Center field: Don’t just dismiss the protesting military intelligence reservists

These protesters are our kids, who served honorably in a hellish mess – leaving them conscience-stricken because they have consciences.

IDF soldiers patrol in Nablus [file] (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldiers patrol in Nablus [file]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is tempting to join the pile-on against the 43 military intelligence reservists who “refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians.” How naïve! We all wish the Palestinians’ war against us would end, eliminating any need for any “actions” in self-defense. The 200 reservists who counterattacked were correct: “Refusal to serve on the basis of politics has no room in the IDF.” Yet I cannot join this chorus of condemnation so quickly.
These protesters are our kids, who served honorably in a hellish mess – leaving them conscience-stricken because they have consciences. Their confusion, their moral struggle, and their anguish merits respect, even if they overstepped.
Predictably, the entire Israeli establishment disagrees. From the Left, MK Shelly Yacimovich called the protesters “cowards.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said this “foolish and offensive attempt” contributed “to the delegitimization of Israel and the lies against it.” Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz called the protest “an act of subversion that deserves punishment.”
Refusing to serve crosses a red line. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who was an officer in the unit, said, “I oppose refusing orders, and I detest it completely.” True, refusal is immoral in a democratic country relying on its citizen army to defend against indomitable enemies. Yet how could I or any other laptop warrior who never served in the army call these veterans “cowards”? While I fight Israel’s delegitimization passionately, I do not want to use our enemies’ joy in hijacking the reservists’ words to stifle an important conversation. Nor do I wish to punish these young reservists whose service to the state made us so proud just days ago, before their letter.
I hear in these protests the cries of young idealists, flailing about in impossible situations. I feel the pain of young Israelis trying to reconcile their comforts and freedoms with the Palestinians’ privations and constraints. I recognize the cognitive dissonance generated by living in a free-wheeling, democratic, globalized culture while serving in a tough, hierarchical, restrictive military culture. And I share the agony of the horrible choices imposed on us all by a Hamas organization whose charter champions our destruction, and a Palestinian national movement that keeps working harder to destroy the Jewish state than build its own.
To update the cliché about liberalism being for the young and conservatism for the old: anyone who serves in the army untroubled by Palestinians’ troubles has no heart; but anyone who cannot recognize Palestinian responsibility for much of their own troubles has no brain.
This summer of all summers demonstrated the need for the sacred work of 8200 and the other intelligence units. Good intelligence helps unearth death tunnels, hunt down rockets, target terrorists and save soldiers’ lives. You don’t collect intelligence – or win wars – by being polite; war is hell.
I do not fear this debate, even if it spills into the world media, even if it encourages our enemies in the UN and elsewhere, because democratic Israel needs this democratic conversation. It doesn’t help to deny young intelligence officers’ discomfort, or overlook many soldiers’ post-traumatic stress because of the tough decisions they make in the field or the horrors they witness. They need to ask questions – and we need to show them how hard we have sought peace. They need to know about our extraordinary peacemaking efforts during the Oslo years – which resulted in Yasser Arafat’s turn from negotiations back to terror, murdering over 1,000 Israelis. They need to know about the mass displacement of 6,000 Israelis from Gaza in 2005, in another attempt at peace – which resulted in thousands of rockets fired and dozens of death tunnels built. And they need to know, today, that we are ready to drive the peace train; that we and our leaders are working hard to avoid perpetual war, perpetual bloodshed.
BOTH THE protesting reservists and the furious politicians need a refresher on democratic dissent. Just as tall buildings have “give,” allowing them to sway a bit amid strong winds, great nations should be resolute yet flexible.
“[M]ay we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion,” said the general and president Dwight Eisenhower. Meanwhile, an American private who died in World War I, Martin Treptow wrote in his diary: “I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.” Democracies thrive in that sweet spot, with citizens capable of patriotic dissent who also fulfill their military duties zealously.
The army must enforce discipline. The politicians have a duty to back up the army. But the rest of us, as parents, educators, citizens, have a responsibility to embrace these protesters, hear their testimony, articulate the limits of patriotic dissent, and invite them to continue trying to fulfill the ongoing Zionist mission of surviving in a harsh neighborhood while living up to our loftiest democratic and Jewish ideals.
“The sooner we stop dealing with this letter, the better,” the former military intelligence chief Shlomo Gazit said recently. I disagree. Bring it on. Let’s take the challenge and explain why we remain in the West Bank and fight Hamas in Gaza. Let’s acknowledge some (not all) of our young people’s dismay and explain why we must dig deeply and aggressively for intelligence in the territories, using human assets and technology. And let’s respect their discomfort while teaching them that, when in uniform, patriotic citizens fight the enemy aggressively; knowing that when they eventually don civilian clothes their honorable service will enhance their political credibility.
We need thoughtful army veterans in politics – after their tours of duty, when the enemies’ guns are silent. But wartime requires unity, loyalty and discretion – three traits the 43 lacked, as 200 of their peers so eloquently informed them.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and will be teaching at the IDC in Herzliya this fall. The author of eight books on American history, his latest book is Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
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