No longer willing to carry the burden: Reservist protest hints at deeper crisis
The IDF is deeply worried that refusal to serve over judicial overhaul will spread. Such threats have been made before, but this time feels different
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to fly to Italy on Thursday. It won’t be the flight he dreamed of.
According to numerous Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu and his wife Sara prefer to fly abroad in a more modern 777 plane, which has seats that fold out into full beds, and not in the aging fleet of 737s held by Israeli airlines. But for his flight this week, Netanyahu is stuck with a 737.
Why is that newsworthy? Not because of the premier’s flight or seating arrangements, but because of the reason for the change: The pilots qualified to fly the 777s operated by Israel’s El Al airline reportedly refused to fly the prime minister.
It was a small thing, and also a very big one. It was the tip of an iceberg, and no one is quite sure how deep the iceberg goes.
Over the past two weeks, reservists from a growing list of military units have announced they would either refuse callup orders or cease volunteering extra time as part of widening circles of protest against the judicial reform.
The letters have come from reservists in the army’s most elite formations, such as the 69th Squadron, whose F-15s bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Flotilla 13 naval commandos and the Air Force’s Shaldag special forces unit. They have come, too, from the rank and file, including infantrymen from the Golani Brigade and tank crewmen of the Armored Corps.
The threats are said to be spreading, even reaching beyond the military and into civilian businesses like El Al (many of whose pilots are ex-Air Force and continue to fly as reservists) and even the secretive Mossad.
It’s a wave of sudden refusals to serve that seems to be following the general pattern of the protests against the government’s judicial overhaul: leaderless, bottom-up, hard to predict or control or negotiate with.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi has met with reservists and top brass this week to try to head off what the army fears could quickly escalate into a mass movement that could hurt the military’s battle readiness.
“This is a real threat to Israel’s security,” Defense Minister Yoav Galant warned on Tuesday as he vowed to crack down on the phenomenon.
A disdainful right
The response from the political echelon has been less careful. Many among the more bellicose of Likud lawmakers and activists declared the refusers disloyal and weak.
“Conditional pilots are not patriots. Not the salt of the earth. Not Zionists. Not the best of our boys. Not wonderful people. Not ‘the people of Israel,’” declared Likud’s Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan in a tweet seen over 330,000 times. They are “weaklings fallen by the wayside,” and “I despise each and every one of them.”
The well-known pro-Netanyahu radio host Yaakov Bardugo was even less enamored, calling the refusers “pus.”
More measured right-wing commentators, including Netanyahu himself, chastised the refusers by claiming that no similar mass refusal emerged when the right felt itself under assault, such as during the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.
That’s not exactly true, as any Google search of Israeli news headlines of the time would reveal. Calls to refuse military service were widespread on the right in the lead-up to the withdrawal, including public campaigns by none other than the current National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. A soldiers’ petition against military service reportedly garnered over 10,000 signatures.
Even as recently as 2017, the current finance minister, Betzalel Smotrich, published an oped on the religious-Zionist website Srugim that called on young religious Jews to refuse to enlist in the IDF until the military stopped trying to open new combat roles to women. “Rescuing the IDF [by] not enlisting,” ran the headline.
Yet there’s a palpable sense on all sides that this time feels different. In the past, the refusal came to protest a specific policy. In each instance, the army managed to avoid mass refusal with simple common-sense steps. During the Disengagement, for example, the army quietly permitted soldiers who felt unable to carry out the evacuation orders to be assigned elsewhere for the two weeks of the withdrawal operation.
While the reservists this time around have explained their actions as opposition to the judicial reforms, something deeper seems to be underway. And it has the army worried.
Fully 37 reserve pilots from the 69th Squadron, which flies the army’s premier heavy bombers, are signed on a refusal letter — 37 out of 40. Each day seems to bring another letter from another unit, and each letter seems to offer a new and more strident framing of the reasons for the protests.
How long before leftists refuse service in the West Bank and rightists refuse to evacuate illegal outposts or join a rescue operation in an Arab town?
One such letter from veterans of the Golani Brigade’s elite reconnaissance company, released Tuesday morning, railed at those who “impersonate a brother” but behave like “a freeloading, draft-evading, lazy brother who sends us or our children to pay taxes, to fight, to be wounded and to die for him and instead of him.”
How long, army top brass has been asking of late, before the protests transform into a larger paradigm shift, before refusal to serve is normalized? How long before leftists refuse service in the West Bank and rightists refuse to evacuate illegal outposts or join a rescue operation in an Arab town?
While the number of reservists who have publicly announced they would no longer serve or volunteer is still only in the hundreds, perhaps the low thousands, how many more might be quietly contemplating the move?
It is hard to convey to outsiders what IDF reserve duty means to the reservists. Each year or so, one leaves home and hearth to a dusty army base whose buildings are usually sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. Spouses and children often grow resentful back home as they struggle to cope with the missing parent. Yet these hardships don’t lessen the enthusiasm; reservists usually hunger for the chance each time it comes around. They welcome the temporary separation from daily life, the camaraderie of friends growing older together, and the dignity of doing something both difficult and celebrated by one’s community and culture.
Those who volunteer for reserve duty would not abandon it on a whim, nor threaten to do so except in deep anxiety and pain.
In a sense, the louder the excoriations leveled at the reservists, the larger the bewilderment seems to be.
In one moment of frustration, Distel Atbaryan suggested the whole thing was one big misunderstanding. “They invented a monster under the bed,” she complained, “and are now demolishing the state because of this invention.”
