member Rachel Cohen objected to the limited scope of this right: "I cannot not accept reasons of conscience, and not necessarily religious. Men also have reasons of conscience that do not allow them to serve combat duty. This law is not just for Jews" (Algazi 2004: 15). Thus, an absolute right to conscientious objection was never legally enshrined. The minister of defense was given broad discretionary powers of exemption for a variety of reasons, and this latitude has been used both to exempt and to deny exemption for conscientious objectors at various times. Implementation of policy for conscientious objection is largely a question of public perception and strategic appeasement and suppression, what Ariel Dloomy calls the "strategy of not having a strategy" (2005: 708). The military does not want to be seen to be denying freedom of conscience, still a value in wider society, and thus creating martyrs of conscientious objectors. It also does not want to be seen to be cowing to pressure or as implicitly acknowledging conscientious objectors' political claims against military service.
Liberalism does not find much aid and comfort in this account. I do not believe that the problem at the center of the controversy of conscientious objection is a failure of the state to fully and consistently live up to the liberal promise. In fact, the liberal promise is highly misleading. Although liberalism presumes to offer an escape from the binds of culture and shared responsibilities, such a promise can never be fulfilled within the social sphere. For our case, the promise of moral autonomy is especially deceptive. This ethnography will consistently show that conscience and culture are deeply entwined, and that ideas such as belonging and loyalty depend deeply on shared notions of the ethical good. Even those who defend freedom of conscience tooth and nail cannot escape the collective meanings of conscience. This can be seen in the words of one of the most adamant defendants of the right to conscientious objection in the parliamentary debates, Zerach Warhaftig. He argued a soldier should not be judged guilty "if the deed he did, is an offense done because of justifiable reasons of conscience (ta'amey matzpoon mootzdakim)" (Algazi 2004: 17). Justifiable reasons is a phrase at the same time obvious and revealing of the communal expectations embedded in conscience. Even if society does not agree with the reasons, it must agree to their justifiability, a requirement that embeds them deeply within the collective consciousness and culture. If anything, I argue, liberalism's denial of the binds of culture creates a dysfunctional situation, setting up false promises, inevitable betrayals, and social turmoil.
Given the centrality of the state and sovereignty to this issue, I try to approach these categories carefully and with intention. The state is a foil for my conscientious objectors both symbolically and in practice. In his article Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State, Philip Abrams observes that the state is a slippery object and difficult to observe and theorize (2006). He suggests an analytical distinction between the state system, which is the system of institutional practices that constitute the state, and the state idea, which is the symbolic identity of the state, often the way people imagine it almost anthropomorphically. Timothy Mitchell warns that "The network of institutional arrangement and political practice that forms the material substance of the state is diffuse and ambiguously defined at its edges, whereas public imagery of the state as an ideological construct is more coherent. The scholarly analysis of the state is liable to reproduce in its own analytical tidiness this imaginary coherence and misrepresent the incoherence of state practice" (2006: 169). For example, as we see in the parliamentary discussions, the state is embodied by different politicians and bureaucrats who carry out its functions and understand its purpose differently. I agree, however, with Mitchell's conclusions that the problem is not solved by trying to hermetically separate the material forms of the state from the ideological forms. Rather, he suggests, "the state-idea and the state-system are better seen as two aspects of the same process" (2006: 170). I try to take up both and their intersections. The Jewish state carries immense symbolic importance for my interlocutors, who both react against it and participate in the state system as soldiers. The acts of the state can be seen to have consistent and predictable appetites, for power, for sovereignty, for territory, but those who carry out these goals—including soldiers, military personnel, state bureaucrats, and the prime minister—each have their own understanding of these intentions and their role in them (for an excellent account of bureaucracy and its rationalities in Israel, see Handelman 2004).
