Trial of Elor Azaria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The facts in the case have now been determined. Sgt. Elor Azaria has been found guilty of manslaughter. While not premeditated, the court found him guilty of intentionally killing a wounded terrorist who no longer posed a threat to human life. In doing so, Sgt. Azaria violated Israeli military law and the moral foundations on which our army stands.
The facts in the case have now been determined, and the noise has begun. “Azaria is our son.” “We don’t leave our soldiers behind.” “Azaria may be guilty, but he deserves an immediate pardon.”
Azaria is indeed our son, a part of our family. Family membership, or for that matter citizenship in our society, is not contingent or dependent on one’s actions. We ask our children to defend us and send them into harm’s way. We are in their debt, and they remain our children, whether they are in the right or in the wrong.
Being our child demands love, loyalty, care and compassion. It does not demand that we morally acquiesce and accept everything that our children do. In fact, we are derelict in our duty as parents and family if we do so. Sgt. Azaria is our son, but he is a rebellious son, a son who broke the law and our moral code.
It is true that we do not leave soldiers behind. I remember in the First Lebanon War our frantic race to reach our fellow soldiers who we thought were wounded and were going to be killed or taken captive. I remember our inability to fulfill this responsibility to the members of our unit who fell in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub on June 12, 1982. I remember the body of my brother-in-law, whom our army was unable to retrieve.
To use this most basic axiom of Israeli society in the context of Sgt. Azaria is an insult to all those who were wounded and killed in valiant efforts to ensure that we brought our fellow soldiers home, and that no one was indeed left behind. It is nothing short of sinful emotional manipulation.
We send our children into the army to fulfill some of the most difficult tasks imaginable. We challenge them in ways that no 18-year-olds should be challenged. We do so, because we have no choice. An army, like civil society, is governed by laws and regulations meant to protect soldiers’ safety, rights and responsibilities. On a daily basis, soldiers break some of these laws, are tried and punished. Is every soldier in military prison today, a soldier who was “left behind”? Do any of us posit that our family loyalty and debt to our children in the army must trump the rule of law?
If guilty, why does Sgt. Azaria deserve an immediate pardon? Because he is our son? Because to fail to do so means we are leaving a soldier behind? The only grounds for a pardon is an argument that while he may be legally culpable, his actions were not morally flawed. He killed a terrorist who was willing to die as a shaheed (“martyr”) in order to kill one of our children in the army.
If this is indeed the argument, let’s stop the political posturing, emotional manipulation, and competition over who truly loves our children, and debate the issue.
Do we want to put our children in an army which sanctions the killing of prisoners? Do we feel that our military code of ethics and the demand that we maintain the “purity of arms” serve our children, our army and the interests of our country, or endanger and threaten them? Over and again, we declare that our army is the most moral army in the world. Is that a declaration we inherit by right, or a trust we must earn?
One of our greatest challenges is that our national rebirth has occurred in one of the most violent and morally challenged places on earth. We must learn to survive in the Middle East, but without becoming yet one more Middle Eastern phenomenon. Living by our moral principles, that all human life is sacred and can only be taken in an act of self-defense, is not merely our challenge, but our greatest strength.
Our children, whom we send to defend us, must be given the best training and equipment that our resources can provide. But as a soldier, I knew that my greatest strength lay in my certainty in the justice of my cause and in the moral fortitude of my country and my army. It was with this certainty that I sent my children to the army. It was with this certainty that I knew that in the deepest sense, my children would be okay. Since Sgt. Azaria and all the soldiers in our army are indeed our children, our greatest act of care and loyalty is to guarantee that they will serve in an army that truly aspires to be the most moral in the world.
In the rabbinic legal discourse, the rebellious son is punished now, because of what he might become. Sgt. Azaria must be held accountable, for if we pardon him, I fear what we may become: a society that has lost its moral compass, which has survived the dangers of the Middle East, only to become of the Middle East.
Sgt. Azaria has been found guilty, but he is also a victim. Our children, whom we send to protect us, must endure moral challenges which are often too great for their young shoulders to bear. He is a victim, because while our army is crystal clear on its rules of engagement and of the moral standards it demands of its soldiers, our civil society is not so clear. It has become acceptable for political, religious and social leaders to advocate for actions and policies of revenge and retribution. Despite our immense power and success, fear has penetrated into the heart of our reality, and legitimized advocating for the abrogation of human rights.
Sgt. Azaria is guilty, but he is also a victim. It would be a great miscarriage of justice if the severity of his sentence had to reflect the enormous scale of the issue that his actions unleashed. Let the sentence reflect the fact that he is both guilty and a victim. Let us then go on from the debate around the fate of our rebellious son to a debate around the future of who we ought to become.The author is is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the Director of our iEngage Project.