Weiss: Conscientious Objectors in Israel: Citizenship, Sacrifice, Trials of Fealty
Conscientious Objectors in Israel: Citizenship, Sacrifice, Trials of Fealty, by Erica Weiss. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 216 pages. Index to p. 202. $49.95 cloth and e-book.
With this book, Erica Weiss, who teaches anthropology at Tel Aviv University, has made a timely intervention into a far too little studied issue: how the small but politically portentous cadre of Israeli refusers defines its conscientious objection to military service, how that position fits into the broader political discourses surrounding the role of the military in Israeli identity and society, and the possible impacts of the phenomenon of conscientious objection.
The book, an expanded version of Weiss’s dissertation, is based on almost two years of fieldwork in Israel and examines how conscientious objectors have tried to come to grips with their decision and defend it to Israeli society. But first, she engages in a sophisticated analysis of the “conscience” of a modern political subject and how it relates to what she describes as the "sacrificial logic of the modern nation-state." This is an important move with which to begin her argument because it immediately places the Israeli debates within a broader global political context in which "conscience" in its modern sense—that is, as both a most personal ethical experience and potent public discourse (p. 1)—persists at a liminal point partly within and outside of the jurisdictional bounds of state power: it is "free" and yet its exercise exacts a great cost when it challenges the "sacrifice" that is considered incumbent upon every citizen to make.
Israel is defined by a particularly powerful “economy of sacrifice” that both demands much from the Jewish citizen but also guarantees—or traditionally guaranteed, at least—a significant return on that investment: both through the guarantee of the collective’s survival and through all the personal and communal benefits that accrue to those who serve (and which, equally important, are removed from those who refuse service) (p. 48). What Weiss demonstrates so effectively is how powerful the dissonance created by appeals to conscience is in a country where the hegemonic ideology demands that "conscience" uncritically support the official nationalist narrative. For a country in which compulsory military service has been central to shaping male and female citizenship and identity, the appeal to conscience as a justification for refusing to participate in the exercise of state power against perceived and defined enemies is a clear threat to the state’s hegemonic ideology, which interprets criticism as a dangerous dissent from public reason.
Israel is defined by a particularly powerful "economy of sacrifice" that both demands much from the Jewish citizen but also guarantees—or traditionally guaranteed, at least—a significant return on that investment: both through the guarantee of the collective’s survival and through all the personal and communal benefits that accrue to those who serve (and which, equally important, are removed from those who refuse service) (p. 48). What Weiss demonstrates so effectively is how powerful the dissonance created by appeals to conscience is in a country where the hegemonic ideology demands that "conscience" uncritically support the official nationalist narrative. For a country in which compulsory military service has been central to shaping male and female citizenship and identity, the appeal to conscience as a justification for refusing to participate in the exercise of state power against perceived and defined enemies is a clear threat to the state’s hegemonic ideology, which interprets criticism as a dangerous dissent from public reason.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rightly defined through a long-term, zero-sum competition over territory. But it is the use of violence by both the colonizing and the colonized sides, and particularly by the far stronger colonizing Israeli side to pursue its strategic goals, that has most deeply shaped—or rather scarred—relations between the two and the internal dynamics of each society. As Weiss illustrates through a detailed and empirically rich exploration of the social life of conscientious dissent, the violence stokes the inherent tension within liberal notions and practices of citizenship, in particular between the protection of individual rights and obligations of self sacrifice in order to protect the collective. There are two components of this dynamic. One is the description of how Israeli nationalist ideology creates and enforces a rhetoric of conscience and sacrifice that enables the long-term continuation of the occupation and the larger conflict with Palestinians. The political and indeed epistemological contours of this discourse are well known, but Weiss brings out the nuances and richness of the myriad ways it inflects and shapes mainstream Israeli Jewish identity. More valuable, however, is her discussion of groups like Combatants for Peace, which is the primary group of former Israeli military and/or security personnel who have refused to continue serving in the military, or at least in the occupied territories, after experiencing and participating in actions that violated their moral conscience. The group also includes onetime Palestinian combatants who have taken part in violence against Israelis, but they are almost an afterthought in the Israeli context. It is precisely because the Jewish Israeli members of Combatants for Peace served at the heart of the military system, in the occupied territories—and from that experience, completely changed their positions—that makes their stories so powerful. This differentiates them from groups like Anarchists Against The Wall or Women in Black, whose critique of the status quo and "confessions" are not influenced by whether their members served in the military.
The relationship between Combatants for Peace and Israeli citizens is uniquely empathetic. When the organization holds public gatherings, "The audience feels that they are owed an explanation, and that they are responsible for these speakers as insiders in its community" (p. 70). What is crucial here is that "the speaker confesses, not only the sins of Combatants for Peace, but also the sins of the audience." But the audience doesn’t realize going in that it is about to confess, and thus, Weiss points out rightly, there is a “cheat” in that they are being made to confess without their consent, being made to declare that their very identity represents a form of "hijacked sovereignty" that can produce neither internal peace nor peace with Palestinians as long as the very foundation of military service involves continuous
violations of Palestinians’ rights (p. 71).
There is a clear level of duplicity involved in the public confessional nature of these kinds of gatherings, one that is intensified by the manner in which Palestinian narratives are shaped to fit the sensibilities of Israeli Jewish audiences so that they do not seem to be either too "whiny" or accusatory. What Palestinians "really think" of Israelis is clearly understood by the Jewish Israeli members of Combatants for Peace to be too negative for most Israeli Jews to want to hear, even if they already know what it is. More important is for them to be forced to confront the crimes that their Jewish speakers—and by extension many if not most of them, as veterans themselves—have committed and what the impact of such actions has been—what one participant described as “real life” versus the “theory” of civilized behavior and mutual recognition.
Ultimately, what groups like Combatants for Peace struggle with is the "alterity they find in Palestinians with whom they come face to face" (p. 79). This is perhaps a generational dynamic, as Weiss’s analysis makes clear, as a younger generation of activists are far more plugged into global discourses and, more importantly, are explicitly from the "post-heroic generation" who have opted out of the entire "sacrificial economy" which binds most Israeli Jewish citizens to the state and its governing ideologies (p. 97). These younger generations of objectors who refuse from the start (or close to it) to participate in the moral economy of Zionism have numerous struggles to confront, not least of which is the loss of many life opportunities that results from refusing to serve in the military.
Weiss ends the book by exploring how the army attempts to adjudicate claims by Israelis to refuse military service based on pacifism, and the role of "political" sentiments in voiding such claims; more specifically, in convincing the "Conscience Committee" of the military that avowed pacifist inclinations in fact merely mask a political—and therefore illegitimate—rationale for refusing to participate in the inherent violence of military service in the context of unending occupation. To this day, the military demands a physical-cum-psychological performance of "fragility" that does not question the psychology of violence and domination that characterizes the
military’s identity. Whereas "I can’t stand violence but I’m not judging you, go kill whoever you want" (p. 127) is apparently a legitimate feeling, "I’m against violence and I think no one else should be violent either" is most definitely not, precisely because it passes moral judgment on the rest of society and demands a change.
This change is, tragically, still quite far off, and Weiss’s fascinating and engaging book helps us understand not just why this is so, but where the focal point of future struggles within Israeli society will likely be in the excruciatingly slow process of awakening the national consciousness to the true costs the occupation has on Israel’s foundational and present-day identities.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Irvine, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University. He is coeditor of One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014) and author of Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine since 1989 (London: Zed Books, 2009), among others.