Refusal of a Direct Order

Recently a colleague quoted what the organization, B’tzelem, allegedly had urged: that Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border refuse direct orders from their commanders to fire on Palestinian protestors who were approaching the fence line.  In response, I wrote to him stating that such advocacy was not only dangerous to the mission, but tantamount to treason.  Several others Reform rabbis, in turn, have asked me about the morality that might be involved in such a refusal.  Morality isn’t the issue when it comes to refusal of a direct order.  That is something that any Israeli soldier would have had the opportunity to question BEFORE the mission as is explained below:

Basically, the answer comes down to whether an order is illegal or not.  There are differences between the U.S. military’s definition and the Israeli, and how such incidents ultimately will be adjudicated, although there seem to be more similarities than not.

My point, however, is/was that the encouragement of soldiers to break ranks and refuse orders which, prima facie, haven’t been proven to be illegal is to endanger the soldier’s unit and the given mission.  No army can operate under the circumstances of each service person being his or her own mitzaveh (commander).  It matters not that those urging such behavior think that what they are advocating is just, right or moral. They are recommending behavior that clearly violates military law and their urging only serves to undermine the good order and discipline so necessary on any battle field both to fight and to protect those who are doing so.

As written by the Jewish Agency:

“The history of liability for following military orders contravening the laws of war can be traced back to the Treaty of Versailles, the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals and, later, to the Geneva Convention. In general, it means that prisoners’ lives and well-being are protected from cruelty and death, as are those of unarmed civilians, refugees, medical personnel; it protects hospitals, places of prayer, etc.: any order to the contrary is not only illegal, it is manifestly illegal.

A member of the armed forces is constrained by military law to obey orders – otherwise, the system and chain of command would collapse. People of all kinds and views serve in the armed forces and not every order will be to their way of thinking – it may even go against their conscience. A soldier must, under practically every circumstance, obey an order: his or her refusal to do so may incur serious consequences in terms of security, operational success, and personal responsibility at trial. [Pacifists refuse to serve in the military under any circumstances and many countries excuse service on ideological grounds; conscientious objectors, or those who refuse to serve in compulsory military service for political reasons, may find themselves in prison – this, in many countries.]

There is a difference between an illegal order and a manifestly illegal order. An illegal order can be in contravention of general legality, such as orders to make improper use of facilities, go beyond the speed limit in a military vehicle. A manifestly or patently illegal order applies to the protection of persons (civilians, prisoners, medical personnel and clergy), medical facilities, places of prayer, monuments, etc. (this list is not exhaustive). The US distinguishes a patently illegal order as one which orders someone to commit a crime.

Anyone serving in the armed forces should be instructed on how to make such judgments and what the penalties are: however, to succeed in a military operation, or to save lives, it may be necessary to drive a vehicle at above the speed limit – and a soldier would be bound to obey, if there were no other circumstances – such as risk to other lives. However, this clear-cut picture is deceptive, because in many countries, illegal orders are also the responsibility of the person who obeys them if they constitute a crime (patently illegal), as well as that of the officer who gives them – albeit a crime of a lesser degree.

Ultimately, in Israel it is the Supreme Court which determines post facto (afterwards) if an order was or was not manifestly illegal, and who is to be held fully or partially liable, but the Supreme Court is not there at the point in time when an order is given. Thus understanding the nature of an order and refusal to obey an order remain the responsibility of the soldier concerned, and at his or her own risk – whether it is legal (lawful – US), illegal, or manifestly illegal. On the other hand, obeying a manifestly illegal order is a very serious offense, particularly if the facts are clearly there on the ground: both the perpetrator(s) and the commanding officer are liable to prosecution.

The advice to Israeli soldiers is, therefore, to know the law of the land and the IDF Code of Conduct, and then follow all orders, except for those that are manifestly illegal; however, before any refusal to obey an order on these grounds, a soldier should question the superior officer, up to company commander, to check the facts.

It is internationally assumed that a soldier can distinguish, “a manifestly illegal order, on the face of it… without legal counsel”. In Israel, a soldier has the right and duty of refusing “A manifestly illegal order, on which the black flag of illegality flies” (Supreme Court on the 1956, Kfar Kassem massacre).

Soldiers have a right to their political views and have to grapple with their consciences individually about orders which go against their conscience; the IDF should take this into account and not place soldiers in impossible situations.

