After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.
– Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter I.
That is the argument for the right of conscientious objection. If we understand democracy not merely as “majority rule,” but as a system that ensures equal rights for all citizens within the context of majority rule, then the right of refusal is integral to democracy. To ask whether it helps or harms democracy (as many Israelis do) makes about as much sense as to ask whether letting people vote helps or harms democracy.
At once, however, questions arise: the dictates of one person’s conscience may seem evil to another’s, or they may come into conflict with the rights of others, or motives such as cowardice or greed may put on the guise of conscience. Yet these questions do not endanger the argument. As long as one grants that conscience exists, it takes priority over the state. Indeed, this right may be limited by other rights. And it may be difficult to determine, in particular cases, whether the motive for refusal stems from conscience or something less noble. In the US during the Vietnam War, when I had the honor, the government spent a fair amount of time and money on the matter, including an FBI investigation and a three-hour interview between me and the Attorney General’s representative. Freedom can be expensive, but it is no luxury.
Israel does not recognize the priority of conscience. It sends its refusers to prison.1Until now they have been few and have come from the Left. People have always challenged them, asking among other things: “What if someday the government decides to dismantle the settlements, and the right-wing soldiers refuse? Would you allow them the same right that you are claiming?”
The question is no longer hypothetical. The government has decided to dismantle the settlements in the Gaza Strip plus four in the West Bank. In October 2004, 61 rabbis issued a directive that soldiers should refuse to take part. On February 9, 2005, a movement known as Defensive Shield presented a petition signed by more than 10,000 soldiers, declaring their intention to refuse any order that leads to the removal of Jews from their homes. This figure represents a sizeable chunk of the army. Each signer included his or her military identification number. Spokesperson Noam Livnat asserts that many more refrained from signing because they feared to give personal details. Once mass refusal begins and gathers steam, he believes, these too will join. (On Israeli state television, Erev Hadash, February 9, 2005.)
Do these 10,000 or more soldiers have the right of conscientious objection? Is their refusal really a matter of conscience? If so, must all consciences be given equal weight? Is morality relative?
The profoundest piece of work on the matter is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Jim, a runaway slave, are making their way down the Mississippi on a raft in the year 1840 or so. Huck is escaping from his dangerous father as well as from Miss Watson, who has been attempting to civilize him.
Jim too is escaping from Miss Watson, who owns him. They are looking for a town called Cairo, where the Ohio River comes in. Their plan is to sell the raft there and take a steamer up the Ohio into the free states. In the night, just as they figure they’re near, a fog sets in. Huck takes the canoe and tries to tug the raft to a place where he can tie it, but raft and canoe get separated. For much of the night he and Jim are lost to each other, each drifting in the fog, bunking into small islands.
After the fog lifts, Huck spots the raft and manages to reach it. Jim has fallen asleep while seated at the oar, and the raft is littered with leaves and trash. Huck decides to play a trick. He lies down in front of Jim, wakes him up, and pretends to have been there the whole time, sleeping. When Jim protests and recollects what happened, Huck denies it. He convinces Jim that the whole adventure was a dream, which Jim proceeds to interpret. But then, to show Jim’s gullibility, Huck points to the leaves and trash, asking what they stand for in the “dream.”
Jim looked at the trash, and then looked at me, and back at the trash again. He had got the dream fixed so strong in his head that he couldn’t seem to shake it loose and get the facts back into its place again right away. But when he did get the thing straightened around he looked at me steady without ever smiling, and says: [For European readers I have paraphrased Jim’s dialect2.]
“What do dey stan’ for? I’se gwyne to tell you. When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’ k’yer no’ mo’ what become er me en de raf’. En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun’, de tears come, en I could a got down on my knees en kiss yo’ foot, I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin’ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.”
Then he got up slow and walked to the wigwam, and went in there without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back.
It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way. (Ch. 15, end.)
Conscience is at work here, but Huck does not give it that name. For he has two consciences, and the one he calls by the name first appears in the next chapter, 16. Jim is looking for Cairo, hoping they haven’t passed it. It occurs to Huck that he might actually get his freedom, and his conscience gnaws at him:
I begun to get it through my head that he was [al]most free - and who was to blame for it? Why, me. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so - I couldn’t get around that noway. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? …”
I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead. I fidgeted up and down the raft, abusing myself to myself, and Jim was fidgeting up and down past me. We neither of us could keep still. Every time he danced around and says, “Dah’s Cairo!” it went through me like a shot, and I thought if it wasCairo I reckoned I would die of miserableness.