A central organizing idea of this book is my interlocutors' varied participation in the economy of sacrifice in Israel. When I talk about the economy of sacrifice I am referring to the ways that sacrifice can be exchanged for honor and authority in society. Sacrifice is a public demonstration of investment in society and its welfare. The basic principle of sacrifice is substitution, giving something valuable that represents the person making the sacrifice, the sacrificer. In an economy of sacrifice there is an expectation of return. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss explain the principle of substitution: "The sacrificer gives up something of himself, the victim, but does not give himself. Prudently he sets himself aside. This is because if he gives, it is partly in order to receive" (1981: 100). What is returned is the transformation of moral and social status. As in a gift economy, sacrifice is not purely an economic exchange. Sacrifices, like gifts, are considered unique, and decorum prevents direct quantification of worth. Thus the economy of sacrifice always maintains some ambiguity as to the worth of the sacrifice and the appropriateness of the social rewards. In my understanding of sacrificial economy, I build on a number of insights of other theorists of sacrifice, and three are especially prominent. The first is Michael Lambek's assertion that sacrifice is ethical. He argues that sacrifice is made for a life-giving purpose, and sacrifice must be understood by its practitioners as good and productive. At the same time, however, a tradition of sacrifice carries specific ethical values, which we cannot refuse or reinterpret as individual participants. To participate in the economy of sacrifice, one must accept the ethical framework of the sacrifice and the effects produced by it. Sacrifices "are performative acts that sanctify the conventional and moral states they initiate" (2007: 30). In Israel, the dominant economy of sacrifice is the military, by which people gain social status and moral authority through service as soldiers for the state. The ethics of service in the IDF are problematic to some, among them my interlocutors. In Chapter 1, we see that though many try for a time to both serve and reinterpret the moral meaning of their service, they are unable to control the ethical effects of service as individuals in a larger system. When engaging with the sacrificial economy, people face a tradition whose meaning, though not unchangeable or unchanging, is not open to broad individual interpretation. This is an important point when addressing issue of conscience and the expectations of moral autonomy that accompany it.
The second theoretical commitment I want to make follows Abdellah Hammoudi, who shows that sacrifice is fundamentally social. Some recent treatments of issues of sacrifice have examined sacrifice from a textual perspective. Such accounts mine theoretical accounts to extract an inherent symbolic architecture of a sacrificial tradition. Actual social phenomena are then presented as the inevitable manifestation of logics originating in philosophical structures. Following Hammoudi's approach in The Victim and Its Masks (1993), I reverse the order, looking first and foremost at the social practice of sacrifice, and in doing so also make a claim about anthropological priorities. Texts are far from irrelevant, but they do not determine the social. The personal and social ambitions of individuals and groups who engage with sacrificial traditions drive the interpretations, understandings, and deployments of sacrificial tradition. This is abundantly clear in this case, wherein the myth of Abraham's binding of Isaac, the guiding metaphor of military service in Israel, does not manifest any clear social organization based on the inherent structure of relationships. Rather, the myth is publicly manipulated, pushed and pulled and torn asunder in a struggle to determine the legitimacy of the sacrificial economy of military service, a thoroughly contextual tug of war.
The last insight I want to bring into my theoretical discussion of the economy of sacrifice concerns one of the most painful aspects of this ethnographic exploration, which is the rejection of sacrifice. Moshe Halbertal examines the biblical story of Cain and Abel, who both brought offerings to God. God accepted Abel's offering of meat, and rejected Cain's offering of fruit of the soil. There is no reason given for this rejection, and this upsets Cain greatly, ultimately driving him to kill his brother out of jealousy. Halbertal concludes that "the story stresses the expectation of the giver that his sacrifice be accepted, and the utter devastation that results from its rejection" (2012: 8). Likewise, "the exclusion from the possibility of giving is a deeper source of violence than the depravation that results from not getting" (2012: 20). What characterizes my interlocutors as a group is their struggle for efficacy in the Israeli sacrificial economy, but they have highly varying degrees of success. Military service does not value all sacrifices equally, thus does not value all sacrificers equally. Although sacrifice is a central way of accruing social capital, not everyone is able to sacrifice or have his or her sacrifice recognized or accepted as such. Throughout this ethnography we will see attempts at sacrifice rebuffed, either because the offering is not considered valuable, or the person is not able to give what is desired, or is not trusted to enter the economy. This rejection excludes individuals and groups from influence and authority. Indeed, an alternative way to measure marginality might be to consider whether someone is in the position to make a valued sacrifice. Palestinian Israelis are for the most part outside the sacrificial economy in Israel and suffer greatly for the loss in social capital. Likewise, we will see how women, who have less to offer the military than men, are similarly excluded despite desperate attempts to sacrifice publicly (Chapter 3).
