Can a democracy facing serious, domestic, Constitutional pressure, survive? Surprisingly enough, in the 21st century it depends on where the military stands on the issue.
What is happening in Israel’s IDF today is not at all unique to other democracies in its broad parameters, but rather the same wine in a different bottle. In total, already thousands of voluntary reservists have signed petitions that they will not continue to appear for reserve duty (“milu’im”), if and when the Judicial Reform laws are passed in toto in their present configuration. The public debate on the issue has offered more heat than (en)light(enment), so it pays first to explain just what that entails.
First, in describing what these reservists are doing, the media are throwing around the term “conscientious objection”. This is technically correct, but semantically misleading, because it is usually employed when soldiers (or civilians too, for that matter) refuse to obey their commanders’ legal orders in times of war (or won’t abide by immoral domestic directives). The present IDF reservists – Air Force, Army, and Navy (not to mention strong letters of protest by Shabak personnel as well (Israel’s security force in charge of the administered territories/Judea and Samaria) – have all extended their reserve duty voluntarily for the past few decades (yes, some have been doing non-mandatory reserve duty for over 20 years beyond their legal requirement). What they are saying now is that they will no longer continue to volunteer when it’s not critically essential. This is legal “conscientious objection” within even the strictest interpretation of the law.
A second confusion surrounds the issue of the government’s actions that are being opposed. Those in favor of the Judicial Reform legislation – and the army brass on high who have stayed neutral on the issue – argue that if we enable the IDF reservists to dictate policy here, then that will serve as a precedent for the next piece of legislation (even when today’s Opposition comes to power) to be opposed by other IDF reservists unhappy with those proposed laws in the future. This is a specious argument for the simple reason that the reservists today – along with huge swaths of society – are not against any change in legislative policy but rather are fighting against a significant alteration of the rules of the democratic game in Israel! Or to put it more bluntly, they see this as the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy per se, affecting all potential legislation and policymaking in the future. That’s a completely different kettle of fish than opposing this or that specific piece of Knesset lawmaking.
All this is not unique in contemporary annals of world politics. In the past, the military has almost always sided with the more reactionary parties in democracies and quasi-democracies (1930s Germany and Spain, 1960s Greece, 1980s Chile, to name but a few examples), even when those conservatives were bent on weakening or eliminating their country’s democratic institutions. Today, the picture is radically different in several countries. Under President Trump it was widely reported that the military was ready to refuse some of the “unconstitutional” policies that he was considering, especially regarding Trump’s attempts to “overturn” the 2020 election results. More recently, Brazil’s army refused to get involved in the same issue, despite former President Bolsonaro’s entreaties. (To be sure, from a democratic standpoint not all is moving in the right – sorry: I meant the correct – direction. Just this week, it has been reported that Mexico’s army has taken over the civilian National Guard, thus adding extra powers to spy on civilians.)
A longstanding metaphor in Israel’s IDF heritage has been answering “the call to the flag” (“nikrah el ha’degel”) i.e., showing up when the country’s security needs are palpable. The petition reservists have made it clear that in any real crisis, they will be there to serve. What they are not willing to do is serve when the “flag” becomes meaningless in their eyes. They signed up to protect the Democratic/Jewish State. If the first part of those inseparable twin values disappears, so will they. From the reservists’ perspective, that’s not “disobedience” but rather the most patriotic thing they can do to ensure the continuity of Israel’s democracy.