IDF Gaza 224 88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
"And you shall make a thorough inquiry" (Deuteronomy 17: 4, 19:18).
I don't know the truth about Gaza. I doubt that many of you reading these words know either. As a Jew, a rabbi, an Israeli and a Zionist, I desperately want to believe the IDF that there was nothing to the transcripts from the Rabin Academy, or any other investigated incident. But, I can't. And, I need to know. I must know whether my country is living up to commitments we made to ourselves in our Declaration of Independence 61 years ago that Israel's foundation be "freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel," and that "it will be faithful to the principles of the charter of the United Nations."
The Jewish tradition I am sworn to uphold demands that, even when pursuing a just cause such as self-defense, we must do so through just means (midrash). That is why Rabbis for Human Rights and other Israeli human rights organizations are calling for an independent state investigation not in the hands of the IDF.
Some may ignore nagging questions, fearing a hostile world. However, the potential danger we are facing to who we want to be dwarfs external threats. The answers to the questions being raised (or stifled) have such deep implications for our soul that we must put aside what divides us in order to save what unites us.
Anybody who loves this country wants to know that our army is moral, but a moral army is not handed to us on a silver platter. Blithely trusting in our army's morality ensures the opposite. A genuine investigation tells every Israeli that our professed values must be taken seriously.
Why can't I believe the soothing reassurances from the IDF? Breaking the Silence has high verification standards, so it won't release for several months soldier's affidavits. However, it indicates it has credible testimony similar to the Rabin Academy transcripts. Unlike Palestinians accusing us of war crimes or the army saying we were blameless, it is much less clear what interest those soldiers might have had to say things so damning about themselves and their friends. We must also fairly examine the findings of human rights organizations and journalists that most Israelis dismiss.
GIVEN THE DEEPLY rooted code of "Brothers in Arms" binding soldiers together, we can't expect the IDF to investigate itself. The IDF sat on the Rabin Academy transcripts for a month, investigating quickly only after the testimony became public. The minutes will probably never be made public. Reports are that academy students received threatening calls. Imagine the pressure on the soldiers to recant. One person told me the day the IDF opened criminal investigations that soldiers would be afraid to tell the investigators the truth. The army subsequently forbade soldiers to speak with the press or "leftist organizations."
The difference between the Rabin transcript and the army findings regarding the shooting of an elderly woman is only how far away the woman was when shot, a detail easily fudged. Unfortunately, I have been a firsthand witness to events where the IDF has not told the truth. The IDF maintains that nobody intentionally killed civilians, conveniently sidestepping the question whether overly permissive open fire orders led to an unjustifiable number of civilian casualties. Grave concerns about the reliability of the IDF investigations can only be put to rest through a fair and transparent state investigation.
We all know returning soldiers. Some tell of terrible Hamas deeds. And, a Rabbis for Human Rights staff person overheard a conversation on a train: "Our commander told us that any suspicious movement in the homes, even a little suspicious, half suspicious, a quarter suspicious - you shoot. It doesn't matter to me who is there. They are all Arabs. Shoot full clips, shoot LAW rockets, shoot whatever you want." How many of us have heard and repressed similar conversations?
NOTHING WRITTEN here proves wrongdoing. However, opening an investigation is not an admission of guilt. The allegations are sufficiently serious and creditable that Israelis across the spectrum should be demanding to know the truth, just as we needed to know the truth after Sabra and Shatila. It is unconscionable that Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz refuses to order an inquiry.
The investigation must cover more than just the war itself. We must question civilian casualties because "one who saves a single life saves an entire world" (Sanhedrin). However, we were already in a lose-lose situation once we had to defend ourselves because Hamas resumed rocket fire after four and a half months of cease-fire. "Seek peace and pursue it"(Psalms 34:15). Could Israel have prevented this war if we had honored our cease-fire commitment to opening border crossings for basic humanitarian goods?
The commands to leave one side open when laying siege to a city and offer peace before resorting to war (Mishna Torah) may be because people with their backs to the wall will fight much more fiercely. Without absolving Hamas, did we help deny ourselves the security we so clearly deserve?
We must investigate media allegations that the IDF's legal department was coopted into justifying actions previously rejected and that, after our terrible losses in 2006, the IDF chose to prevent casualties by ignoring its own code of ethics protecting civilians. Did the IDF rabbinate's pamphlet justifying ahzariut (cruelty) also contribute to a spoken or unspoken elimination of "Purity of Arms" as a Zionist value?
WE ALL HOPE that the truth will leave our world intact. I pray that I will have the pleasure of eating every single word I have spoken or written questioning our conduct in Gaza. However, if the truth is more complex, we need a societal debate with no pat answers. Every choice has its costs. Do we aspire to justifying cruelty or embodying the teaching "this people is known by three signs: They are merciful, God-fearing and act with loving-kindness" (Yebamot).
May we reduce the threat to our soldiers by violating the teaching allowing us to kill those coming to kill us but forbidding us to kill innocents even to save ourselves (Sanhedrin)? Are we content saying, "Our hands did not shed this blood" (Deut 21:8), or do we accept responsibility if we haven't done enough to prevent bloodshed (Sotah)?
Is everything permissible when we believe our cause is just, or do we heed the words of Yizhar Smilansky, "The fundamental argument today is about the Jew. Are there things in this world that a Jew is forbidden to do. Are there things that everybody else does and the Jew doesn't... All kinds of prohibitions that others can decide to trample on or not - but not the Jew. Because s/he is a Jew... For if all these are merely rhetorical claims... then from beneath our feet would be missing some great, fundamental, and basic concern..." (Davar, January 29, 1988)? Who are we? Who do we want to be?
The writer is executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights.