Jerusalem is not Birmingham, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is anything but black and white.
Yesterday, Moriel Rothman was arrested by Israeli military police for refusing an order to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces. He will spend a fair amount of time in prison for that decision, and—as far as I can tell—that is precisely his point. Why did he do it? Writing here and elsewhere, Rothman explains that he was inspired by the principles and tactics of the American Civil Rights Movement, what he calls “The Narrative”: “The values of nonviolence, anti-racism and disobeying unjust laws have motivated my refusal to serve in the IDF.”
While Rothman describes his decision in weighty ethical language, the situation is complicated by more pressing issues of policy, necessity, and national security. At the end of the day, Moriel Rothman’s act of protest is irresponsible and ethically murky, an example of noble intentions gone awry.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t respect his choice. Rothman is certainly more admirable than the 28% of Israeli men who avoid military service for, well, no reason at all. That he is willing to spend time in prison for his beliefs is powerful.
But he is still wrong. Unlike the American Civil Rights activists that Rothman so admires, his own actions are misguided and counterproductive. As an act of protest, his refusal is dramatic but fluffy; as a statement of policy, it oversimplifies and misrepresents terribly important issues.
To begin with, an act of civil disobedience must be sustainable and coherent. Rosa Parks wanted everyone to sit wherever they may please; Martin Luther King sought unqualified equality; and Thurgood Marshall worked for desegregation at every school. In refusing to serve in the IDF, Rothman is setting a precedent that he cannot possibly wish that others will follow. Mass draft evasion would certainly end the occupation—but it would also end the State of Israel. In his attempt to act morally, Rothman fails Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”
Further, Rothman paints the IDF as a single-purpose organization, with one “central and primary task today: the maintenance of the occupation.” If so, Israel is wasting a tremendous amount of money and manpower on its military. Why does Israel devote 8% of its GDP (almost twice as much as the U.S.) to defense spending? To put it simply: “occupying” a small strip of land is cheap; preparing for nuclear war is not. The “central and primary” purpose of the IDF today and throughout its history has been to deter Israel’s neighbors from wiping the Jewish State off the map.
Without a conscripted military, the State of Israel would face certain, immediate destruction. Scratch that: without the strongest military in the region, Israel would face certain, immediate destruction. This fact does not excuse its transgressions or exempt it from basic standards of moral conduct, but it does mean that Rothman’s refusal to serve ultimately represents a balancing of Palestinian rights with Israeli safety. I don’t like the side he came out on.
When I was 19, I volunteered for an IDF infantry unit. It was a generally unpleasant experience, but one that continues to inform and inspire nearly every facet of my life. While much has changed since then, my primary motivating factors remain the same: the IDF protects a people, land, and culture that are deeply important to me. Nothing can outweigh that.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.