By Ami Kronfeld

As you all know, a group of Israeli officers and combat soldiers called Courage to Refuse have publicly declared that they are no longer willing the carry the government policies in the occupied territories. As of 3/23/03, there are 350 of them. All told, more than a thousand people have either pledged to refuse to serve in the occupied territories or actually did refuse since the beginning of the current Intifada.

On 2/25/02, Amnon Rubinstein, a former professor of law, a member of the Israeli Knesset since 1977 and one of the leaders of the dovish Meretz party wrote an article in Ha'aretz in which he declared that whoever supports the refuseniks should "redefine the meaning of 'morality' and 'conscience.'"

The soldiers of Courage to Refuse have responded with a very sharp rebuttal (available on their website www.seruv.org.il.) This is a translation of the very last paragraph of their text:
"Now that our obedience can no longer be taken for granted by you [Amnon Rubinstein - AK] or by the state; now that you and your establishment cohorts have so irresponsibly succeeded in squandering our obedience until none of it is left, you will have to find solutions to the state's problems without it, as a true leader should. And if you can't, let others, more worthy than you, govern in your place."

This is what Courage to Refuse told Amnon Rubinstein. I will get back to this paragraph shortly, but before that, let me tell you a little personal story.

Once upon a time, and a long long time ago it was (1968), I found myself in the role of a PE instructor in an Israeli boot camp. I remember a specific day when I was in charge of training an infantry platoon for a few hours. After several routines, my task at the moment was to make the exhausted and disoriented soldiers do some push-ups. Their task, on the other hand, was to make the day pass as quickly as possible so that they could go back to their cots and get some sleep. As I was looking at the soldiers standing at attention, it suddenly dawned upon me: although I had the authority and power of the Israeli army behind me (in fact, the entire authority and power of the state of Israel), if these soldiers were to decide, collectively, that they had had enough push-ups for one day, there was absolutely nothing whatsoever I could do about it!!

I still remember the momentary panic I experienced. But it was only 30 years later, when I read the philosopher John Searle's book The Construction of Social Reality (The Free Press, 1995) that I understood the significance of that moment. According to Searle, the only source of authority and power attached to institutions is our collective recognition (and acceptance) of such authority. Once collective recognition and acceptance are withdrawn, the authority and power of an institution - any institution - simply evaporate. The institution can be as small and minimal as that of a referee in a friendly basketball game, or as large and powerful as the Soviet Union was. No matter what kind of institution it is, its power and authority emanate from the fact that people recognize that this institution has such power and authority. There is a fragile quality to our institutional reality, like magic, almost: once enough people cease to recognize the authority of an institution, that authority simply disappears, as indeed was the case with the Soviet Union. Money is another good example of such ephemeral dependence on our acceptance. What makes a piece of color paper with a number printed on top powerful enough to get us dinner? The full story is long and complicated, but a very simple answer is this: the color paper is powerful enough to get us dinner simply because enough people around us believe it to be powerful enough to get us dinner. If too many people no longer believe that the money is valuable then, indeed, the money becomes worthless. Incidentally, this characteristic of human institutions is neither good nor bad. Searle's point is a logical one: it's just the way things are, and there isn't much we can do about that.

I got to thinking about all this when I read the exchange between Amnon Rubinstein and Courage to Refuse. Like most politicians, does not realize that the shoe is now on the other foot. The question is not whether the soldiers of Courage to Refuse have the "right" to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, whether it is "moral" for them to do so, or whether the Israeli government can "tolerate" such behavior. It's not the legitimacy of the soldiers' position which is at stake. Rubinstein's own legitimacy, and the legitimacy of the policies he and others stand for are now being called into question. And the legitimacy of Rubinstein (and others like him) is called into question not through some intellectual discussion among political scientists, but simply because of the fact that a growing number of soldiers are withdrawing their recognition and acceptance of his authority and power. Like most politicians, Rubinstein mistakenly believes that the fact that the authority of an institution was accepted in the past should guarantee continued acceptance in the future. Like most politicians he fails to see what every school teacher knows: that you should be extremely careful what you ask of people under your authority, because once you push them too far, your authority will just crumble.

The truth is that what Amnon Rubinstein thinks of Courage to Refuse does not matter very much (it is obviously part of a public relations campaign to isolate the refuseniks). What does matter is the fact (and it is a fact, whether one likes it or not) that an ever expanding number of soldiers no longer unconditionally recognize the power and authority of the Israeli army to tell them what to do in the Occupied Territories. If this trend continues, the government would have to change its policies, because, as Brecht would have put it, the government cannot fire its subjects and elect new ones to rule over.

The great majority of Israeli soldiers will not (and did not) hesitate for a second when asked to risk life and limb for the defense of the country. The great majority (including the soldiers of Courage to Refuse) would love nothing more than for someone to restore their faith in the institutions that are supposed to govern them and guarantee the safety of their families. But a growing number of soldiers fail to see why they are asked to shatter children's knees, shoot pregnant women in the back and in general subjugate a defenseless population (and still risk their own lives in the process) - all just in order to maintain absolute control over occupied people. Again, whether one agrees or disagrees with these soldiers is beside the point. The fact is that their obedience can no longer be taken for granted and this, in turns, has enormous consequences for the power and authority of politicians and the institutions they serve. The politicians realize this, of course. Their sense of panic is real and well founded.

It is important that the soldiers of Courage to Refuse understand how much power they wield. Not individually - as individuals each of them is powerless - but as a group. This does not mean that the government and the army will accept the soldiers' new power lying down. The politicians and the top military echelon will lie, cheat, smear, pontificate, isolate, intimidate and - if given the chance - try to crush the refuseniks. But this will get to be more and more difficult as the number of refusing soldiers grows. In a sense, Courage to Refuse is the exact opposite of a pyramid scheme (not only morally but statistically as well). In a pyramid scheme, the later you join, the more risk you take. With the soldiers' initiative, on the other hand, most of the personal risk was taken by the first group that started it all. As more and more soldiers join the list, the risk they take gets lower and lower until a certain threshold is crossed beyond which there will be no risk at all because refusal will have simply become the norm. Way before it comes to that, however, the politicians will give up and change their policies (or be summarily replaced) because otherwise the most powerful institutions of the state will simply crumble. And no one wants that - least of all the politicians themselves. American politicians who have lived through the Vietnam era understand this process all too well, and soon enough Israeli politicians will follow suit.

It's like the old joke: if you owe the bank fifty thousand dollars, you are in trouble. But if you owe fifty million dollars, it is the bank that is in trouble. It is the Amnon Rubinsteins who are in trouble now.