Analysis: The crucial morality of the IDF's cause

The whole world's against us, goes a Jewish joke; now we've joined in.

IDF 224 (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF 224
(photo credit: AP [file])
The whole world is against us, goes an old Jewish joke, and now we've joined in. That witticism came to mind while reading headlines in the Hebrew press Thursday about the testimony that soldiers who took part in Operation Cast Lead in January gave at the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military preparatory course at Oranim Academic College in Kiryat Tivon in February. Dani Zamir, the head of the program, published the conversations in a newsletter sent to the course's graduates. According to the testimony of a number of soldiers who took part in what appears to have been a group therapy session getting the war experiences off their chest, three soldiers told of cases in which civilians were killed by sniper fire, and of the wanton destruction of property. The IDF military advocate general instructed the Criminal Investigation Division of the Military Police on Thursday to investigate the claims, and while some may dismiss the investigation as a fig leaf for the rest of the world, it isn't. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's response to the story was telling. He said Israel is the most moral army in the world. While the country's detractors around the world would mock at that moniker, we Israelis believe it, and it is extremely important that we continue to do so. The country fights not because it wants to, but because it has to. And since it has to, it is crucial that Israelis believe in the morality of their cause. The idea of a moral army is not important because of how we are perceived abroad, but rather for how we perceive ourselves. This country demands a lot of sacrifice from its citizens, and people will only sacrifice if they feel that what they are sacrificing for is just and right. If the army would act in an immoral manner, it would pull the rug from under our feet, and would also deter good, decent people from either going into the army, or sending their children to fight there. Thursday's headlines, picked up immediately by the wire services and getting wide play abroad, were "IDF killed civilians in Gaza under loose rules of engagement," and, "Testimony of soldiers who fought in Gaza: 'Cold blooded murder.'" Obviously, everyone abroad who wants to accuse Israel of war crimes in Gaza will jump at these stories; every anti-Israel NGO will disseminate them as further proof of our evil. What is lacking is context. First of all, this type of testimony is legendary in Israel - there is even a phrase to describe it: yorim ve'bochim (shoot and weep). The most famous book of this genre, Siach Lochamim, came out immediately after the Six Day War in 1967, and was translated into English a few years latter under the title The Seventh Day. The testimonials from the Rabin preparatory course have a similar feel: soldiers talking about their war experiences - what they saw, what they heard, what they felt good about, what they didn't feel good about. It is important to note that none of the testimony was about what the soldiers did themselves, but rather of what they heard or saw other soldiers do. It is also important that what was reported seems to fall within the realm of aberrations by individuals during war against a cruel enemy hiding behind civilians, not a systematic loss by the army of its moral compass. The second piece of context is Dani Zamir, the head of the program, who had the soldiers‚ words transcribed and published. A story in Haaretz on Thursday said that in 1990 Zamir, then a parachute company commander in the reserves, was tried and sentenced to prison for refusing to guard a ceremony where "right-wingers" brought Torah scrolls to Joseph's tomb in Nablus. Zamir, in an interview on Israel Radio on Thursday, said that the soldiers from Operation Cast Lead who spoke at the meeting reflected an atmosphere inside the army of "contempt for, and forcefulness against, the Palestinians." Zamir himself appears in a 2004 book titled Refusnik, Israel's Soldiers of Conscience, compiled and edited by Peretz Kidron, with a forward by Susan Sontag. The book, which earned commendation from no less a personage than Noam Chomsky, includes a section by Zamir, described as "an officer in the reserves from Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar who was sentenced to 28 days for refusal to serve in Nablus and now heads the Kibbutz Movement's preparatory seminary for youngsters ahead of their induction in the army." "With stupid resolve and the smugness of the all-knowing, primitive preachers and unbridled nationalists are leading and misleading us to calamity, while Pompeii is preoccupied with watching boxing matches and with banquets in advance of the disaster," he wrote. "I see a volcano in the land where one-third of the inhabitants are banned, by dint of their national and ethnic origins and geographical location, from voting as equals, where they don't have basic civic rights and where thousands are detained under administrative decree - under a military justice system that is farcical. "A land, a third of whose inhabitants have been subjected to extended military occupation for over 20 years - which means restrictions of rights and a different code of law for Jewish and Arab residents in the selfsame land - is not a democratic country. "Accordingly, collaboration with a regime or government that forces or orders me to be part of an anti-democratic apparatus that leads to self-destruction, disintegration and national decay, along with the utter denial of its own foundations, is illegitimate, unjust and immoral, and will remain so as long as the state does not take one of only two feasible actions: annexation of all or most of the territories conquered in 1967 and granting full civil rights to those residing there; or withdrawal from densely populated areas and a settlement that will release us of responsibility for the residents of those areas, who will chose for themselves whatever regime they desire (of course with security arrangements included)." That was what Zamir wrote in 1990, reprinted in 2004. The testimonies of the soldiers that he brought to the public's attention seem to corroborate - what a coincidence - his thesis.