However, the serving soldier and only the soldier has the obligation to determine whether an order is manifestly illegal; orders that might raise issues of conscience or disagreement about a law (one that does not violate Israeli or International Law) are not relevant to this category, are not illegal, and do not fall under the purview of manifest illegality.”   (

In addition, the Israeli army educates its soldiers on what is a legal and what is an illegal order.  This training begins as early as high school.   The circumstances that soldiers are confronting on the Gaza border aren’t unknown and have been experienced before although not in the magnitude; therefore, soldiers who might have difficulties with an order would have had ample opportunity to address this beforehand.  This is in addition to the fact that legal officers are assigned to each unit and can clear up any legal issues that might arise.  Therein are safeguards here that weren’t readily available to the forces that went into My Lai or to German soldiers during WWII.

That any agency or authority from any other field or activity than the military would encourage such a refusal of orders is subversive at best and, as I read Israeli law, would seem to fall under the rubric of treason.  I, however, am not a lawyer.  I have repeated the dangers of such behavior, and I, again, would caution about the dire potentialities and consequences that it could well engender both to military members as well as, ultimately, to the State.

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That “Significant” Birthday

Too many cliches apply to the times when we turn certain ages.  I can remember, for example, becoming sixty and wondering how I had arrived there so fast.  As a matter of fact, I can’t remember any other birthday being as traumatic for me.  I guess I was simply too busy to pay much attention to forty and fifty; but sixty and seventy arrived with a gravity I hadn’t expected. Two very potent cliches applied in both circumstances.  The first was that getting to these decade milestones was better than not getting to them.  The second was that these marker points were signaling how much nearer I was to my final marker and that whatever I wanted to do with my life in the future, I had better get about doing it.  I didn’t and don’t have endless amounts of time left.

People report that sixty is the new fifty and seventy is the new sixty. On the other hand, each of us has an internal clock ruled by our genetic makeup.  We can look at how long our folks lived and probably add five or so years to that age and have a fairly good idea of how much time we actually do have left.  Therein the line from the film, Shawshank Redemption, comes into play: We ought to “get busy living or get busy dying,” but the choice of how we are going to spend these final years is very much ours.  Either we can, like Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler, entertain ourselves with constant thoughts of our own demise, or we can choose not to go there and make a concerted effort not to allow ourselves to wallow in such depressing and demoralizing thoughts.  To this I would add that for those who go into a tail spin and cannot seem to drag themselves out of this funk, there are pharmaceutical products which certainly can help and folks who are trained to diagnose and then prescribe for such times and conditions.

Pop psychology long ago proclaimed and disseminated the concept of the ‘Midlife Crisis.”  What it will soon discover if it hasn’t already is that there is a ‘later life crisis’ that involves people who, all of a sudden, realize that they have arrived at an age that society considers “old.”  Sometimes this is a function of former school mates, friends and relatives dying.  Sometimes it is the death of an elderly parent or other relative which leaves us with the understanding that, now that they are gone, our turn is next.

I have already suggested one way of dealing with our “significant, milestone birthdays.”  I am not so certain that it is worth listing what, by now, we who are up in years ought to have realized and discerned.  Staying busy and having some definite goals and things to which to look forward make up some of that list.  Rabbis and other clergy have been touting an attitude of gratitude rather than one of moroseness.   Counting one’s blessings is a way of staying positive, although attempting to maintain such an attitude while we are physically becoming more and more challenged isn’t so easy.  Along that line another cliche is applicable:  “use it or lose it” is apropos.  Having a regular regimen of physical activity, be it running, rapid walking, bicycling, playing some sport, swimming—something that is aerobic and gets the heart rate up is a great antidote to what I would call the despair of physical aging.  While getting into gym clothes every time we have an aberrant thought about our bodies isn’t practical, regular exercise assures us that we can still perform and that our bodies aren’t as useless as we sometimes think or feel they are.  Yoga, pilates, physical therapy and the occasional Advil, Aleve or other pain reliever certainly keep one’s body more limber.  Exercise is an important offset to the ravages of aging.

Of course, there is diet…but I am not so much trying to review the literature on aging as I am advocating the Shawshank prescription of picking ourselves up, if need be, and giving ourselves a swift kick in the butt and get on with living.

I have a dear friend who, when I described my trying to imagine dying and all the emotions that exercise brought with it that were scaring me and bringing me down, asked why I allowed myself to engage in such  thinking?  What earthly good was it doing me?  She stopped me in my tracks.  Since then, I have not “gone there.”  There’s no sense in it. It gets me nowhere. Better to move to some other thought and/or get back on track with whatever else I might be doing.

