Personal code of IDF soldier: 'May our camp be pure'

Dogma replaced balance, led to dangerous misunderstanding of the complexity of Israeli reality.

By DANNY ZAMIR
April 7, 2009 00:18
Personal code of IDF soldier: 'May our camp be pure'

idf reservists pray 248 88 ap. (photo credit: AP)

 
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A number of articles published recently in The New York Times quoted or were based on words spoken by myself and by graduates of the pre-army leadership development program which I head (the "Rabin Mechina") - graduates who participated as combat soldiers in Operation Cast Lead and who met recently to process personal experiences from the battlefield. Both explicitly and by insinuation, the articles claim a decline in the IDF's commitment to its moral code of conduct in combat, and moreover, that this decline stems from a specific increase in the prominence of religious soldiers and commanders in the IDF in general, and from the strengthening of the position of IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Ronsky in particular. It was as if the media were altogether so eager to find reason to criticize the IDF that they pounced on one discussion by nine soldiers who met after returning from the battlefield to share their experiences and subjective feelings with each other, using that one episode to draw conclusions that felt more like an indictment. Dogma replaced balance and led to a dangerous misunderstanding of the depth and complexity of Israeli reality. The individual accounts were never intended to serve as a basis for broad generalizations and summary conclusions by the media; they were published internally, intended for program graduates and their parents as a tool to be used in the process of educating and guiding the next generation. I chose as well to submit the soldiers' accounts to the highest levels of the IDF, directly to the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, out of my deep faith in the solid moral foundations of IDF policy and in complete confidence that the accounts would receive serious and thorough attention, including both investigation and corrective measures, if and when necessary. This faith was and is based on my personal experience of more than two decades - as a combat solider, a major in the IDF and as mentor for hundreds of the Rabin Mechina's graduates who are soldiers serving in combat units (active and reserve). There are, to be sure, important political differences between myself as a social-democratic Zionist and Zionists of other political opinions. But there exists among us a very broad consensus regarding the moral character of combat - a moral character to which the IDF is committed and educates its soldiers, a character positively influenced by religious mechinot and by the special personal qualities of my colleague Rabbi Ronsky. THE GUIDING principle that directs IDF combat soldiers, both in their planning and conduct in combat, encompasses a balance between two needs: to defend soldiers' lives and to minimize harm to the civilians behind whom terrorists try to hide. This is expressed in the tension between the necessity of opening fire when the soldiers' security and battle conditions require, even when there's a danger to civilians (providing advance warning to the extent possible), and the absolute obligation to hold fire and to act with due compassion toward civilians when it appears that they have no evil intent. In addition, basic respect toward civilians' belongings and their religious and spiritual property is part of this moral code. These guidelines and the obligation to uphold them are an inseparable part of the Jewish-Zionist world of IDF soldiers, and deeply anchored in generations of Jewish heritage, particularly in the doctrine of military conduct renewed by the early socialist-Zionists a century ago. They called this principle by a name that's unlikely to have been given by any other nationalist movement fighting for its independence: "Purity of Arms" - that is, preventing harm to those not involved in or supporting the combat. This moral commandment remains a central motto of the IDF; it is the complete opposite of the code of conduct of Islamist terror organizations such as Hamas, whose judgment on every Israeli and Jew is death. "Purity of arms" is not part of their world, not even in theory. The outsider may not understand this, but we - the Jews of the State of Israel - live this every day, every hour. In order to appreciate this moral code, one must note the context in which it operates. The State of Israel is under a prolonged attack by the Hamas movement - a fundamentalist Islamic terror movement, based on a racist and ultra-nationalist ideology that seeks the killing of Jews for being Jews and the actual elimination of the State of Israel as its declared aspiration, and formally part of its foundation platform. And bear in mind that Hamas is not a marginal extremist underground, but a movement freely chosen by the Palestinians to head their elected government. Our war against an unrestrained terror organization that uses civilian populations as human shields in various ways, such as hospitals and masquerading as women and children, presents the IDF - an army obligated to an ethical code of combat based on humanism and international law - with almost impossible complexities. The nature of combat in complex conditions (such as in Gaza) brings with it difficulties and failures. The greatness of an army fighting under such conditions lies in its aspiring to "zero errors" and in its openness to examining its failures - finding them and fixing them. IF IT'S possible to learn something from the real Israel - and not that which the media (including Israeli media) makes such efforts to portray - it would be from the uproar of emotions and the frank discussions that have taken place within Israeli society in the wake of the soldiers' accounts. It is out of their commitment to the moral code that the soldiers spoke and their accounts were submitted; purity of arms requires continuous examination of our actions and intentions. "May our camp be pure." This is the watchword borne by my soldiers in the IDF, not only because this is how they've been educated by their commanders and their officers, but because this is the essence of their belief and their national heritage, a belief and heritage shared by and uniting us all: secular and religious, right and left, in the IDF and outside it. It is a source of pride and of confidence in our way, even in times of venomous attacks from every quarter - such as transforming a sensitive, personal discussion among combat soldiers back from the battlefield to mendacious claims of policies that involve so-called war crimes. And so may it be. Atty. Danny Zamir (Major, IDF reserves) Director, Yitzhak Rabin Pre-army Leadership Development Program.

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