Friday, November 06, 2009

Military Service and Common Courtesy

Before I write the next two posts from my trip, I thought I should briefly explain my thoughts regarding two, otherwise unrelated issues that influenced the events to be described. The first part concerns the ethics of military or security service under an unjust or crimimal regime. The second regards the conflicts between the duty of advocacy and the courtesies due as a guest, particularly in a religious context. Neither of these are intended as arguments in support of my views (though I obviously think they have some merit, or they wouldn't be my views!), but are merely an attempt to provide context for what might be a pretty confusing narrative.
Serving an unjust regime
It seems to me that every sovereign nation, even the very worst, has legitimate security needs. Where, exactly, one places the line between legitimate and illegitimate needs is a more complicated question, and fortunately not one that I need to address here. Instead, I will take what I view as the easy case: lethal attacks that target, or make no attempt to spare, young children neither engaged in nor supporting combat activities. One may argue that, in some cases, the regime need only cease its own illegitimate behavior in order to eliminate the relevant threat, but this fails to resolve the problem in two respects: first of all, neither policy changes, nor the responses to those changes, are instantaneous, and the security need, even in a best-case scenario, will remain in force for some significant period. Second, I am primarily concerned, not with political decision-makers, but with regular 'grunts', who have very limited ability to change the bigger picture, and must make their ethical decisions in the world that presents itself to them. So, a typical citizen is left with a number of choices, though the exact list and the penalties associated with each choice may vary widely. For my purposes here, I will rely on the following options that pertain in Israel at present:
1) Non-citizens or citizens not required to perform military service can volunteer for such service.
2) Citizens normally required to perform military service can agree to serve.
3) Citizens normally required to perform military service can (fairly easily, and without significant penalty) avoid service for reasons other than moral.
4) Citizens normally required to perform military service can refuse such service on moral grounds, generally suffering very serious penalties.
5) Citizens not required to perform military service can simply not serve.
Some people would argue that, under an unjust regime, the only moral options are to avoid or refuse to serve. I understand their perspective, but disagree, for several reasons. First of all, military service typically involves risks and personal sacrifices not associated with other occupations. To refuse to serve when refusal carries comparable risks may well be preferable, but is it really better to avoid, or simply not volunteer for, service, placing the burden of legimate security needs on others, than to shoulder one's own share of that burden? What if avoiding service requires that one give false testimony regarding disability or ineligibility? Does it matter if the testimony is mostly ritual, and nobody is truly deceived? The answers to these questions are not at all clear to me.
For those who do decide to serve, however, even more difficult decisions may remain. One possibility (and, in my view, the most honorable of all choices) is to agree to serve the legitimate needs of the regime, thus subjecting oneself to military discipline, but then refuse to join the regime's illegitimate activities. In most countries, however, I believe the penalties for this kind of action are truly severe, usually much worse than those imposed under civilian law for refusing to serve. This is relevant when the illegitimate activities are explictly sponsored by the regime: death squads, collective punishment, land appropriations, etc. Sometimes, however, it may be the manner in which legitimate activities are conducted that renders them illegitimate: harassment and humiliation during border checks, beatings when taking police reports, live fire for crowd control, etc. In these situations, there may be ethical paths that are not quite so grim, but they may still be terrifying, and even truly dangerous. Simply standing aside from such activities is not, in my view, a moral option, but it may not be so different from simply avoiding service in the first place. Is verbally discouraging illegitimate activities sufficient? That can be harder than it sounds, but it's not much to expect of a person who chooses to serve an unjust regime. Is it necessary to physically intervene to stop abuse? This is frightening and potentially dangerous, even when only one member of a unit is involved in illegitimate activities, which is usually the exception; it is far harder when a majority of a unit are complicit. Or must one threaten and/or pursue public, legal action against those responsible? When problems are widespread, this is a truly terrifying, and potentially lethal, course of action.
Now, it is well-established that there are (or have recently been) people who satisfy the easy case I describe, and this, in my judgment, gives the government of Israel a legitimate security need to prevent such attacks. {I in no way mean to imply by this that the Israeli regime is, as a whole, in an ethically superior position relative to these hypothetical attackers, which is an entirely different question.} All too often, when I encounter a member of the Israeli military, border police, or intelligence services, they are clearly involved in illegitimate activities: supporting illegal settlements, harassing or abusing Palestinians, attacking demonstrators, preventing farmers' access to their land, etc. At all other times, however, based on the reasoning described above, I assume that they are serving with honor, unless and until I have reason to believe otherwise.
The duty of advocacy versus courtesies as a guest
I consider myself, in my idiosyncratic and frequently paradoxical way, a very religous person. Since my religion is Judaism, that means I consider myself a very religious Jew, which isn't always an easy role, nowadays. Over the past several years, I have rarely, if ever, attended a Jewish religious gathering of any kind that did not make me significantly uncomfortable in some way related to our treatment of the Palestinian people. I see politics and religion as (rightfully) separate things, and emphatically prefer to keep politics out of Shabbat observance (one of the areas where I think halachah deserves more respect than it gets). Beyond some threshold, and even on Shabbat, I have a duty to advocate for Palestinian rights and for decent behavior in general, but where that threshold lies and with what vigor it is appropriate to respond when it is crossed is rarely clear.
When I'm invited as a guest to a private home, in particular, then, unless my host knows exactly who he/she is inviting, I tend to hold my tongue until something truly egregious is said or done. This isn't a particularly reasoned stance, just a visceral reluctance to 'sneak up' on somebody and shatter a religious gathering to which they invited me in all good will.
Another (completely unrelated) thing I try to avoid is publicly embarassing someone, particularly a host in their own home, and most particularly a host in an area where they are thought or expected to be knowledgeable/competent/etc. For this reason, if I am in the company of a rabbi or other religious figure (from whatever religion), I may speak out if I feel something inherently wrong is going on, but I will rarely say anything about behavior that is only (or primarily) problematic in the particular religious context. If a Catholic priest hands out soggy wafers, I'm not going to object; nor, if an observant rabbi ignores it, am I going to criticize table discussion that seems clearly inappropriate on Shabbat, but that would be more-or-less acceptable in another setting.


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