Sunday, November 11, 2007

Col. Moshe Hager Lau and "Breaking the Silence"

I never thought that when I relocated to DC for the semester, I would have enough material from my shul visits for this blog. Last shabbat Kesher Israel in Georgetown hosted Col (Rabbi) Moshe Hager Lau, currently the head of the military preparatory academy (mekhinah), located in Beit Yatir, in the Hebron Mount area, over the Green Line. The settlement is one of the middle class modern orthodox settlements that sprouted during the 1980's along with much bigger places like Efrat (although Beit Yair is a moshav, or was -- readers, correct me if I go astray here.) The official name of Yatir is Metzadot Yehuda, apparently because the moshav really isn't where the Biblical Yatir was, as if that matters much. Here, too, the separation fence/wall leaves the green line in order to divide Yatir from the West Bank and to annex it into Israel.

Col. Hager Lau is not only the head of the mechinah at Yatir; he is the head of the council of mekhinot, of which there are a bit over a dozen, half of them religious, half of them secular. These institutions provide a year of military preparation and ideological reinforcement to young men going into the army, usually joining elite units. (I will devote a post to them sooner or later). In any event, Col. Hager Lau led a group of soldiers into Hebron during the second intifada. Some of those soldiers are now members of "Breaking the Silence," the group of soldiers who document the activities of IDF soldiers on the West Bank. The founder of that group, Yehuda Shaul, was a soldier in Hebron then, and many of the pictures of the "Breaking the Silence" exhibition are from there.

Col Hager Lau gave the devar Torah at our synagogue. Using the metaphor of "Jacob wearing the clothes of Esau," he talked about how the Israeli soldiers, when they fight, are like Esau, but that when they leave the army, or even come home for a vacation, they take off the clothes of Esau, and put on the clothes of Jacob. Even when they are in the army they are only wearing Esau's clothes; the true warlike nature of Esau (according to rabbinic Judaism, anyway) does not effect their essential nature as Jews.

After the davening was finished, I wanted to go up to him and say, "Bullsh-t". But I don't talk that way, not to mention that this was shul on shabbat, and what do I want from the guy? So I told him that my son and others who were brought up to be like Jacob, could not so easily take off the clothes of Esau when they left the army; in fact; their stint as "Esau" had been a nightmare for them. He was nonplussed, even sympathetic. He knew about "Breaking the Silence" and said that it was an important group; indeed, he had invited one of its members to come and speak to his mechina students about the importance of acting ethically towards the Palestinians.

What follows is more or less what he told me.

I spend an entire year teaching my students -- in a class devoted just to this issue -- how they have to behave responsibly and ethically towards the Palestinian civilian population, to alleviate their suffering to the best of their ability, consonant with Israel's security needs. As an educator and as a religious Jew, I know that power can go to your head, but I do not tolerate -- nor does the school, nor does the IDF -- the humiliation of Palestinians. During the first intifada, I was a company commander, and one of my platoon commanders really lost it and wrote racist graffiti on the walls. I ordered him to erase it, and I asked him how he could do such a thing. Occasionally there are foul-ups, and the army has to deal with these, as should any decent army. But what is the alternative? To take down the checkpoints? To let in suicide bombers?

I believe Hager Lau's sincerity. I believe that he genuinely thinks that he is doing his best to be moral, and that he instructs others to do their best. But he simply doesn't get it. It is not only the abusive soldier at a checkpoint that is immoral. (Soon to be a thing of the past; it is now an abusive security guard -- the Israeli version of Blackhawk.) It is the checkpoint itself that is immoral. And if a system of checkpoints, repression, violation of human rights, is necessary for the continued existence of the state of Israel, who but an amoral tribalist would possibly wish to pay that price, at least, for more than a short period? And Colonel Hager Lau, because he is willing to pay that price, is not a moral person.

Of course, I am not much better than he is. I pay taxes and do my other citizen duties. I wimp out. What have I done to end the occupation besides write this pseudononymous blog, sent some emails, given some lectures, and attended some demonstrations?

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