The refusal of 43 men and women to continue their reserve duty in Israel’s elite 8200 intelligence-gathering unit has taken Israel by storm. The group published a letter on Friday, and it made its way quickly into the Israeli, American, and international headlines. The letter stated that these soldiers and officers are no longer willing to serve in their capacities as occupiers. In their words: “We refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to serve as tools in deepening the military control over the Occupied Territories… We cannot continue to serve this system in good conscience, denying the rights of millions of people.”
The response in Israel has been deafening. Members of Knesset who are also former members of the 8200 unit have spoken out. Likud MK and Coalition Leader Yariv Levin announced that “those who refuse to help defend our country cross the line between supporting the Israeli democracy and the freedom it represents to supporting Palestinian terror…” Labor MK and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog rebuked the letter-writers and emphasized that there were other ways to generate discussion. Not long after it was published, 150 members of Unit 8200 wrote a response letter, calling the move a “cynical use of politics in their legal and moral duty to serve in the reserve unit.”
The question everyone is asking now is — is it? Is this explosive letter a mere political stunt designed to aim more antagonism at a 47-year occupation? Or is it, as the signatories claim, something deeper — an attempt to take responsibility for the unnecessary invasion of privacy of a people who have no civil or legal recourse. It’s hard to tell, and, as with most sticky moral issues, likely a bit of both.
When I sat down with three of the original 43 signatories — a philosophy student, a technology and communications employee, and a computer science doctoral candidate — my first impression was one of earnestness: these were the “good kids.” As an Israeli 18-year-old, you don’t get into Unit 8200 by being a slacker. You get in by doing well in school and by showing flexible thinking, confidence and the ability to work well with others. The hope is that these qualities, plus training, will give these young people enough dexterity and thoughtfulness that they can be trusted with the secrets of Israel’s deep state. Unit 8200 graduates go on to found and power Israel’s innovative start-ups, and these three were likely to be no exception.
Forty-three reservists of an elite IDF corps have signed and released a letter setting out their refusal to serve Israeli “military control over the Occupied Territories” anymore. The members of Unit 8200, an intelligence unit often seen as an incubator of Israeli high tech as its soldiers move into civilian life, directly criticized Israeli occupation and settlement activity. Not surprisingly, most of the Israeli political class has criticized the letter as, at a minimum, politicizing what is supposed to be an apolitical military or, at a maximum, directly undermining the security of Israel.
I do not take issue with either the reservists’ questioning of government policy, or with the government’s reaction. Most leaders of most states would react similarly. After all, as the group with the greatest capacity to threaten or even overthrow the government, the military’s voice counts for a lot in the realm of Israeli politics.
Natan Sachs is right that the letter’s short-term impact isn’t likely to be significant: As he implies, we are still looking at relatively small numbers here.
What I do think is important is recognition of the army’s place in Israeli society. As Israelis begin to question the government’s foreign and domestic policies more and more, the emergence of similar processes in an institution considered so representative of the Israeli ethos is significant. It also underlines the point that some Israelis are pushing back against what they view as problematic, illiberal and dangerous policies.
David Menachem Gordon / Facebook
David Menachem Gordon, the IDF soldier from Ohio who was found dead on Tuesday, left a record explaining his journey from budding American journalist to Israeli army recruit.
The 21-year-old’s personal blog, “Shields of David,” together with his writings available elsewhere online, offers a glimpse of an articulate young man who identified his worst fears and decided to fight them head-on rather than be paralyzed by them.
This was a boy who wrote publicly about “the scattered scars that sexual abuse left on his Soul” for the Huffington Post, and encouraged other survivors to come forward. “Those eight years of secrecy were horrific,” Gordon wrote. “If you are a victim of any type of abuse, wherever you are, I beg you for your own sake: Reach out! Secrets don’t get better with age so don’t keep them boiling inside any longer.”
This was a boy who unabashedly posted John Mayer songs to his personal Facebook page, along with messages like:
This was a boy who wept when, on a student trip to Poland, a group of locals outside his tour bus raised their arms in a Hitler salute.
