Patriotism and Dissent: Not a Zero-Sum Game

Contrary to the far left, there are ways to dissent and reform government conduct without blackening the country’s name in public.

There are better ways to dissent than this. Letter of refusal to serve in the West Bank and Gaza; screenshot from There are better ways to dissent than this. Letter of refusal to serve in the West Bank and Gaza; screenshot from

The Israeli media was rocked for a few days by the publication of a letter signed by 43 members of the elite 8200 unit, stating that they refuse to serve in missions involving Palestinians in the West Bank. In and of itself, this revelation is nothing new. Refusal letters have been around for a long time: they always involve a very small number of selected people, usually from the Ashkenazi upper class, and often involving ‘elite’ units such as Israeli pilots.

But the debate it sparked, while largely stale and predictable, provides a great opportunity to lay a particular myth to rest: that only the left can dissent, and that only its form of dissent counts as such. Per the left, you can either be a noisy and virulent dissenter or a silent (and morally complicit) patriot. There is no in-between.

This is complete nonsense. There is a middle ground between doing nothing and pulling off a political publicity stunt. It is perfectly possible to be a loyal member of a state and work to change its methods and goals. But that requires working within the system, with all the difficulties that entails.

A great example of this is provided by the father of Dr. John Schindler, former counterintelligence agent for the NSA and present author of the popular intelligence blog 20committee. Schindler’s father, also an NSA agent, was a true patriot who’d done yeoman’s service for the USA during the Vietnam war. He also led a successful protest against morally dubious government surveillance projects in the NSA. Per Schindler, Jr.:

His initial complaints “up the chain” were brushed off as the ravings of an unpatriotic madman. But dad didn’t give up. He kept complaining through TS/SCI channels that MINARET and SHAMROCK were illegal and wrong. Soon he became an irritant that senior Agency officials could no longer ignore. What really scared top NSA leadership was the fact that dad had friends in the media, thanks to his studies and time in Southeast Asia, and he made no secret of the fact that, if he could get no remedy internally, he would go to the press. This was the era of Dan Ellsberg and public whistleblowing was in its exciting infancy.

Fortunately Agency leadership was having its own doubts about MINARET and SHAMROCK, sensing that they no longer passed the “smell test” of what looked acceptable even in TS/SCI channels. The internal revolt they faced also made them ponder hard. Dad was far from the only one inside the Agency demanding reform – despite what some would have you think, NSA has always had a great deal of ideological and political diversity in its ranks, and still does – but dad was loud and forceful. Before long, NSA dropped both programs and ceased its monitoring of the American people.

There is no indication that any of the signatories of the letter made any attempt to go through official channels or voice their concerns to anyone else before going to the media. This is no small thing, and it makes me question just how much this is an act of moral refusal and how much is a political stunt.

Who could they have turned to? First, they could have approached their superior officers – either formally as a soldier or informally through one of the many friends and family networks common in these units. If they felt that wouldn’t work, they could have written to the IDF JAG, which is far from a judicial rubber stamp; just this month they announced an investigation into a whole range of incidents during Protective Edge.

Finally, they could have contacted political representatives; even in the ‘Dark Days’ of 1948, government members received letters and information on possible unjustified killings which were then brought before the cabinet in closed session. Sometimes this led to criminal investigations. It wouldn’t have been hard to bypass censorship in the days of the internet.

Had any of the signatories made even a token attempt to do any of these things, I would have taken their present protest more seriously. As it stands, both I and many others feel that the signatories care far less about questioning certain methods of their unit and far more about making a banal and fairly standard political protest at the expense of Israel’s security and international standing.

Dissent is both salutary and necessary to maintain a healthy democratic society. But there is dissent meant to actually make changes, and there is dissent that is nothing more than narcissistic political grandstanding. We would do well to encourage the former at the expense of the latter.

To receive updates on new articles in English, join Mida on Facebook or Twitter or join our mailing list.

Related articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.