Q. Why would anyone object to Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu following his conscience?
A. The Vanunu case raises at least three major ethical problems:
Let us first look at the position of a soldier. Is it reasonable to expect him (or her) to serve in the defence force if this entails sacrificing or compromising personal beliefs?
An answer is given in the Torah (Deut. 20). One is exempt from military service if it would entail problems of morale, e.g. in the first year of marriage, or where a person suffers from physical or psychological weakness. There are no exemptions on the grounds of conscience. One can say, “I would be an encumbrance to the army”, but not “I don’t think the cause is valid”. There is not even a morale exemption in the case of an “obligatory” (i.e. defensive) war, when one who says, “I would not be able to fight well” has to serve in a non-combatant role.
The exemptions apply only in an “optional” (i.e. offensive) war. “Optional” does not imply that the individual makes up his or her own mind; the decision to wage war is made by the Great Sanhedrin. If they approve the proposed war, citizens must take part unless they fit the limited categories set out in the Torah. Conscience is not the criterion for non-participation.
There are other ways of showing disapproval – in the modern democratic world, through the ballot box and peaceful national debate. But if the duly constituted government still goes ahead, a citizen cannot step aside.
2. Is there a right to place oneself above one’s fellow citizens?
There is a verse in the Torah: “Who made you a prince and a judge over us?” (Ex. 2:14) and the Talmudic statement: “How do you know your blood is redder than the other person’s?” Applied to a person who argues that his conscience requires him to withdraw from national loyalty, we could say, “Who gave you the right to make such momentous decisions? How can your conscience be more perfect than anyone else’s?” True, the Biblical prophets often found themselves at odds with the authorities and the people, but prophecy in the Biblical sense came to an end with the destruction of the Temple.
3. Is there a right to reveal secrets?
Respect for privacy and confidentiality is established in the Torah (Lev. 19:16): “Do not go up and down as a talebearer among your people” and reinforced in the Book of Proverbs (11:13): “He that goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets, but he that is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter”. Jewish ethics pioneered the legal concept of privacy, which the 4th Amendment to the American Constitution defined as “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects”. This applies to nations as a whole, not only to individuals. Hence one may not reveal information about national security.