Israeli navy seals of Shayetet 13 try to bridge judicial overhaul gulf

Pro and anti-reform commandos tell the Jerusalem Post how to heal societal fractures

Shayetet 13 naval commandos‏ (photo credit: IDF)
Shayetet 13 naval commandos‏
(photo credit: IDF)

Baruch Hirsch and Amir Menachem served together in Israel’s most elite unit, Shayetet 13, Israel’s navy SEALs, for some seven years after enlisting and around another decade still serving in the reserves.

The Shayetet is usually Israel’s tip of the spear against Israeli enemies at sea, including Iranians,  Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and even some hostile groups in Syria.

Hirsch risked his life as the unit’s point man scout countless times, while Menachem’s job was to keep Hirsch and the rest of the unit safe as their medic. Hirsch said that the two of them had many moments where they knew their lives were in danger and felt calm knowing they trusted one another like brothers.

There was no enemy that could defeat them – until the judicial overhaul debate a few months ago. That debate suddenly turned brother against brother, commando against commando, in a way neither of them had previously experienced.

 A close-up of people protesting against the judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on April 29.  (credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS) A close-up of people protesting against the judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on April 29. (credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

Hirsch is Orthodox, 34, married with five children, works in hi-tech and education-related fields and supports the judicial overhaul.

Menachem is secular, 33, married with three children, gives seminars about leadership and opposes the judicial reforms.

Today they are working together with the Shayetet and other special forces units as part of the “Five Fingers Movement” – to try to bridge the gulf between the various sides, starting with restoring the balance within their own elite units.

Hirsch recalled how their initiative began: “Many special forces units started creating WhatsApp groups to discuss the judicial overhaul issue. Many were against the reforms. I am in favor of the reforms.

'Five Fingers Movement'

“We hoped there would be a chance to talk about values in a serious way. We saw that the style of the conversations was a catastrophe. The communication was poor and there was name-calling and personal attacks. It happened even with elite commandos who had known each other for a long time and, fought alongside each other,” said Hirsch.

“There were also fights between commandos who might not have known each other quite as personally, but the attacks still felt very personal, because they were from the same units with the same kind of DNA. It was hard for me to watch.”Hirsch said he contacted Menachem and asked him whether he thought that the dialogue in the social media groups was acceptable. Menachem told him he also thought it was problematic. The two agreed that, instead of sitting on the side feeling depressed, they would advance a new initiative to improve things.

“The firing of [Defense Minister] Yoav Gallant promoted a major dialogue within the elite commando units,” said Menachem. “Many were against his firing, while some were for. We are used to being brothers and close friends. Until now, we always got along well. But now we were being split.

“The way of communicating – if one side wins, everyone loses.  We are into being practical men of action. We can keep arguing and complaining or we can do something else,” said Menachem, adding: “Other less elite units look to us for guidance. If we can meet and debate respectfully and show that there are diverse valid opinions, many will be able to relate to it.”

They have held two meetings since Passover. About 50-60% of the attendees were from the Shayetet 13 and other special forces units, with the remaining half from other less-specialized IDF units.“The leaders of the judicial overhaul protest were from special forces units. There were lots of letters from combat pilots and special forces. But everywhere there are two sides,” said Hirsch.

Menachem stated: “The name ‘Ahim Laneshek’ [Brothers in Arms – a leading anti-judicial overhaul group] was very disturbing to me, as if it represented most soldiers. ‘We are all brothers’ sounds like we all have one position on the issues. This disqualifies all of the others who are my brothers in arms. I am personally against the judicial overhaul and how they are trying to do it. But a middle path of cooperation between the sides is better.”

Hirsch said that National Unity Party MK Matan Kahana, Kohelet official Meir Rubin and lawyer Matan Meridor made presentations at the group’s first meeting to represent different viewpoints on the issue. “Everyone who attended, whether for or against the reforms – left on a high. We all felt we better understood the other side. We didn’t speak much about ideology. And even when you do not completely understand the other side, you can still be respectful.“We had enormous momentum for another meeting. So many people asked us why they had not been invited and wanted to participate, such that for the next meeting, the numbers tripled to 120 attendees.”

The second event was structured into two parts: first they had a similar presentation of multiple viewpoints to everyone. Next, they switched into smaller breakout groups to facilitate more personal and flowing discussions. Again, Hirsch said that a very large number of people said they wished they had been invited and wanted to join for similar future events.

This week there another event was held with Haredim to try to get to know them better, and similar meetings with other cross-sections of Israeli society are planned. Hirsch added that eventually they plan to also hold an inter Jewish-Arab dialogue.

Attendees have begun circulating “A Declaration on Cooperative Dialogue” to demand that the political class follow a more cooperative approach to dialogue and to stop divisive fighting.

At the same time, they said they “expect little from public officials. We see a problem and we want to change things from the bottom up. Others have now organized similar meetings in fields including: the IDF, education and hi-tech,” Hirsch said. He noted they are helping build new platforms for broadcasting more messages of trying to reach consensus within those fields.

“This is the cure to fixing the fractures in society. Also, meetings with cross-sections of society – we need people-to-people moments. Social media interactions make it impossible to achieve moderation,” Menachem argued. “The solution will be technical, something middle-of-the-road, but that alone will not cure all of societal fractures. There needs to be a movement of reconciliation on the ground,” he said.

“The reform is yesterday’s story,” Hirsch concluded. “It brought out all kinds of misconceptions relating to different sectors of society: from religious Zionist to secular to Haredi. I am not a professor and am not an expert on every specific issue, but the tone of conversations should be respectful dialogue – a middle way.”

“This crisis is also an opportunity to get to know each other better,” beyond each sectarian group, concluded Menachem.