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Israel's High-Tech Soldiers Go AWOL

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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The Israel Defense Forces are back in the headlines, and it's not because of the Gaza War. Rather it's because on Thursday, 43 reservists in Unit 8200 -- one of Israel's most elite intelligence units -- released a letter to the prime minister, the IDF chief of staff, the head of military intelligence and the commander of Unit 8200, saying that they would no longer serve the unit because it was spying on Palestinians who represented no security threat.

The reservists made it clear that they were not seeking to shirk military duty. "All we want to do is to turn on a warning light in the Israeli public," said one, whom YNet referred to as "S." "We will agree to return to serve in the unit if we know that the purpose for which we are there is self-defense, and not to perpetuate the military regime."

With their letter, these reservists joined what is a hallowed tradition in Israel. In 2003, 27 reserve pilots declared that they would no longer bomb targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if civilians would be harmed. Later that year, 13 reservists in Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) -- among Israel's most elite commando units -- announced that they would no longer serve in the territories.

Those soldiers, too, were following in others' footsteps. In 1970, 56 high school students penned what is now known as "the Twelfth-Graders' Letter" to Prime Minister Golda Meir, in which they intimated that they would not serve in the IDF as long as the government kept missing opportunities for peace. Their letter elicited both support and vociferous objection, but the brouhaha died down when, several months later, most of them reported for duty.

That was a different era. In 1970, Israel was still riding the wave of post-Six Day War confidence. The devastating Yom Kippur War was still three years away. And the "kids" were young, innocent in a way. Today's Israel is a more shaken place, and the objectors are not young. Nor are they simply advocating something as nebulous as peace. They reflect one particular position on the Israeli political spectrum, a place on the far left that in the aftermath of the Gaza War most Israelis view as dangerously naive.

"Our military service has taught us that intelligence is an integral part of Israel's military occupation over the territories," the reservists wrote in their letter. They added that, "Settlement expansion has nothing to do with national security."

Amos Oz, an Israeli novelist with cult-like status, predictably supported the reservists. But most of the country -- newly reminded of the existential threats with which it must contend -- responded with disdain. IDF Spokesperson Moti Almoz wrote on his Facebook page that "the disciplinary treatment will be sharp and clear." Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon wrote on his Facebook page that the reservists' protest was a "vile and reprehensible attempt to aid the lies and delegitimization spread around the world against Israel and its soldiers, without any basis." Even Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition and an advocate of territorial accommodation, had no patience for the display. On his Facebook page, he noted that he, too, had served in 8200, and was certain that mistakes might well have been made. But, he insisted, millions of Israelis owed their lives to 8200, and he would in no way condone conscientious objection, the price for which "we, the citizens of Israel, will pay."

On social media, many other Israelis responded with anger and derision. Ran Baratz, a well-known young conservative intellectual noted on Facebook that the move was anti-democratic, since it placed the burden of defending the country on those who obeyed the law and reported for duty. A much snarkier Facebook post, designed to look like hesitating speech, ridiculed the reservists by writing: "We, the graduates of Unit 8200 signed below, refuse to do reserve duty in the IDF. We have Asperger's and we do not know what to do with all the money that we've made in high-tech, so we spend it all on toy trains."

It was hardly the most politically correct post. But its reference to the fact that many 8200 "graduates" go on to lucrative careers in high-tech -- in Israel, the quick wealth an antithesis of the collectivist ethos that was once at the core of society -- was a stab at the reservists' having broken with the collective at a particularly sensitive time in Israel's history.

No one denies the reservists' right to hold, and express, political views. (Even the right-of-center Jerusalem Post opined that it was "perfectly legitimate" to identify with the ideologies of the twelfth-graders and other objecting soldiers -- though the Post also insisted that refusal to obey orders crossed a line.) But in the aftermath of the horrific summer that has just passed, Israelis have bonded together and, at least for the time being, put political quarrels aside. The reservists, whose plan to protest pre-dated this summer's hostilities, violated that unspoken rule and are paying the public price.

And yet, here's something of which Israelis on both sides of the divide are keenly aware: Had anyone in Gaza tried to protest Hamas's policies in precisely the same way, advocating better treatment of Israelis, they probably would have been be shot dead on the street, in public, for all to witness as a warning. Troubled as some Israelis might have been by the reservists' protest, they know that its mere existence reflects Israel's deep democratic commitments, freedom of the press and tradition of vigorous public debate, and thus, is also a cause for pride.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net