In Case You Missed It: What Makes An Army Jewish? A Dialogue.

IDF and Jewish Ethics 2Stephen Stern, the 16th Street J’s Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs sends an account of this past week’s riveting dialogue.

Thursday night, February 14, a ruach of intense dialogue pervaded the Center’s Ina and Jack Kay Community Hall, as nearly fifty participants remained riveted for a two hour plus exploration, “What Makes a Jewish Army? Ethics and Tradition: The IDF in an Age of Checkpoints, Village Sweeps and Targeted Killings”. Two passionate IDF veterans recounted their experiences and their starkly different conclusions, listened deeply and challenged each other, responded to fifteen varied and vibrant interrogations from the audience, and spoke to modern dilemmas in light of traditional Jewish questioning framed by our sublime colleague, Jewish educator Avi West of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

This is my brief introductory account and an invitation to continue this dialogue. I seek responses to this blog from our panelists, that night’s audience, and those out there who want more of this.

Yehuda Shaul, a young orthodox Israeli, is founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of veterans who give visual, oral, and written witness on the meaning of their service in the West Bank and Gaza during the second intifada. Yehuda illustrated, speaking in front of a panoramic projection of a large Palestinian neighborhood in Hebron, his group’s call for the Israeli civil society “owner of the IDF” to look deeply at and weigh the costs of military control over large civilian populations. He reported on his training as a “grenade machine gunner” and its misapplication to respond to the ‘sources of fire’ that came repeatedly from Palestinian fighters against the adjacent Jewish settlement. A Palestinian school on the heights was seized (now for four years) by the IDF as an outpost, from which Yehuda, never knowing where the fire came from, was given a target list of abandoned and other buildings centered in a vast civilian neighborhood — at which he repeatedly fired, and adjusted his extremely lethal grenade barrage. This was Yehuda’s emblematic presentation, deepened in back and forth with his fellow veteran and the audience, by citation of other incidents. He referred to controversial and suppressed IDF studies (one where 25% of soldiers testify to carrying out or witnessing abuse of civilians at checkpoints within Palestinian areas). He draws a sharp distinction between war (with implications of self-defense and necessity) and the grinding erosive quality of occupation, which degrades both Israel and the Palestinians. Despite all codes of ethics at which the IDF does shine, as a “military control of civilians mechanism”, Yehuda laments that occupation can be done no other way.

Adam Harmon is an American-Israeli, who in 1990 served in the IDF paratroops and later joined a special operations unit, which pursues terrorist leaders and prevents suicide bombings, and in which he does his yearly reserve duty. Adam spoke of himself as a rebel against hierarchy, who finds the culture of questioning within the IDF to be one of its highest values. He asserted that Yehuda’s experience is not typical or pervasive in the IDF, and that there is an absolute necessity and right to refuse an illegal order and question a “stupid one”. Adam then shared a slide which illustrated that Israel is at war and his view that its actions are defensive and the most moral in the world. He acknowledges the costs in disruption and frustration of Palestinian life do occur at checkpoints, but that closures are aimed at real terror operations, and have definitely led to a trend of less civilian death on both sides. Adam illustrated the moral dynamic of the IDF, by his own unit’s experience at the height of intifada violence in 2003. They carried out a successful operation against a major Islamic Jihad leader and three would-be suicide bombers, and were euphoric over this difficult success. The very next day they were ordered to undertake an operation in an extremely dangerous and civilian-heavy area, which the unit felt was illogical and counter-productive, and they successfully resisted its being carried out. Adam had been a strong supporter of the Oslo process, but felt that its implementation had eroded Israeli security and emboldened Palestinian violence, terror and failure to carry out obligations. Even Israeli offensive actions going against these perpetrators of terror are justified defense that saves civilian lives on both sides, and are the necessary precursor for any successful peace process.

I introduced the evening by citing the tough, harsh, and disparate views we were likely to hear and was lifted throughout by the way these comrades in experience, despite profound differences, unified us all. Avi West provided the neshama of ongoing Jewish sources and signposts of “Values in Conflict”. He charged us to create a sacred space of necessary dialogue and exploration. He reminded us that Ahavat Y’Israel (love of Israel) is not a simple romantic encounter, but as the name Israel implies it is an ongoing wrestling and struggle, in which we are all called to participate as chaverim.

3 Responses

  1. Yehuda and Adam both lent credence to the IDF and Israeli society encouraging personal responsibility not to carry out questionably illegal or unwise military orders which “Breaking the Silence” has been documenting retrospectively. Yehuda focused on the “banality of dehumanization” which Adam appeared comfortable to accept as an inevitable part of Israel’s strategy to dominate the Occupied Territories and their Palestinian populations militarily. Yehuda ducked the strategic question of how Israel should protect itself from hostile Palestinian neighbors by focusing on the dehumanization of the occupation as the implicit cause of the Palestinian resentment. Neither Adam (whose work in the US appears to have something to do with the US military) nor Yehuda raised questions about nonmilitary strategies that are needed to end the cycle of violence that they have both experienced. Yehuda (who comes from an orthodox Jewish family from Jerusalem and whose sister is a settler) suggested that the settlers are not the cause of the tension between the Palestinians and Israelis since they would not be permitted to jeopardize Israel’s existence as a state, if there weren’t other interests which benefited from the tensions that the settlers contributed to. I think that the dialog needs to explore how the US uses Israel to promote American imperialism in the Middle East, and how peace between Israel and the Palestinians will depend on challenging Israeli dependence on US imperialism that Israeli and American Jews have not been willing to consider for fear that Israel’s security would be in jeopardy. The challenge is not resolving whether Israelis or Palestinians have more legitimate claims to the “land twice promised”, but what it would take to create a regional common interest in the Middle East around the principles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

  2. Your description of the evening is excellent, as was the evening. We were very impressed with the way it was organized and conducted, given the very emotional tenor of the topic. It was a stimulating and thought provoking discussion. In the best Jewish tradition, it raised very good questions and left us all thinking about t he complexities of the sought for answers. We would like to see more such discussions and presentations and we promise to attend!

  3. Thanks for the two comments so far. I’d love to see some more.
    – Bob, you raise a really intriguing series of challenges for both of the IDF reservists, and for all of us. The notion of escaping a “cycle of violence” needs deeper exploration on political, moral, national interest and (as the shape of the dialogue suggested) religious/ existential levels. Our framing the differences and shared experiences of the two veterans in Jewish traditional dilemmas I believe started this deepening, but the sharp contrast of Adam and Yehuda’s military experiences and their personal responses dominated the evening. A lot more remains to be said about the context in which they did their military service and what the future holds.
    – I think American interests are certainly fair game to examine. I’d like to hear more about what you mean by placing the Israel/Palestine entanglement in terms of Israeli dependence on “American Imperialism”. To me, that’s a loaded and in many ways misleading and outdated phrase. American excesses in its Cold War struggle with a true Imperial power, the Soviet Union, are a more nuanced issue and indeed a key historical background to this conflict. More pertinent to me is American power’s mixed, but essential role, in brokering a viable, sustainable two state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, bringing in the rest of the region and the world. The principle of universal human rights you cite also brings us back in many ways to the looking through the lens of Jewish ethical concern.
    – Rebecca, thank you for your kind words and the participation of Sidney and yourself in this, past, and future programs!

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