Christian conscientious objectors


We are happy to host the post below, by Lynda  Brayer, who represented several conscientious objectors to military service in Supreme Court appeals in the mid 1990s. Her work on this issue is part of a very interesting and often overlooked period in the history of the refusal movement in Israel, when it was led by recent immigrants from the former USSR, among them many Christian pacifists. In this post, Lynda Brayer shares some of her thoughts regarding the status of conscientious objectors, and especially Christian conscientious objectors, in Israel.


Israel does not have a special category for Christian conscientious objectors. But this must be said together with the fact that all conscientious objectors have a very difficult time getting recognition as such and many go to prison. The distinction between a complete pacifist and someone who distinguishes between “just” and “unjust” wars does not have a proper place within the system. In fact, one suspects that anyone adopting the position that Israel is conducting an unjust war will find him or herself spending much more time in prison.


The ultra-Orthodox, some of whom do not recognize the Jewish state qua Jewish state, but rather relate to it according to the Jewish halachic injunction of dina demalchuta dina – that the laws of the state are only laws and that one may find a way how to avoid them, have a special arrangement regarding military service. Men are allowed to pursue religious studies while getting continuous deferrals, and eventually an exemption, from military service. Women who grew up in ultra-Orthodox Jewish families are exempted in an almost automatic process. A problem has been created between the ultra-Orthodox community and the State because of the exponential growth of those who have become ultra-religious and refuse to do service on those grounds. When it was a matter of a few hundred yeshiva students, it was not considered a problem. Today there are thousands if not tens of thousands of men who don’t do service because of their Ultra-Orthodox service. They are considered to be parasitic on the State by the secular authorities.


Different legal arrangements have been attempted to cope with this phenomenon, but one of the most obvious characteristics is that the State will not use force to induct these men. At one point, if a man was studying in a yeshiva, his service was automatically deferred. Problems occurred when he either completed his studies, or wanted to stop studying, but remained Ultra-Orthodox and did not want to serve. My only experience with this was when a boy from this community came to me and asked me to represent him as a conscientious objector and gave me both biblical and Talmudic sayings in support of his position. But he refused to go to the High Court because he was afraid of the response of his community, although I could not really make out why he was so fearful.


One could say that the overriding difference between a Christian conscientious objector and a Jewish ultra-Orthodox is that the latter is part of a very tight-knit and large community, which is protected by its leaders. They have considerable political clout, and they can get the civil authorities to treat them in the way they choose. Israel cannot simply override their wishes and demand that they serve in the army in exactly the same way as secular Jews do. Furthermore, there is another problem at this time. The army has more than enough conscripts every year and therefore permits a large number of women, and men not to serve. However, usually such exemptions are not the stuff of political and religious issues.


The Christian conscientious objector’s position is both political and religious. The last thing Israel needs is to have a huge religious/political confab on this issue. It must be remembered that Christian Palestinians are not conscripted – because they are Palestinian, not because they are Christian. They therefore never face this conflict. Some of them however volunteer in the Israeli army for reasons that people volunteer in the States: there is not enough work, they are provided for over time, they might receive training, and they might benefit from some advantages as a result of their service. However this has not been enough to attract Christian Palestinians in great numbers, nor Muslim Palestinians. On the other hand, the Druze, a religious community historically related to but separate from Islam, are subject to conscription and they get no consideration whatsoever for conscientious objection. They are thrown into prison.


The Israeli Courts are not helpful because they do not want to set any precedents. In one particular case I represented, when my client said that he was a pacifist and against violence of any kind, one of the judges asked what was violent about the army! In other words, would the army be violent against him. Naturally the judge did not consider what the Israeli army does to others as violence – for him it would and could only be honest and good defense.


What this leads to is that most conscientious objectors simply ask for a release from army service on psychiatric grounds (either before or after imprisonment). The army leaves them no other choice.


In the light of all this, I can not see Israel ever accepting a legally recognized status of conscientious objector for a Christian based on her or his beliefs. I think they also realize that many secular Jews might jump on the bandwagon. It is also necessary to remember that many European states did not recognize conscientious objection until late in the twentieth century.