A backward brand of patriotism

Former defense minister Moshe Yaalon (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former defense minister Moshe Yaalon
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The past week has been a continuous PR battle for Breaking the Silence, the Israeli organization that records testimonies of code of conduct abuses from IDF combat veterans.
MK Tzipi Livni and President Reuven Rivlin both insulted the group at the Haaretz/New Israel Fund conference last weekend. MK Naftali Bennett went a step further, actually banning Breaking the Silence from speaking to Israeli elementary and high school students. Later, the organization Im Tirtzu released a video calling Avner Gvaryahu, the director of outreach for Breaking the Silence, a foreign agent. But when Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon criticized Breaking the Silence and banned it from all official IDF activities, a line was crossed.
Ya’alon is the head of the defense establishment, and Breaking the Silence reveals major problems with the military’s conduct, so on the surface his criticism of the group may seem natural.
His criticism of the organization is painted as a defense of his soldiers, but it is actually a betrayal of IDF combat veterans. Ya’alon wrote in a Facebook post that Israel “supports the combat soldiers and commanders who go out and fight for it,” before going on to call Breaking the Silence a “malicious minded” organization. The maliciousness Ya’alon mentions, however, is part of the IDF’s own philosophy.
In the pamphlet “Spirit of the IDF,” which is given to every soldier upon conscription, point 15 of the “Basic Principles” section reads, “The IDF serviceman will never conspire to conceal any offense or mishap, and will not entertain any proposal to be party to such a conspiracy. When confronted with an offense or mishap, the serviceman will act as is reasonable and proper to correct the aberration.” This is exactly what Breaking the Silence intends to do. The organization exposes the failures of the IDF to uphold its own code of ethics. It does so for the betterment of Israel. The “support” Ya’alon talks about apparently does not apply to soldiers who uphold the army’s own values.
Nor does it apply to soldiers who suffer from the psychological effects of fighting Israel’s wars. Last week, the Action Committee for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Victims, another organization made up of Israeli combat veterans, sent a letter to the defense minister demanding his ministry provide support for soldiers suffering from PTSD, support that has so far been withheld.
“Some of our brothers came back in coffins,” the letter reads, “some of us came back injured physically, and some of us came back suffering from PTSD.” This comes less than a month after the testimony of another combat veteran, Ido Gal Razon, to members of the Defense Ministry, demanding treatment for the psychological consequences of fighting in Gaza back in 2007.
Ya’alon’s criticism of Breaking the Silence would be merely insulting if it weren’t for the implications of publicizing that criticism so widely. In the Israeli hasbara culture, where everyone feels they carry the burden of protecting the nation whether or not they earned such a role in the military, people are encouraged by Ya’alon’s comments to criticize not just the Breaking the Silence, but the combat veterans in its membership.
This results in the lowest form of criticism. People who never served in the army write arguments relying on their personal doubt that such events as those the testimonies describe could take place. The reports that Breaking the Silence produces are not the target of the criticism, either. The target is the act of soldiers speaking out when the IDF fails to live up to its own standards.
If Ya’alon actually cared about defending IDF soldiers and veterans, he would speak to them, not denounce them publicly on social media. Ya’alon and his ministry would demand help for veterans suffering from PTSD. He would defend the soldiers that testify against military misconduct even if he opposed the manner in which they testified.
Ya’alon didn’t invent this problem, even if his particular criticism of IDF veterans is the most insulting. The refusal of many Israelis, MKs and foreign supporters of Israel to show the most basic respect to IDF combat veterans is a result of a backward brand of patriotism, one that assumes civilians have a larger responsibility in defending Israel than do combat soldiers if those soldiers are critical of the army’s behavior.
This citizen-soldier style patriotism is rooted deep in Israel’s ethos, and it is partially a result of mandatory military conscription. Almost everyone serves in the army, the narrative goes, so one soldier’s experience must be the same as any other’s. In that case, soldiers speaking out against the actions of the army are liars and traitors. This thinking is a slippery slope, and will lead to a jingoistic and fascist society if the state doesn’t work to stem the vehemence against those who speak out.
Two days after Moshe Ya’alon banned Breaking the Silence and publicly questioned their loyalty, the Im Tirtzu video calling Avner Gvaryahu a foreign agent was released. The video ends by saying, “while we fight against terrorism, they fight against us.” When combat veterans are targeted by this sort of incitement for talking about the moral failures of the army, Israeli society becomes less free and no one is safe. When the government promotes that incitement, it is responsible for what happens next.
The author served in a combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces from 2009 to 2011 and has an MA in Conflict Resolution and Mediation from Tel Aviv University. He is the former managing director of Partners for Progressive Israel. Follow him on Twitter: @ nathanhersh.