Religious Affairs: Waging war on the war

Rabbis for Human Rights holds conference encouraging religious, legal and moral scrutiny of Cast Lead.

rabbis for human rights 88 (photo credit: )
rabbis for human rights 88
(photo credit: )
A video of St.-Sgt. Amir complaining about the conduct of his fellow soldiers and commanding officers during January's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza opened this week's conference organized by Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR). "Our division commander spoke with us before we entered Gaza," said Amir, who served in a reserve tank unit during the last week of the operation, after most of the fighting was over. "He warned us about what was waiting for us in Gaza, about the dangers. And he said this time the approach would be different, more aggressive. If a building got in our way, we were to knock it down; if a car got in our way, we were to run it over; if we felt threatened, we were to open fire." Amir also recounted how the minaret of a mosque was blown up "for no apparent reason." Meanwhile, a small demonstration - held by the university student organization, Im Tirtzu - raged outside. The group takes its name from a quote from Theodor Herzl: "If you will it [im tirtzu], it is no dream." The young protesters, many of whom had fought as reserve soldiers in Operation Cast Lead, held signs that read "European-Sponsored Blood Libel" and "Lies, guys, lies." (The RHR conference and the Internet site,, were funded by Trocaire, an organization connected with the Irish Catholic Church, that opposed the operation in Gaza.) Demonstrators brought matzot and smeared them with red paint, an allusion to spurious blood libels levelled against Jews throughout the ages that gentile blood was an integral ingredient in the Passover seder. The message was that the conference was just another incitement against Jews. "What bothers me is that the people in there are making accusations about IDF soldiers without giving names, without giving locations of the alleged events," Amir Levy, a reserve officer who served in Operation Defensive Shield, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, told The Jerusalem Post's Abe Selig. "They are making these accusations, but they're making them without facts. And that implicates all of us; it implicates the IDF as a whole. If there were people who committed crimes, then provide their names, take them to court. But to hold a conference with European financial support is only giving fodder to the foreign press, which will undoubtedly write all kinds of stories based on these allegations." THE ATMOSPHERE of introspection and breast-beating that surrounded the screening of Amir's videotaped testimony inside the conference - which was titled "Is This Us?: Law, Religion and Morality in Operation Cast Lead" - sharply contrasted with the calls outside for patriotism and support for the IDF at a time when Israel is in a constant state of war against terrorism. It is a tension that has existed at least since 1967, when Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira travelled to kibbutzim after the Six Day War with a tape recorder collecting testimonies that were included in the book The Seventh Day: Soldiers' Talk about the Six Day War (Siah Lohamim). And it probably goes back even farther, to S. Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh, written in 1949, which describes the expulsion of men, women and children from a generic village whose name means destruction in Arabic. The main difference is that texts like The Seventh Day, which might have revealed some of the uglier sides of war, were one of the nation's most effective public diplomacy tools. They presented the image of the handsome, dilemma-ridden and existentially soul-searching Israeli soldier, the tension-filled IDF value of "purity of arms" and the very Jewish striving for moral perfection, even in times of war. In contrast, testimony like Amir's, courtesy of Breaking the Silence, an organization that provides usually anonymous eyewitness accounts by IDF soldiers of purported misdeeds perpetrated by themselves or by fellow soldiers against Palestinians, inevitably arouses international condemnation and Israel-bashing. PERHAPS THIS is part of the reason the IDF decided to boycott the RHR conference. "The conference is about slamming the IDF," explained a senior officer to the Post's Yaakov Katz. "We were not willing to allow our officers to be used as decor for this group and its agenda." He said the decision not to allow IDF personnel to attend the conference was made after discovering that a petition would be signed calling for the establishment of an inquiry committee independent of the IDF to investigate war crimes charges. In fact, the issue of whether Israel should or should not create an external inquiry committee was discussed during the conference. Prof. Eyal Benvenisti, an expert in international law from Tel Aviv University, revealed to the conference that he recently resigned from his position as legal adviser to an IDF combat unit, because he felt that it was impossible to conduct an objective inquiry into soldiers' combat from inside the IDF. "I reached the conclusion that it was against the IDF's own interest not to allow an external inquiry to be conducted," said Benvenisti. "It gives the impression that the IDF is trying to hide something, when it has absolutely nothing to hide." However, Col. (res.) Daniel Reisner, head of the International Law Department between 1995 and 2004, said that it was unrealistic to expect the IDF to allow a totally independent inquiry into Cast Lead. "There is no army in the world that permits such scrutiny, and military investigations are almost always classified. I do believe that some external investigators and experts can be integrated into IDF inquiries after passing security clearance. My opinion does not necessarily reflect the IDF, though." RABBI ARIK Ascherman, executive director of RHR, said that while he hoped the conference would put pressure on the government to create an independent inquiry, this was not his only goal. "I wanted to create an atmosphere in which diverse views were expressed, and a serious public discussion was conducted, over suspicions that maybe some of the things we did in Gaza were not completely moral," said Ascherman, an American-born Harvard graduate who grew up in the Reform Movement. "We purposely had this conference on the eve of Tisha Be'av because this is the time for us to engage in self-scrutiny on a national level. The purpose is to foster dialogue, not hatred. As a result of such honest dialogue, we might succeed in improving ourselves. Its too bad the IDF refused to participate."