Palestinians rush wounded boy to safety after Israeli mortar killed four boys playing soccer on a Gaza beach. Getty Images
(Haaretz) — You probably know Israel’s army as the Israel Defense Forces, but the IDF has a more controversial name for itself: the “moral army.” For those unused to this rhetoric, hearing it at a time when Israel is engaged in cross-border fighting can spark everything from confusion to outrage – especially in the midst of horrifying reports of civilian casualties in Gaza from Operation Protective Edge.
There are a number of reasons to be wary of the title of “moral army” (it normalizes violence and discourages accountability, for example), but the most important issue is whether the IDF’s conduct upholds its commitments.
The IDF claims that it aspires to respect secular and Jewish ethics in its operations, but especially when evaluated under the principle of “pikuakh nefesh” - the Biblical insistence that we prioritize the preservation of human life above all else - the IDF doesn’t seem to be meeting the Jewish ethical standard for a “moral army.”
In Gaza today, the ethical question the “moral army” must answer is this: When the IDF has good reason to believe there are civilians in a targeted area – or can even see them – should it strike anyway?
In the scope of this month’s fighting, the crux of how we evaluate the IDF’s claim to be a “moral army” lies in what its behavior reveals about its approach to this dilemma. From the information that’s publicly available, the verdict seems less horrifying than Israel’s staunchest opponents would have it, but far more damning than Israel’s rhetoric – or its ostensible moral aspirations – admits.
Israeli soldiers support a comrade punished for pointing a gun at a Palestinian teen / Facebook
(Haaretz) — The almost routine clip of a violent clash between a soldier and Palestinians in Hebron that took the Internet by storm recently reveals much about the IDF’s procedure in the West Bank in the era of social networks.
On the one hand, a considerable number of incidents of the kind that weren’t documented in the past are now photographed and published. On the other, the soldiers − who hadn’t taken any part in the debate in the past − now express their opinion blatantly on the net, siding with the soldier who got into trouble.
The Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron is the most documented place in the territories. A few years ago B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, as well as other human right and leftist organizations, distributed video cameras to Palestinian residents for documenting the soldiers’ and settlers’ violent acts. Beit Hadassah’s close, bad neighborhood with Tel Rumeida provides fertile ground for incidents worth filming − from brutal acts of violence to futile arguments over raising a Palestinian flag.
The army carefully prepares every battalion posted in the city for similar events. Soldiers are trained in simulated events, with soldiers playing Palestinians and settlers. They are even warned of the damage a hand blocking a camera lens can do to the army’s image. Yet every battalion falls into the same media pitfalls.
In this case, a Nahal Brigade soldier was video-taped fighting with a number of young Palestinians. One of the youngsters provoked the soldier and put his hand on him. The soldier told him: “You’d better not do that again.” A clash evolved and when another Palestinian approached, the soldier cocked his gun, pointed it at them and tried to kick one of them. Then he turned to the Palestinian photographer, swore at him and threatened him: “Turn off the camera, I’ll stick a bullet in your head you son of a bitch.”
In the background other Palestinians and settlers are seen, including a girl who tried to stop the camera’s action.
IDF soldiers order Shadi Sidr to remove his Palestinian flag in Hebron. / YouTube
Last week I wrote about that wacky video of a Hebron settler climbing onto a Palestinian’s roof to steal his flag, getting stuck, and calmly telling the Palestinian that the roof, house, and everything within shouting distance actually belonged to the settler – that is: Israel. I posited that had the situation been reversed – had the Palestinian climbed onto the settler’s roof instead – the Palestinian would now be dead.
Rather than, say, arrest the settler for trespassing, though, soldiers responded to this absurd series of events by attempting to browbeat Shadi Sidr, the Palestinian in question, into handing over his flag. At various points, various soldiers insisted that flying the Palestinian flag was forbidden and that Sidr would be taken into custody if he didn’t take his down, but when he refused, at least one of them had the good sense to understand that continuing the farce in front of cameras was not a good idea. Later it transpired that the Israeli military in fact has no anti-flag regulation.
And that, you would think, was that.
Or, at any rate, you might think that was that if you had no experience with Israel and the occupation. Because of course that was not that. That was not even remotely that.
