In today's New York Times, under the headline, "A religious war in Israel's army, " Ethan Bronner reports that several of the testimonies of secular soldiers who served in Gaza, and who allege inappropriate behavior, attribute that behavior to the rise of the religious-nationalist Jews in the army.
Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.
A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, "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. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war."
Dany Zamir, the director of the one-year premilitary course who solicited the testimonies and then leaked them, leading to a promise by the military to investigate, is quoted in the transcripts as expressing anguish over the growing religious nationalist elements of the military.
"If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren't representative of the whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population, what can we expect?" he said. "To whom do we complain?"
Zamir was not only implying with the above statement that the religious soldiers and commanders are in large part responsible for the moral decline of the Israeli soldier. He also seemed to imply that were the army to be composed of units that were more representative of the Jewish people, it would have greater moral legitimacy to do what it did in Gaza.
If that inference is correct, than the secular Dany Zamir is little different from Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the ultra-nationalist Rabbi who said recently that Barukh Goldstein's "error" in killing innocent Palestinians was acting without the authorization of the nation. Had he received such an authorization, then it would have been all right.
Perhaps that is unfair to Zamir. Perhaps not. What he certainly shares in common with the religious nationalist right is the penchant of some Jews to bash other Jews who do not belong to their "tribe".
But is Zamir right? Is there a moral decline in the IDF, and is that decline attributable to the rise of religious nationalists?
Some preliminary points
- According to one of my informants, there has never been a serious academic study of IDF soldier violence in the Occupied Territories. Which soldiers are likely to be perpetrators? What communities do they come from? What is their moral upbringing? Until that study is undertaken, the answers to these questions are mere guesses. In lieu of serious study, one can bash the religious nationalists (but not the Russians, the Mizrahim, or the secular Ashkenazim) with impunity.
- Even with such a study, it is difficult to have conclusive answers. A religious soldier may believe that conquering the Land of Israel is a religious imperative, that 'whoever is merciful to the cruel, will eventually be cruel to the merciful' – and still act like a mentsh with the civilian population. By contrast, one can be raised in a kibbutz with humanistic values and still commit unspeakable acts in war.
- The longer the Occupation, the worse Israel behaves, and the more their bad behavior becomes acceptable and justified by Israeli society. True, there was some pretty nasty stuff in the First Intifada (Remember "Break-their-bones" Rabin?) , but Israel then, at least, made the pretence of caring about the civilian population. It took a more violent Second Intifada for the Knesset to pass the law limiting the Palestinian's ability to sue for damages, to cage Palestinians in ghettoes, and to build a wall to ensure maximum land for Israeli expansion. For their part, the Palestinians were able to kill many more Israelis civilians in the Second Intifada than in the First, though very few recently.
So has there been a moral decline in the IDF? As others have correctly pointed out, the last campaign in Gaza was particularly repugnant from a moral standpoint. But I cannot see it as qualitatively different from previous campaigns. And I am glad to see that Gideon Levy shares that view. And certainly there is no reason – yet – to believe that the rise of the religious nationalist ideology is behind the hardening of Israel's heart. Anybody who lived in Israel through the Gaza campaign knew that Israelis of all stripes didn't give a damn about what happened in Gaza. "Served them right" is what you will hear people say who belong to all the tribes of Israel.
The tendency to attribute the evil to religious nationalists – their Hamasniks or our own – is more often than not a convenient excuse for not looking in the mirror. Ehud Olmert is not a religious nationalist. Ehud Barak is not a religious nationalist. Avigdor Lieberman is certainly not a religious nationalist. And let us not forget Bibi.
Olmert and Barak and Livni share the responsibility for what happened in Gaza, not some rabbi in the military rabbinate, who provide the secular leaders cover by making them look moderate.
The article ends with Prof. Moshe Halbertal of the Hebrew University and Hartman Institute making the by-now hackneyed distinction between the peace-loving, moderate religious Zionists, and the ultra-nationalist Land of Israel Zionists. Halbertal, like Zamir, professed to be shocked when he learned of how the troops behaved in Gaza. Once again, Levy is there to say to those shocked, "Bullshit. You knew exactly what was going on during real time – all you had to do was read the newspaper."
Israelis appear to be doomed to live in a perpetual "Groundhog's Day" where they repeat the endless cycle of being shocked whenever they hear of the IDF's traditional and predictable behaviour. Even their reactions are predictable. And there will always be the New York Times Israel correspondent (using a liberal Zionist Jew) consulting the Hartman Institute "philosopher" (a modern orthodox liberal Zionist Jew) for the "moderate" position.
In the beginning there was Tom Friedman interviewing David Hartman. Friedman begat Bronner and Hartman began Halbertal. Nothing has changed; they all say the same thing.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the IDF, the Hartman crowd just follows in the footsteps of another Israeli apologist, liberal Zionist, Michael Walzer, who has constructed an entire Just War theory with the IDF in mind.
All the military ethical codes don't do a damn thing when the folks in charge are operating under their own tribal morality, and when the "war on terrorism" becomes cover war crimes. The difference between the US and Israel is that we have been governed by Bushes and Chenies for the last sixty years (with maybe a slight breath of fresh air from 1993-1995.)
Stop bashing the religious right.
All our hands have spilt this blood.