For more than a week, we've been rocked by commentary, partly in support, and sharply critical of a speech that the IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Yair Golan, made on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The most complete version in English follows, taken from a report in The Jerusalem Post. It is longer than what is usually quoted, but it is also more complex and provocative than what is typical for a ceremonial speech by a politician or a military professional..
It's scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe begin to unfold here . . .The Holocaust should bring us to ponder our public lives and, furthermore, it must lead anyone who is capable of taking public responsibility to do so . . . Because if there is one thing that is scary 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. . . . .The Holocaust, in my view, must lead us to deep soul-searching about the nature of man . . .It must bring us to conduct some soul-searching as to the responsibility of leadership and the quality of our society. It must lead us to fundamentally rethink how we, here and now, behave towards the other . . .There is nothing easier and simpler than in changing the other, . .There is nothing easier and simpler than fear-mongering and threatening. There is nothing easier and simpler than in behaving like beasts, becoming morally corrupt, and sanctimoniousness . . .On Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is worthwhile to ponder our capacity to uproot the first signs of intolerance, violence, and self-destruction that arise on the path to moral degradation, . . .For all intents and purposes, Holocaust Remembrance Day is an opportunity for soul-searching . . .If Yom Kippur is the day of individual soul-searching, then it is imperative that Holocaust Remembrance Day be a day of national soul-searching, and this national soul-searching should include phenomena that are disruptive . . ..Improper use of weapons and violating the sanctity of arms have taken place since the IDF's founding, .. .The IDF should be proud that throughout its history it has had the ability to investigate severe incidents without hesitation. It should be proud that it has probed problematic behavior with courage and that it has taken responsibility not just for the good, but also for the bad and the inappropriate. . . .We didn't try to justify ourselves, we didn't cover anything up, we didn't whitewash, we didn't make excuses, and we didn't equivocate, . . . Our path was – and will be – one of truth and shouldering responsibility, even if the truth is difficult and the burden of responsibility is a heavy one. . . .We very much believe in the justice of our cause, but not everything we do is just . . .We are certain of the high level of morality in the IDF as an organization, and we do not ignore exceptions by individuals. We demand from our soldiers the same that we demand of ourselves, and we insist that upstanding behavior and setting an example for everyone become second nature for every commander . . .On Holocaust Remembrance Day, as we remember the six million of our people who were slaughtered in Europe, it is incumbent upon us to remember the 6.5 million, those living now, and to ask ourselves what is the purpose of our return to our land, what is appropriate to sanctify and what is not, what is proper to praise and what is not . . .Most of all, we should ask how it is that we are to realize our purpose as a light unto the nations and a model society . . .Only this kind of remembrance can serve as a living and breathing monument for our people – a worthy monument, a monument of truth."It's been an occasion for supporters, including the Minister of Defense and the IDF Chief of Staff to defend Golan's comments, as being appropriate to the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day and the recent controversy focused on a soldier's killing of a wounded and inert Palestinian terrorist. It's also in the tradition of the IDF to air controversy about sensitive issues as well as being a disciplined military force.
Golan's family experience with the Holocaust provides its bit of support for the General. His mother has joined the fray, claiming that critics are simple people who did not hear, or who do not understand what he said.
Among the most shrill of the General's critics is the Prime Minister, who said at the opening of a government meeting..
A day later the Prime Minister greeted Golan at another ceremony, and announced that the issue was behind them.“The comparison that came up during the Deputy Chief of Staff’s speech regarding the processes that characterized Nazi Germany 60 years ago is outrageous . . .These are fundamentally baseless claims . . .The statements that were made should never have been made at any time, and especially not at that time [Holocaust Remembrance Day] . . .They cause harm to Israeli society and shame to the Holocaust. The Deputy Chief of Staff is a decorated officer with a great deal of dignity but his words in this regard were totally wrong and I fully reject them . . .A lot of things were said about the State of Israel in the past few days . . .There is no country without signs of intolerance and violence but the Israeli democracy is strong. It condemns such signs and deals with them through means of the law and other measures.
Much of the support and condemnation of Golan, including the Prime Minister's contribution, fits more general left-center-right divisions in Israeli politics. Supporters see danger in the rhetoric and actions of a right wing, largely based in religious settlers. Opponents see a softness in excessive concern for humanitarian values during continued conflict that frequently spills over to violence against innocent civilians.
Somewhere in the middle are people who can admire the speech as is, but recognize the tinder involved in anything associated with the Holocaust. Not only are the differences in Nazi and Israeli actions so different as to beg the legitimacy of comparison, but the feelings associated with the Holocaust are too intense for it to be brought into discussion about current events.
There are extremists here and abroad, including at least one government minister to the right of the Prime Minister, who have called for Golan's sacking. According to an American friend, if someone in an equivalent position in the US Army said something like that, his retirement check would already be in the mail.
Alas, the Jewish army is tolerant of dispute, even while insisting on a chain of command. It's part of the mix that Jews have learned to manage.
I saw some of that first hand while doing reserve duty for ten years in the lecture corps, and later giving a seminar at the National Defense College and supervising the masters theses of several colonels. While lecturing, sometimes in Lebanon or Gaza, I was expected to talk about sensitive issues, without coming out in favor of one side or another, and then refereeing the arguments among the soldiers. Differences in opinion were sharp, and often the level of discussion did not fall below that in graduate seminars at the Hebrew University.
Even among Israelis who admire his speech are those who see Golan as putting to an end what would have been significant chances of moving along the often traveled career path from Deputy Chief of Staff to Chief of Staff.
Holocaust Remembrance Day comes a week before Memorial Day, which remembers soldiers who died and civilians killed by terrorists. Then comes Independence Day. Two periods of mournful media, and then celebration. The evening before Independence Day includes a national celebration at iconic Mt Herzl, with a series of honorific torches lit by individuals chosen for the honor. This year one such person is the Arab priest who has recruited young Arab Christians to enlist in the IDF. However, recent days have seen him accused of financial and sexual exploitation. So far he is assiduous in issuing denials, claiming that adversaries in the Christian Arab community are doing what they can to attack him and his efforts in behalf of co-existence.
More peaceful is how Varda, and lots of others, have decorated Israel in preparation for the celebration.
Comments welcomeIra Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem