On my second day as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, before I even knew how to march or aim or properly grease my rifle, I was rushed into a chilly auditorium to listen to the commander of our basic training facility give a short introductory speech.
Having learned about army life mainly from American movies, I expected machismo, bravado and grit. What I got instead was a long and measured lecture about morality.
The IDF, the commander stated, was the most moral army in the world. Like every army, we often find ourselves in difficult situations and often have to make regrettable decisions that cost innocent people their lives. But unlike any other army, said the officer, we meet the severe security challenges facing us with extraordinary care, with great compassion, with a commitment to justice and a true yearning for peace. That night, I slept well; still uncertain about what my military service might have in store, I took comfort in knowing that I belonged to an army that addressed the questions of morality and ethics seriously.
For the next three years, my faith in this point was repeatedly tested. I disagreed vehemently with the government’s policy of continuing the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a policy that propelled so many of my friends into Palestinian towns and villages, where they were expected to police a resentful and angry population. And I was incensed when the army committed the occasional travesty, such as the murder of more than 100 Lebanese civilians in Qana in 1996. But overall, during my service and after, I continued to believe that the army took the sacred notion of human life seriously.
This is no longer the case.
In the past two months, a torrent of news reports out of Israel have done much to portray a radically different picture of the IDF: violent, callous and increasingly religious, an army unlike the one in which I served more than a decade ago.
First, there were the testimonies of soldiers who served in the recent incursion into Gaza. During a seminar held in February by a prominent pre-military preparatory school–an educational institution favored by some of Israel’s most highly motivated and ideological youth–these soldiers shared stories reflecting a blatant disregard for civilian lives and property.
One commander, for example, recalled that his platoon took over a Palestinian home, imprisoning the family that lived there in one room and occupying the others. A few days later, an officer ordered that the family be released. The platoon commander let the family go, ordering them to leave the house and walk to the right. The mother and her two small children didn’t understand the instructions and ran instead to the left. And the commander, apparently, had forgotten to inform his men that he was releasing the civilian captives. As the mother and her children came running out of the house, an IDF sharpshooter located on the roof shot all three to death.
“I don’t think [the sharpshooter] felt too bad about it,” recalled the commander, “because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to… I don’t know how to describe it…. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers. So as far as they are concerned they can justify it that way.” Other testimonies spoke of less fateful but equally stinging incidents in which soldiers urinated on foodstuffs sent by international aid organizations and sprayed racist slogans on the walls of occupied Palestinian homes.
The soldiers’ accounts, published in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, caused a stir. These tales of depravity and cruelty shattered the prevailing myth of the IDF as a moral and conscientious army. No one appeared more outraged than the army’s senior command, which launched a brief investigation, dismissed the soldiers’ testimonies as “hearsay” and concluded that no war crimes had been committed in Gaza. Speaking in Jerusalem last month, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke for the majority of Israelis when he said, “I have no doubt in my heart that the IDF is the most moral army in the world.”
But Barak’s words were soon challenged by further news reports of soldiers behaving abhorrently; this time, it had to do with T-shirts.
It’s a much-beloved tradition in Israel that when soldiers complete a course, say, or finish a long and difficult training session, they get together and design a humorous and good-natured cartoon, collect a few shekels from each of the men and then pay to have the image printed on T-shirts, a sartorial souvenir they all share. I have several of these wearable mementos, all similar in their crude drawings and their dedication to private jokes.
Today’s soldiers seem to prefer more explicit images on their T-shirts. Recent popular prints include, to name just a few, an illustration of a pregnant Muslim woman in the cross-hairs of a sniper’s rifle, with a text reading, “1 Shot 2 Kills”; a sketch of a dead Palestinian baby lying on the ground next to his grieving mother, again in the cross-hairs, with text that alludes to a popular brand of condoms and reads, “Better Use Durex”; and catchy slogans like “We won’t chill ’til we confirm the kill!” and “Let every Arab mother know that her son’s fate is in my hands.”
This last one is particularly distasteful for most Israelis, being a gruesome spin on a famous saying by David Ben-Gurion, the nation’s founding father. “Let every Jewish mother know,” goes the original saying, “that the fate of her sons is in the hands of worthy commanders.” That slogan was painted on a board at the entrance to Bahad Arba, the military base where I underwent my basic training. At the time, it was understood as a statement of responsibility: a commander must bear the awesome burden of life and death, and must use his judgment, mercy and constraint for the best. Today, however, the hallowed aura of a moral Israeli military has been replaced by a drunken sense of might and a maliciously mirthful carelessness for pain, suffering and human life.
One possible explanation for this radical shift in sensibility has to do with the oldest culprit in the book: fundamentalist religion. The aforementioned eyewitness accounts of atrocities in Gaza also include numerous anecdotes of military rabbis dispensing literature before and during the war that portrayed the conflict with the Palestinians in eschatological terms.
“The rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles, and their message was very clear: we are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land,” recalled one solider. “This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.”
But it is hardly necessary to look heavenward for clues concerning the IDF’s spiral into a trance of primordial hatred and impenitent violence. The IDF, after all, with its mandatory conscription policy, is a true people’s army, and the same people recently anointed the hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu as their prime minister and cheered on as he appointed the right-wing extremist Avigdor Lieberman as his foreign minister. Lieberman’s first act on the job was to declare that Israel is no longer committed to the understandings of the American-brokered Annapolis peace conference, at the heart of which is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
When efforts for peace are declared dead, when a scared and scarred electorate hails boorish strongmen as its saviors, when soldiers relish in death and destruction, it’s only a matter of time, perhaps, before Israel’s moral ossification becomes irreversible and its decay permanent. There’s still time to reverse course, however, still time for us Israelis to stitch up the moral fabric of our society, still time for anyone who cares about Israel to speak clearly and demand not only a political shift but an ethical one as well. No task could be more urgent, and no failure more grave.