I consider sacrifice to be fundamental to society. I take a critical look at the sacrificial economy of military service, but do not call for the end of sacrifice or sacrificial politics, which some recent philosophical accounts do. A cross-cultural look at sacrificial traditions reveals how sacrifice is often part of the cycle of cultural life, how it conveys meaning to the group, and how it allows people to invest in their societies and form relationships much in the same way that gift economies function. Sacrifice moderates the relationship between the individual and the collective, creating and circumscribing mutual obligations. In the liberal imagination, such obligations are often seen as communal constraint and limitations on self-authorized freedom. However, the denial of such obligations reflects a liberal impasse and is neither possible nor desirable. If sacrifice is not the problem and liberalism is problematic, where does this leave military service as the sacrificial economy? I believe the dilemma lies in the relationship of the sacrificial economy to the state. The ethnography that follows suggests that sacrifice organized in relation to the state, as military service clearly is, is extremely problematic for a number of reasons. Michael Lambek has shown that sacrifice is ethical. It is guided by ethical values and suggests that the goal of the sacrifice is its ethical effects. The military, however, serves state interests, which are not guided by ethical values, though they can be ethical. State interests are guided by a concern for sovereignty, and often by the logic of Realpolitik. Realpolitik is state-level politics based on power and practical considerations and is explicitly not guided by ethical premises. Thus the ethical intentions of the sacrificers and the effects of their engagement in the sacrificial economy are mismatched, because the priorities and loyalties of the military, the institution that organizes and supervises the sacrifice, are ultimately to the state. Thus, although individuals try to engage in an ethical practice, they are deployed for goals that are often indifferent to ethics.
This produces a number of disturbing distortions of the sacrificial economy. One is that the worth of someone's offering is evaluated on utilitarian principles of military fitness. This sets out a hierarchy that carries over into nonmilitary social life, in which strong is preferred over weak (Almog 2000), male over female (Sasson-Levy 2003), able-bodied over disabled (Weiss 2005), Jewish over Arab (Kanaaneh 2009), Ashkenazi over Mizrahi (Amor 2010), and those who adhere to certain cultural codes of hegemonic Israeliness over those who deviate (Katriel 1986; Yair 2011). This hierarchy is not based on ethical distinctions but on pragmatic ones. However, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of military's place in facilitating the central sacrificial economy is the elimination of the fundamental component of substitution. In sacrifice, something of value is offered in place of the sacrificer, it represents the sacrificer. It can be an animal, an object, food, a stone. The sacrificer does not offer himself or herself. One gives in part because one expects to receive. If everything is given, the sacrificial economy cannot continue. In military service, the life of the sacrificer is offered, at least potentially. Because of the basic realities of combat and warfare, the state cannot be content with lesser substitutions and tries to cultivate willingness to undertake the ultimate sacrifice. A classic example is the myth of Joseph Trumpeldor, an early Zionist from Russia who died defending the Tel Hai settlement and became a national hero. According to legend, his dying words were "Never mind, it is good to die for our country." This legend has been used to inspire young people with nationalist sentiment and sacrificial willingness. Yet the Realpolitik ambitions of military actions, and the suspicion that soldiers are more pawns of the state than its heroes, as the state claims, manifests in cynical suspicion of state motives.
I argue that even while people participate in this economy of sacrifice through military service in Israel, there is a great deal of ambivalence and apprehension with regard to the problematic distortions I discuss. Throughout this ethnography, I seek to show that this unease not only is manifest in the crisis of conscience of my interlocutors, but also bubbles to the surface frequently in popular culture in ways that challenge the official narrative and mock the call for self-sacrifice in the military as cynical and manipulative. Thus there are many jokes about Trumpeldor. Many are sexual. One claims that his last words were not nationalist sentiment, and not in Hebrew, but rather yob tvoyu mat (fuck your mother) in Russian. Such jokes and public slights discussed in this ethnography go beyond the slaying of sacred cows. Often they reveal the nature of the unease that people have with the sacrificial economy and its cynical nature. As mentioned, the myth most commonly used both for and against the sacrificial economy has been the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. It is used to both promote and disparage the continued call for sacrifice for the nation-state. Odes to self-sacrifice have been written through this metaphor, but it has also become a locus for the festering anxiety of society with military service. The following poem by the well-known Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai reminds us that the biblical myth of sacrifice was based on substitution. Even in the original myth, God did not allow human sacrifice to take place. Both Abraham and Isaac went home, unlike modern Isaacs. It immediately raises a question: if God did not allow human sacrifice for himself, is the state a greater God for demanding it, or merely a false idol?
