In November 1948, Natan Alterman, by then the unofficial poet laureate of the Jewish state, published a poem in Davar, the Histadrut newspaper. Titled “Al Zot” (For This), the poem appeared at a terrible time in the young nation’s history. The fighting in the War of Independence was brutal, the outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion and one percent of Israel’s civilian population would be killed before the fighting ended.
Alterman wrote of a young man, “a lion cub flexing,” on a jeep. He comes across an Arab couple. Fearful, they turn and face the wall along which they were walking. The boy smiles, and says to himself, “I’ll try out the gun.”
Then, says Alterman, “The old man just cradled his face in his hands, and his blood covered the wall.”
Whatever prompted Alterman’s poem, Alterman had heard something about Israeli soldiers’ conduct that he believed demanded a response. How did David Ben-Gurion, the often autocratic, nation-building prime minister who had created the IDF, respond? He wrote Alterman: “I am requesting your permission for the Defense Ministry to reprint the column – no armed column in our army, even with all its weaponry, has [your poem’s] power – in one hundred thousand copies and to distribute it to every soldier in Israel.”
Shortly after the war, S. Yizhar wrote Khirbet Khizeh, a novella about the IDF’s cruelty to an Arab village toward the end of that war. There was no place named Khizeh, so the specifics of his novel are fictional. But his point was clear. One of his cynical characters says: “[We’ll] open a cooperative store, establish a school, maybe even a synagogue. There [will] be political parties here. [They’ll] debate all sorts of things. They [will] plow fields… and do great things. Long live Hebrew Khizeh! Who, then, would ever imagine that once there had been some Khirbet Khizeh…. We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile.”
Those are harsh words, especially so soon after a war as difficult as the War of Independence. How did the new state respond to the accusation? Khirbet Khizeh became an Israeli best-seller.
Later, it was added to the compulsory high school curriculum, and Yizhar was elected to the Knesset.
In Israel’s early years, when the IDF was unabashedly a people’s army, when today’s widespread cynicism about Israel’s military was not yet in vogue, Israel’s politicians and writers understood that at the core of a society worth defending, there had to be truth. For the state to matter, it had to be decent. Nothing made Israel greater than holding it accountable to truth.
After the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, the international community and Israeli citizens decried what had happened. Menachem Begin tried to sidestep the issue. “Goyim kill goyim,” he said, referring to the fact that it was Christian Phalangists who had killed Muslims, “and they blame the Jews.”
But Israelis insisted on knowing what responsibility their country bore for the atrocity, and Begin had no choice but to appoint the Kahan Commission. When the commission released its report, it determined that because he had not done enough to protect the Muslims in the camps, Ariel Sharon was unfit to serve as defense minister.
It is in the context of that Israeli tradition that we ought to see the IDF’s latest controversies. Does Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier charged with manslaughter for the shooting in Hebron, deserve a fair trial? Of course he does. But do we protect Israel as a country worthy of the Declaration of Independence’s promise that it “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” if we do not take the time to find out, carefully and fairly, what happened? Alterman and Yizhar would tell us that in a healthy society, that question would not even be raised.
Which brings us to Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, and the kerfuffle between the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Golan has been under attack since he expressed worry that Israel is exhibiting signs of immoral societies, and that moral erosion can be seen even in the army. When Ya’alon defended Golan, urging the military brass to continue speaking out on ethical matters, the prime minister summoned him for a “meeting of clarification.” For a short while, there were rumors that Bibi was going to fire Bogie.
The ax did not drop. Netanyahu and Ya’alon issued a joint “kiss and make up” statement, reasserting that the army is under the authority of the political echelon.
But that was never the question. The question is whether, with many Israelis now opposed to putting Elor Azaria on trial, enough people still have the courage – and the support – to point out that something in Israel has, indeed, corroded, and neither Alterman nor Yizhar would be terribly proud of today’s Israeli discourse.
In a world in which European capitals, the United Nations, the Palestinian national movement, BDS, Jewish Voices for Peace and many more are engaged in spinning a web of lies about what Israel is and what it does, the Jewish State has one remaining weapon more powerful than all. It is the light of truth. We do Israel justice best when we shine it on ourselves no less than on anyone else. The writer is Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, is forthcoming in October from Ecco/ HarperCollins.