Initial dismissal is slowly being replaced by confusion and fear, as many seemed to conclude that this is something larger than what happened in the past.
On February 26, Likud’s Tourism Minister Miki Zohar dismissed the protests as “organized by a tiny, hateful, loud minority that wants to prevent us from fulfilling our promise to the public.”
But by March 7, in response to the reservists’ letters, Zohar’s tone had changed. “We are brothers,” he tweeted. “Anyone who disagrees with the reform and protests it — isn’t an enemy, [God] forbid. They’re allowed to think differently, that’s their right… We are all brothers. We must lower the flames.”
His words were echoed by a sudden outpouring of support for unity from long-dormant Likud MKs.
“We are brothers,” said Education Minister Yoav Kisch, a former fighter pilot, on Monday.
“The reservists are the salt of the earth, the best of our boys, those whose efforts allow the state of Israel to exist,” tweeted Economy Minister Nir Barkat on Tuesday, in a direct challenge to Distel Atbaryan. “There’s no place for any statement against reservists who risk their lives and sacrifice greatly for Israel’s security… We must remember we don’t have an extra IDF.”
This shift isn’t a product of a sudden softening of Likud’s stance — the reform continues to advance at breakneck speed through the Knesset — but an expression of fear that something far larger is happening than a mere protest.
For nearly a generation, the Israeli right’s basic argument about Israeli society has been a simple one: An elitist and racist Ashkenazi upper class has systematically oppressed and marginalized a Mizrahi underclass to preserve its own privilege and power.
It is the right’s defining idea, an accusation leveled at the other half of the country that has come to shape the right’s language and thought. Bestselling books like Gadi Taub’s “Mobiles and Immobiles” — sub-headline: “The elites’ struggle against Israeli democracy” — and Avishai Ben Haim’s “Second Israel” — “Sweet tidings, bitter oppression” — portray an oppressive Ashkenazi elite locked in perpetual battle with a more rooted, authentic, Mizrahi (and by no coincidence, Likud-voting) populace.
The secularist Israeli center-left once saw itself not as a migzar, or tribe, sector or community, but as the baseline Israel within which other tribes existed.
But two decades of hearing that they are “oppressive,” “privileged” and a “hegemony” have taken their toll. They are beginning to internalize the accusation in the form of a transformation into a migzar in their own right.
This shift has far-reaching consequences. To define yourself as a small, distinctive community within a larger polity rather than the polity itself radically alters your sense of responsibility to the broader society.
The ultra-Orthodox community, for example, generally doesn’t perceive itself as responsible for the country as a whole, and so can avoid military service or obtaining taxpaying work in vast numbers, trusting that others will fund the hospitals, build the roads and take responsibility for the welfare of their community in their stead.
These are obviously broad-brushstroke complaints that leave out large numbers of people, including Haredim who are increasingly entering the high-tech sector. But the main point stands even if the details are complex: The right’s cultural and ideological assault on the legitimacy of the secular Ashkenazi part of Israel, combined with the center-left’s political marginalization in the last five election cycles, are starting to make the center-left question its responsibility for the rest of the country.
And that’s a problem. This particular migzar makes up the overwhelming majority of the 11% of the Israeli workforce employed in high-tech, and is still overrepresented in the most strategically vital sections of the military, such as Air Force pilots, elite commandos, and cyber and signals intelligence officers. It is the part of the country whose high corporate and income taxes fund the massive healthcare and welfare systems that sustain a great deal of the rest. That’s a reality that can’t be wished away by political vitriol.
Those now protesting the judicial overhaul increasingly want to trigger a reconsideration of that role and the sacrifices it demands.
Calls for splitting into “two states for one people” — religious-right “Judea” and liberal “Israel” — are multiplying, including in mainstream media outlets
None of this stops at the military. While most observers this week focused on the reservists, the business journals noticed a letter going around among high-tech CEOs collecting signatures for a call for tech workers to begin to refuse to pay income taxes.
Calls for splitting into “two states for one people” — religious-right “Judea” and liberal “Israel” — are multiplying, including in mainstream media outlets.
The protest isn’t merely about military service nor narrowly about the judicial overhaul; it’s about belonging. The sense of ownership so derided in the right-wing critique of Ashkenazi elites was responsible for the willingness to serve more, sacrifice more and pay more to sustain the whole.
On Monday, a derisive Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi rejected the new claim to victimhood represented in the reservists’ refusal. He referred to them as “the hegemony and, in their own eyes, the rulers.”
But their time was up, he added: “The people of Israel will do fine without you and you will go to hell.”
The tweet set Israeli Twitter on fire. It was seen a million times in a day and a half.
Karhi’s rage is understandable. The right has based much of its political mobilization in recent years on a claim of victimhood at the hands of an oppressive elite. To now watch the center-left begin to build its own mirror image of that narrative is to watch an attempt to rob one’s narrative of its moral primacy.
It’s not yet clear how broadly the reservists’ movement will spread or how far it will go. But it is becoming clear that Karhi captured something important in the movement’s vision of itself. The right has spent a decade constructing a moral high ground above a despised “First Israel.” That part of Israel is beginning to accept the narrative and agree with Karhi, Ben Haim, Taub and the rest. Sacrifice is a function of belonging. If they no longer belong, why shouldn’t the Israel that Karhi claims to represent be allowed to do fine without them?
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