The Real HeroBoth the politics of the state, as well as those of resistance to the state, are organized by the sacrificial economy in their rationalities of legitimation and justification. Just as a soldier giving his or her life for the state is sanctified in the national politics of martyrdom, so the sacrifices of the resistance are measured in the negative economy. Those who sit in jail or lose their employment receive the most social respect for their commitment to the cause. That political intervention can be made only through sacrifice has strong implications regarding the expectations of modern citizenship. It is commonly thought that voting and civic engagement are key to political influence in modern democracies. Moreover, citizenship in rights-oriented societies is often promoted by such states as protection from the cultural and thick kinship ties that hold those in nonliberal societies (Povinelli 2006). Military service and its refusal reveal the communal obligations that remain hidden at the heart of modern citizenship, however. Such sacrificial obligations assumed to be limited to simpler kinship-based societies are in fact very much part of modern reality. I suggest that modern states can often demand more than face-to-face societies. Although religion, which regulates sacrifice in ritual, often sets clear limits to the personal cost of sacrifice, there is no limit to the self-sacrifice possible through military service. In the imagined community of the nation state, sacrifice has lost all moderation, blurring the expectations and limits of responsibility, as well as the object of responsibility, be it the family, the coethnic, the coreligionist, the fellow citizen, the fellow human.
The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn't know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.
I want to remember the last frame
like a photo in an elegant fashion magazine:
the young man tanned and manicured in his jazzy suit
and beside him the angel, dressed for a party
in a long silk gown,
both of them empty-eyed, looking
at two empty places,
and behind them, like a colored backdrop, the ram,
caught in the thicket before the slaughter.
The thicket was his last friend.
The angel went home.
Isaac went home.
Abraham and God had gone long before.
But the real hero of the Isaac story
was the ram. (Amichai 1996: 156-157)
In the first two chapters, I describe my fieldwork with the older generation of conscientious objectors who refused after serving in the military for a number of years. In the first chapter, I consider their path to the ethical and ontological crisis that ended in their refusal, and, in the second chapter, I consider the ways this group of refusers try to give account for their controversial acts to Israeli society, as well as to change the norms that prevent their reintegration. Chapter 1 discusses why the most elite and dedicated soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces were the ones who ultimately became conscientious objectors. The cultural idiom of sacrifice, the binding of Isaac, casts the Israeli soldier as sacrificial victim. However, conscientious objectors' experiences with their own violence against Palestinians contradicted this conviction and shook their understanding of their actions as soldiers. This contradiction precipitated a crisis of conscience. I argue that because the hegemonic inculcation of these young people was with respect to the sacrificial moral economy, and not to the state as supersubject, resistance was possible. This case prompts a reconsideration of understandings of the relationship between hegemonic inculcation and resistance. Specifically, I claim that the seeds of resistance are often found within hegemonic inculcation, especially when power is used cynically.
Chapter 2 takes up the public spectacle of confession, as performed by the conscientious objector group Combatants for Peace. Having abandoned the mainstream sacrificial economy of military service, my interlocutors struggle for moral influence on their own terms, still governed by the logics of sacrifice. This chapter explores the prospects and pitfalls of persuasion in activism for moral change. During these public events, former soldiers confess to violent encounters with Palestinian civilians. They describe their moments of epiphany in which "military logic" was broken and they saw themselves as the aggressor through the eyes of the Palestinian other. I analyze the structural, linguistic, and rhetorical techniques and characteristics of these confessions, which, like many forms of public confession, are constructed for the purpose of persuasion and moral conversion. In these confessions, the narrators use specific language and examples to upset and restructure assumptions of innocence and guilt to their Israeli audience. As a result, their confessions are in essence an accusation against both audience members who still serve in the military and the state. Through this clandestine substitution of meaning, the ex-soldiers exploit one of the greatest vulnerabilities of the state: its dependence on voluntary sacrifice to maintain its coercive force.