It stands repeating that some day we are all going to face our mortality and our deaths in one way or another.  I see no sense in dwelling on that.  For sure, the fellow I see in the mirror has garnered some age and I do wonder how I did get here so fast; but I know that there is little sense in either mourning the years that are now past or trying to relive them.  It’s time to move on and make the best of what’s left.  And that thought in itself is a blessing.


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Paddle Boarding In Hell

Once again, I am ever amazed by rabbinic colleagues who would give neo-fascists and other right wing, Holocaust denying countries a pass for past crimes and present, despicable legislation. Some have cited having friends that they have in these countries as if friendship trumps all other factors when we confront what fascistic malevolence is occurring in different Eastern European countries and capitals. Others have enjoyed kayaking or paddle boarding on lakes and streams, participating and luxuriating in the natural beauty of the Eastern European country they’ve visited, and urge others to visit and do the same as if the allurement of scenery could excuse myriad murders of Jews from the past and the threat thereof in the present.

Where, I ask, is common sense and a sense of justice and prudence in all of this?

I have stated before that I believe that the air in Europe is poisoned with the gasses that murdered millions of my people. That is not the full extend of the reality. Hundreds of thousands were murdered by their very country men and women who vied with the Nazis to see who could be more brutally capable of eliminating the local Jewish population, people who had been their neighbors for decades if not centuries.

Now comes both the geniuses of the Polish parliament and the spineless Polish president who have created and signed into law a bill that would imprison anyone claiming that any Pole had any part in the Holocaust. This antisemitic attempt to rewrite, revise or wipe away history altogether deserves no quarter, and demands a response which would deny Poland of any of our material support whatsoever.

Instead, there are colleagues who would urge continued visits and would become complicit in this terrible and dangerous farce. I would ask these rabbis, “Is there no limit to which you would go in bending over backwards to excuse this dastardly law and all its implications? Is having friends in a country reason enough to turn your backs on myriad souls who were slaughtered wholesale by the millions and whose country men and women now wish to white wash and sweep away any involvement on their parts? Have you no understanding of what your position implies? Have you no sense of history or feel for the truth?  Are you not aiding and abetting a historical revisionism?

This is altogether beyond me.

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Yadlin’s Analysis

Amos Yadlin’s analysis is intriguing.


Would that those on the Left read it and heed it. Their approach that included the Obama administration’s pressured attempts to force Israel to acceding to Palestinian conditions prior to any negotiations, especially on the issue with which Kerry and Obama incessantly beat Israel over the head, namely, settlements.  All that is now over, hopefully to remain that way.

Yadlin refers to a Saudi initiative which, in the diplomatic chess game that the PA and Abbas play, Abbas has already rejected out of hand.  I am not at all sure that his intransigence can be overcome this time, or whether he is simply bluffing. His ‘on again, off again’ dance with Israel hides the fact that he, the PA and Hamas are in no way ready to form a state of their own; and another failed state in the Middle East is a recipe for a jihadist takeover.

I suspect that what the Trump administration will bring forward is a plan that will advance matters incrementally if the parties accept the terms. In point of fact, this is what Israel has been doing by working around and at the edges of the PA’s intransigence on matters involving security, banking, water, power generation, agricultural advancements and workforce employment. The Israelis long ago came to terms with the situation with which they are faced. In what appears to the outside world as an impossibility, they have learned to contain terror and the threats of a hateful neighbor-people, with whom they must, at one and the same time, live and not live. The Israelis are far more adept at maintaining a status quo than the rest of the world expects or wishes to acknowledge. The Palestinians of the PA, at the very same time, see their status withering, except when they can appeal at the U.N. and through U.N. agencies for greater support and recognition for themselves while exacting the opposite for Israel. The Trump administration has pretty much cut off this avenue and has exposed those Obama era Palestinian demands and preconditions for what they were: ploys and non-starters that served to undermine negotiations before they ever could get off the ground.

We’ll see where things go from here. But Yadlin has put his finger on the changed nature of the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian-Middle East dance. The tune has changed, and so, too, has the dance floor. It remains to be seen what the participants will do.

