Stephen 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.