Morality and the IDF

Friday, March 27, 2009
Special to the Jewish Week

The disclosures last week about alleged abuse of civilians by Israeli troops during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza must give us pause.  The allegations, if true, are serious.  To be sure, the kind of casual disdain for human life- even of one’s enemy- that is reflected in the anecdotal evidence, even in the t-shirts that some soldiers were seen wearing, should cause alarm bells to ring in the IDF’s Central Command.  And indeed it has.

I am, however, not at all convinced that this alleged attitude is a systemic problem, and- like many people with both family and friends in Israel who fight in the IDF- I also have anecdotal evidence to support my claim.  Why are we (forget about the rest of the world- we know why they jumped on this story…) surprised that in an country with required universal military service, where the army brings together both the elite of Israel’s society and also far less “refined” strata, there might be soldiers who abuse their power, or act in dramatically inappropriate ways?  Is this supposed to be a shock, that there might be soldiers whose behavior we would not be proud of?  Do we know of any other fighting force of whom the same might not be said?  I’m old enough to remember My Lai…

The danger of becoming excessively brutal while at war is hardly a new issue in our tradition.  In the book of Deuteronomy, in the context of laws pertaining to the conduct of warfare, we encounter the much-studied law of shiluah haken… the obligation to send away the mother bird from her nest if one intends to take the eggs.  The great 13th century Spanish exegete Nahmanides commented that the essence of this law is to distance ourselves from cruelty, and to strive to be compassionate.  Why does such a law appear in the context of the laws of warfare?

The logic is clear.  The adrenaline that flows during combat, when one’s life is at stake, tends to create an atmosphere of “all bets are off,” and all rules suspended.  In the name of staying alive, one can allow oneself to feel as if anything and everything is permitted.  Precisely then, according to Nahmanides’ interpretation, is when we pause to make a simple yet profound gesture that reaffirms our basic humanity.  We don’t gratuitously cause suffering, even to a bird.  How much more so would that be true of a human being!  Yes, even a human being who is our enemy!

The issue here is not whether or not there can or should be room for callous inhumanity to be accepted within the ranks of the IDF.  The answer to that is clearly no, and no one would say that no more clearly that the IDF leadership itself.  If the training that every soldier receives about tohar haneshek- the need to maintain the purity of use of one’s weapon- is shown to be inadequate, then it needs to be upgraded.  And if there are soldiers who are acting in a reprehensible way, even for a cause that they believe is just, then they must be dealt with appropriately.  There is no excuse for what has been alleged.

But let us not, in the name of the misdeeds of a few, tarnish the good names of those who fight so nobly for Israel’s security and survival.  The world will rush to do just that, because the world, at best, doesn’t care about the truth when it comes to Israel.  But we must.

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