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“Charlottesville: Our Streets” A Documentary Film Premier at the Virginia Film Festival

via “Charlottesville: Our Streets” A Documentary Film Premier at the Virginia Film Festival

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Scientific Curiosity

I just finished an article which was a commentary on the weather prognosticators’ inability to predict the precise pathway of Hurricane Irma.  I myself have had similar reactions to the limitations of this science.  But, whereas the writer’s conclusion was that we don’t know everything about predicting the weather, or  medicine and the many other aspects and branches of modern science; my take was that the author stopped way short of where he might have led us readers.  I deduced that he was perfectly at ease with where, at the curb side, he had dropped us, flummoxed by our continued human ignorance.  My conclusions took me much, much further.

If Western humanity has any distinctiveness, it derives from a notion that there is much to be discovered about our universe, and that our purpose in this world to draw back the curtains and discover what makes everything operate as it does. God has implanted with us as a collective specie these abilities to know and unpack cosmic “secrets.”  This is not the time to be throwing our hands up and capitulating to our limitations.  Our weather folks have sophisticated instruments by which they know when and where hurricanes are forming and why.  They can determine and know their intensity, velocity and strength.  They feed all their data into super computers whose powers are little more than a half century old.  That they haven’t yet “broken the code” to decipher precisely the pathway of these storms isn’t something to be lamely accepted, derided and mourned.  It is the proverbial gauntlet, thrown down to us as a challenge to go further, study the phenomena deeper, calculate and fold in even more data, create better machines and models so that, in the future we shall be even more adept at our predictions.

The tragedy of our times is that we are witnessing an anti-intellectual, anti-science, dark age.  It is an unfolding that seeks to gut the funding for the very agencies and programs that have brought us to the level of sophisticated, scientific knowledge that we enjoy at this moment in human history.  This regression threatens the enterprise of discovery and advancement just at the moment when break-throughs in medicine and pharmacology, hydrology, and agriculture, to name but a few areas of modern science, are most critical to our continued well being and futures.

There was an episode of West Wing in which a probe, the Galaxy Five, upon landing on Mars, failed to begin communicating with Earth.  The president had scheduled a closed circuit, educational program with school children all over the United States.  When the probe’s systems shut down, there were those who assumed that so, too, would the T.V. program.  Why have it when the main attraction was not operating?  The answer was that, even…or especially…in failure, it wasn’t a reason to quit.  Rather, there was the challenge to move past what we hadn’t perfected, to discover and to probe harder, smarter, and more astutely.  Failure was the impetus to try harder.

The human thirst for knowledge is one of the greatest gifts of God, and the ultimate blessing is the opportunity to seek and assimilate, and then to continue that seeking.  The never ending goal isn’t to just up and accept our limitations, but to explore and discover, thereby advancing humanity’s capacities, knowledge and capabilities.

One day soon, with the help of satellites and computers, charts and graphs, hurricane hunters and just plain human brains, focus, sweat and grit, we shall perfect our abilities to chart the direction of monster storms and maybe even affect how they are formed, how they move, and how to direct them away from doing the catastrophic damage they do.

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Up is down.  Fact is fiction.  Black is white.  News is fake.  Truth is relative. Might is right. My friend is my enemy and my enemy is also my enemy but is my friend.   There can be no peace without justice but justice is unachievable when the rule of law is compromised and those who are sworn to enforce the law break it regularly and even use it against the innocent, exiling, beating and murdering some while protecting others.  The media gets it wrong as many times as it gets it right, or so it seems when stories lack proper background.  Reporters must have corroboration of their stories.  But what happens when the corroborators are liars?

Reputations are ruined in innuendo and by false accusations based on alleged facts which turn out to be anything but factual.  These false facts are masterfully fabricated in order to bring charges to silence the truth speaker and bring down the innocent victim.

This is no game.  It is a move and counter move struggle learned by students from their master-mentors.  It informs every aspect of life from pulpit to the playground bully.  It has seeped in or poured over every element of scientific and science fictional writings.  It both threatens and bolsters the foundations of society and its waves wash over the battlements and retaining walls, cracking, stacking, inundating, filling, and wrecking most everything in their path and that our senses encounter.

There is little to hold on to if we haven’t already secured our world view and cemented into ourselves the values by which we shall survive.  The temptations to loosen our grips on these life anchoring elements is enormous.  The centrifugal forces throw us up and out, away from our moorings until we feel as though we have entered a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland world and nothing seems to make sense any more.

It all seems life threatening and very, very unbalanced.  Vertigo is the order of the day.

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