Israel is a country where ordinary citizens are all too often thrust into situations in which they must take extraordinary action.
Such was the case on July 21. “Ayin” – a soldier on leave who was eating a Shabbat meal with his family in Halamish and heard screams emanating from his next door neighbor’s home – ran to help and shot the terrorist who killed three members of the Salomon family. With one bullet, “Ayin” stopped the terrorist and kept him from murdering anyone else. For his actions, he is being considered for a Tzalash, a military citation for bravery.
Such also was the case last week, when a terrorist in Petah Tikva, after stabbing a civilian in a shwarma shop, ran next door to a pizza store to continue his rampage only to be stopped by Shlomo Madar, the man behind the counter who smashed him over the head
with the only thing he had at the time: a wooden pizza platter.
Over the last two years, the country has seen terrorists stopped with everything from selfie sticks to umbrellas to guitars to martial-arts nunchucks.
Those were actions taken by regular folks who just happened to be on the scene at the time, showed tremendous resourcefulness and acted coolly, bravely and in an extraordinary manner.
Not everyone, however, can rise to the occasion.
Elor Azaria – whose appeal of a manslaughter conviction stemming from his shooting of an already neutralized terrorist in Hebron in 2016 was rejected Sunday by the IDF Appeals Court – is a case in point.
Azaria is an ordinary soldier whose actions were not extraordinary; in fact, they did not even rise to the standards this society has set for itself.
The issue succeeded in arousing intense passions because it called into question those standards; our perception of ourselves.
What are those standards?
That we are different from our neighbors, that purity of arms is critical, that there is rule of law, that human life has value.
IDF soldier shoots dead subdued Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, part of Elor Azaria case
According to the judges, Azaria shot the prone terrorist – not because he thought he constituted any additional threat – but because he determined the terrorist, who had just stabbed a soldier, deserved to die.
If by considering to give “Ayin” from Halamish a citation for bravery the army wants to send a message to other soldiers about the right way to act, the court’s decision to uphold Azaria’s conviction sends a message to them of the wrong way, the way they must refrain from acting in similar circumstances.
But there is a lot of dissonance out there, a lot of confusing noise.
There are those on Facebook and Twitter, among IDF soldiers and in the media, who question whether “Ayin” did act properly, and whether he should have put another bullet into the terrorist to make sure he was indeed “neutralized” and could not stab again.
Likewise, there are those on social media, among IDF soldiers and among the country’s politicians, who believe that Azaria acted properly in killing a terrorist who had just tried to kill IDF soldiers.
What is now critical is for there to be one unified message in the army so the soldiers themselves – those very ordinary teenagers or young adults in their early 20s who could very well find themselves in a similar situation – have clear instructions and guidelines – that they know exactly how they are expected to act in similar situations.
The courts have ruled; now it is critical that the ruling trickles down to officers and ordinary soldiers in the field.
The army trains soldiers to act instinctively. It needs to inculcate these instincts in the soldiers and that cannot happen if a muffled message is being sent.
The Azaria saga touched a nerve in this country that other cases of soldiers overstepping boundaries have not. One key reason has to do with the super-tense reality terrorism has forced on the land.
In this country, questions of how to act in these types of circumstances are not merely fodder for theoretical disputations in a university intro to ethics course; in this country these dilemmas are real. The scenario that Azaria found himself facing was not a one-in-a-million event.
As a result, even those who believe Azaria behaved in a completely unacceptable manner can feel his family’s pain, because anyone with sons and daughters in the army can picture their child in a similar situation.
Azaria is Gilad Schalit in reverse. The Schalit family was able to muster enormous public support, even among people who think the price paid for his release might have been too high, because people could imagine themselves in the Schalit family’s shoes. And they would want the country to do everything possible to free their child, too.
Call it the “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I effect.”
Azaria’s family played on that same emotion. “This could be your son,” the Azaria family said, and even those appalled by what Azaria did could imagine it.
Every parent, every person, likes to think that faced by a similar situation, their child, or they themselves, would rise to the occasion and make the morally correct decision. But every parent, every person, also harbors a little doubt.
The mind can identify completely with what the judges wrote in their ruling: “The IDF is not a wild militia. The ethos and moral values of the IDF, the values of the fighting spirit and the purity of arms constitute the backbone of the army that differentiates it from its enemies.”
But the heart can identify with the pain of the family, even if we like to think our own children could never act in such a manner.
The Azaria case pitted mind against heart, intellect against emotion – one of the reasons the public debate over the issue has been so heated and so passionate.