This is not something else parading as conscience. This too is conscience, hurting the way conscience hurts. I said that a person has the right not to become a prisoner of his or her conscience, and here is the fact that gives force to the argument: conscience hurts. But what is the relation between this conscience and the first one, the one Huck doesn’t name “conscience,” which also hurt?
In the case of the first one, there was Huck playing a prank on Jim, and then Jim said something, and because of what he said Huck saw him. He hadn’t seen him before, but then he saw him. He saw him, let’s say, in his importance as a human being. A human being as such is important. That importance is the basis of conscience. To account for this phenomenon, it is not necessary to suppose the implantation of moral law from above. It is enough to recall that each of us came untimely into the world and that we could not have survived without the help of others, on whom we depended for our very being, who were therefore co-important with us, and whose relations with us became the paradigm for our relations with other people as such.
Huck’s second conscience, the one he calls conscience, develops in a setting where a group of human beings is oppressed, their humanity violated, and the oppressors seek to anaesthetize themselves in advance before the terrible pain of conscience (first kind). The method is simple and classic: Conscience concerns our relations to human beings. Persuade yourself, then, that the oppressed are not quite human. Your duty is to the human beings, the Miss Watsons. Or in the present case, to one’s fellow Jews. The structure of conscience remains the same; the difference depends on who gets counted as human.
When we dehumanize a group of people, guilt comes in by the back door. It does not then appear as guilt. Instead of feeling barbs of conscience, we feel a dread of barbs from those we have dehumanized, “them.” We have good reason, in fact, to dread them: we have awakened rage. (And some of them may do things which make our dread seem realistic.) Because we have pushed their humanity underground, this dread takes on a mythic dimension. They are not thought of merely as subhuman, but as subhuman with demonic properties. Where the natural feeling of guilt would have led us to repair the relation with them, the dread of their revenge leads us to violate it even more. Thus begins a spiral in which evil multiplies itself. The guiltier we become, the more we must dehumanize them in order not to feel guilty, and the barbs of conscience appear again as dread. The greater the dread, the more we beat; the more we beat, the greater the guilt; the greater the guilt, the more we dehumanize; the more we dehumanize, the greater the dread… and so on, round and round. By a kind of inversion, the force of our guilt determines the force by which we break and kill.
This process is set in motion whenever one people violates the rights of another. The evasion of guilt is the beginning of racism. The latter is not chiefly the cause, but rather the symptom and result, of the violation of human rights. Its cure is to stop violating them. 3
In order to see the Palestinians as Huck saw Jim, the right-wing refusers would have to be in something like Huck’s position, floating down the River Jordan with Jim, getting separated in the fog, etc. But the Jordan is not long enough. Jewish history (the history we Jews teach each other), from the Bible on down through the Holocaust, then further down through the birth of the State and the refugee problem, the uprootings and confiscations, the education of new Israelis, the intifadas, the mutual atrocities, the media coverage… is a much longer river and it flows the opposite way. The number of left-wing refusers has scarcely reached a thousand during twenty-odd years, and here the right wing gets 10,000 signatures in weeks. A wise man said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The same is true of those who imprison themselves in it, whose vu is always déja, who see in present enemies only the avatars of dead persecutors.
What then shall we conclude? Do the 10,000 have the right of refusal on grounds of conscience? Yes, because conscience is conscience, even when distorted – even when racism counts as righteousness. So let them refuse (and hand over their weapons). But in admitting their right, we commit no relativism. We do not say, “One person’s conscience is as good as another’s,” meaning that there is no good. The good is with those who see the human being in all human beings.
As for Huck and Jim, they missed Cairo. They’d passed it in the fog. They drift helplessly into the deep and unfree South. Huck tries once to turn Jim in, but he can’t quite bring himself to do it. Then they get separated again. In Chapter 31, Huck learns that Jim has been caught, although the captors don’t know where he comes from or who his owner is. Huck pens a letter to Miss Watson, telling her to send someone to fetch her property. Staring at what he has written,
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking - thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog…and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” - and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.