IDF Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan gives a speech at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak in central Israel.
(photo credit: ASSAF SHILO / ISRAEL SUN)
The aftershock of the speech last week by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan on Holocaust Remembrance Day is still reverberating.
Ahead of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Golan, calling his comments “infuriating” and “baseless.”
“They should not have been said at any time, certainly not when they were said,” he said. Netanyahu went on to say that the general’s words “do an injustice to Israeli society and cheapen the Holocaust.”
The section of Golan’s speech that sparked the controversy was his remark that “there is one thing that is frightening in remembering the Holocaust, it is noticing horrific processes which developed in Europe – particularly in Germany – 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and finding remnants of that here among us in the year 2016.”
Had Golan made a parallel between Nazi Germany and contemporary Israel, Netanyahu would have been absolutely right. Ours is not a society that officially promotes racial bigotry in schools and in state institutions.
A 2015 survey found, for instance, that 59 percent of Jews polled agreed that: “It is a good thing for Jews and Arabs to live together in Israel.” Over half of Jewish respondents favored having Arab parties in the government coalition.
Much of the animosity directed against Arabs is a derivative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis are rightly angry at Palestinians for taking the route of terrorism inspired by a violently fundamentalist, medievalist interpretation of Islam and for choosing leaders who are either corrupt functionaries, religious zealots or both.
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But Golan’s point seems to have been entirely different: Israelis should tear themselves away from the belief that they are somehow immune to various forms of bigotry and xenophobia. Human beings were involved in the processes that led to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. Jews happened to be the victims. But we here in Israel have no guarantee against undergoing a similar process in which the “other” is dehumanized. There is no better day than Holocaust Remembrance Day to keep this in mind.
Golan is right to be concerned about phenomena within Israeli society that seem to point to increasing resistance to democratic values. Scare-mongering tactics by right-wing politicians regarding the Arab vote in recent years is a glaring example of how easily Israeli society can slip into bigotry.
There is, it seems, electoral expediency in appealing to anti-democratic forces within Israeli society. A recent survey found that 31% of Jews would deny Arabs the right to vote for the Knesset.
Similarly, the reluctance by some government ministers to criticize Sgt. Elor Azaria, the soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist in Hebron 11 minutes after he had been shot, seemed to be an attempt to pander to a rightwing that views the IDF’s principle of the purity of arms and rules of engagement as leftist and defeatist.
Ironically, it is the IDF that has been the bulwark against anti-democratic, anti-liberal forces within Israeli society.
Normally, the reactionaries of any society are over-represented in the military. The generals are the ones that are antagonistic to a free press, an independent judiciary and a strong democratically elected government, because these are the institutions that curtail the military’s powers.
But in Israel, it is the IDF, along with the Supreme Court, that has emerged as a moderating, liberal force in Israeli society. Golan demonstrated this. So did IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot who, in February, aroused controversy when he told a group of high school students in Bat Yam to adhere to the rules of engagement when confronting terrorist attacks, referring specifically to the unnecessary shooting of a 13-year-old girl.
The IDF’s role as a “people’s army” that has to accommodate soldiers from diverse backgrounds contributes to this.
Any attempts to politicize the IDF will quickly lead to the alienation of one group or another and the disintegration of the people’s army ethos.
Democratic values, in contrast, are uniquely designed to enable soldiers from different backgrounds to act for the common goal of defending the state. It is no coincidence that IDF officers are outspoken proponents of democracy.
Instead of distorting statements by Golan and Eisenkot in defense of war ethics and democratic values, their words of rebuke should be taken to heart. Israeli society is not fascist. But we should not fool ourselves into believing that as Jews we are immune to the evils of bigotry.
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