The third and fourth chapters move to consider the younger group of conscientious objectors who decide to refuse service before ever enlisting. The third chapter considers their path to refusal and the social sanctions they experience, the fourth how they attempt to explain and defend their acts as a matter of conscience, this time in the legal setting. Chapter 3 describes how from an early age, this group lived with the expectation of their military service, the expectation of their self-sacrifice. This star-crossed birthright was described by the poet Haim Gouri as being "born with a knife in their hearts." Although this group questions the legitimacy of such demands, the society in which their daily interactions and primary relationships take place is deeply embedded with these logics. Alienation from close relatives and expulsion from school are a few of the social consequences my interlocutors faced during this period. The older generation of refusers mobilizes both the respect they won as elite soldiers and the social respect for their sacrifice of incarceration for refusal. This younger group, including many women, finds itself paradoxically unable to produce the kinds of narratives that are compelling to Israeli audience, or to mobilize social capital in the same way. This chapter highlights the desperate attempts of my interlocutors to find relevance in the sacrificial economy, and the distress of their exclusion.
Chapter 4 considers the legal adjudication of the question of conscience by the Israeli military. The Israeli military's Conscience Committee evaluates and exempts pacifists from obligatory military service, based explicitly on concern for liberal tolerance. However, I find that pacifist refusal based on principled objections to violence challenges the legitimacy of the state and the hegemonic moral order. As such, applicants who articulate their refusal in these terms are rejected by the military review board. By contrast, pacifist conscientious objection based in embodied visceral revulsion to violence does not challenge the state's existential basis and moral order; cases framed in these terms are granted exemption. Understanding pacifist as a physical incapacity depoliticizes pacifism by making it incommensurable with public moral debate concerning military service and preventing the military from having to engage or recognize pacifist moral claims against violence, including state violence. This creates a dilemma for pacifist applicants who wish not only to be exempted from service, but also to engage politically on questions of military service and violence and to endow their pacifism with political meaning and relevance. The pathologization of pacifism demonstrates the way in which the discursive production involved in adjudicating rights can negatively shape the social and political meaning of the minority identity, and the rationality of attributing rights.
Chapter 5 addresses the conflicting obligations and responsibilities that conscientious objectors face. Although my interlocutors expect to be able to bracket their dissent from daily life, they find that the matter is much more deeply entwined in the social than they had previously realized. This misrecognition sets off a series of mutual betrayals between family, friends, community, and the state that uncover existing tensions and Oedipal anxieties. The expectations of my interlocutors for the liberal promise are contrasted with those for whom marginality is not a new experience. This comparison leads me to conclude that commonly held ideas of hegemony as a tool deployed by the dominant class to confuse and subjugate the lower class are highly misleading in the case of liberalism. Rather, I suggest, the contradictions and violence of the political system are often pushed to the social margins, the burdens of such contradictions falling on the lower classes. Thus, the dominant class, protected from the violence of its ideology, is far more hegemonically inculcated than those who have long encountered the strong arm of the state.
Finally, I take up the broader implications of conscientious objection and consider how this phenomenon exposes a number of false promises made by state. One is the promise of autonomous conscience. Rather than a resolute act of unambiguous conscience, military refusal is shown to be messy and compromising. Israeli objectors struggle deeply with the tensions of obligation to conscience and citizenship obligations, but do so under a misleading expectation of dissent without social sanction. Many conscientious objectors have become disillusioned with the promise of Zionism as a solution to the "Jewish question"—a false promise of permanent security, absolute belonging, and cultural fulfillment. This is the heroic promise of the nation-state, offered in exchange for sacrifice, an economy of negation. That military service can be an ethical system of sacrifice is yet another false promise. It is a case of the fox guarding the chicken coop. The state is driven by realism combined with a desire for power and territory as opposed to ethical principles, and as such cannot protect or facilitate an ethical tradition. Ultimately, I hope in what follows engage the entailments of national citizenship, the shuffling of yokes and burdens between consent and dissent, and the possible openings these obligations engender.