As the Israeli government prepares to present the Knesset with its bill to draft yeshiva students into the army, the Haredi community is seething. But even as it kicks into reactionary mode, you’ve got to wonder whether, paradoxically, this could present an opportunity for some limited advancement among Haredi women.
The Haredi media in Israel is abuzz with talk of a possible “march of the million” against the plans to get currently-exempt Haredi men into uniform and criminalize those who ignore draft orders.
The Haredi leaders who are talking about a march saw the “march of the million” during the social protests of 2011 (which was big but didn’t quite reach a million). They believe that if their community can replicate that kind of mass activism, Israeli society and the government will need to take notice.
But there’s an obvious problem. In secular society, if you have a million people, you have a million potential demonstrators. In Haredi society, a million people gives you just 500,000 potential demonstrators.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteer to the Israeli Army’s Nahal Haredi brigade. / Getty Images
Plans to draft ultra-Orthodox men to Israel’s army are moving ahead — complete with a surprise.
There has been lots of tough talk regarding the need for universal service, but there was a widespread expectation that the government would stop short of criminalizing yeshiva students who refuse to serve. However, yesterday a committee formatting the draft law decided that draft refusers could face jail.
This has proved intensely controversial — and not only with Haredim, who are determined that they won’t be forced into the army. That’s because it raises a question mark about how realistic it really is to get Haredim into uniform.
A schoolgirl listens to language class on November 4, 2002 in Jerusalem. / Getty Images
An Israeli high school teacher faces dismissal after a student complained that he expressed radical “leftist” views in the classroom. In a letter to Education Minister Shay Piron, 12th-grade student Sapir Sabah accused Adam Verete — who teaches philosophy in the small northern Israeli town of Kiryat Tivon — of saying the IDF is “unusually brutal” and uses rhetoric in class that disparages the state.
Since news broke, Verete has received threats to his life and other forms of slander and incitement, for which he has filed a complaint with the police. It didn’t help that former MK Michael Ben Ari — a right-wing Kahanist notorious for his Jewish supremacist and incendiary views — posted Sabah’s letter on his Facebook page, immediately turning the issue into a public left-right political battle. Sabah herself has in the past argued in class that all Arabs should be thrown into the sea and also called Verete a traitor, adding that treasonous citizens like him are punished by death. No one from the school has condemned her hate speech or her incitement against Verete, instead chalking it up to “her opinion.”
In what can only be described as a modern-day Israeli McCarthy-style tribunal, administrators from ORT — the non-profit network of state-subsidized schools that employs Verete — held a hearing last week with him to discuss the allegations. Portions of the audio recording of the hearing released on news sites reveal a hostile group of administrators uninterested in getting to the bottom of the issue, or in discussing the boundaries of democracy and critical thinking in school.
By all accounts, it was a nerve-wracking time for the 75,000 Israeli reservists called up in preparation for a ground offensive in Gaza last week.
“The next days were an emotional roller coaster ride,” wrote Marc Goldberg, who reported to duty on November 18, in a blog post for The Times of Israel. “I was prepped to go in and then stood down, only to be prepped to go back in again and stood down again and again…most of the time was spent hanging around waiting for something to happen, waiting for the final decision to get us moving.”
And when soldiers spend their time hanging around and waiting, things happen. Things like a bunch of reservists doing a khaki-clad rendition of the international smash hit “Gangnam Style.” Ariel Maoz, apparently one of the dancing soldiers, posted the video on his Facebook page and it went viral, attracting the attention of the news media.
On a more serious note, Goldberg wrote of arguments among members of his units as to whether the IDF should and would actually enter Gaza. “Then word came down about the ceasefire. Though there many who were angry that we wouldn’t be going in, the sense of relief that slowly swept through the company was palpable,” he wrote.
A few days before the anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s return home from captivity in Gaza, the story of another missing Israeli soldier has come to an altogether more tragic end.
Majdy Halabi, an ethnic Druze, disappeared in May 2005 near his home in northern Israel. Today, in a brief statement, the Israeli military said that his body has been found.
In 2008 his family received a phone call from a prisoner in an Israeli jail suggesting that Halabi had been abducted to the West Bank. Earlier this year three prisoners tried to negotiate a plea bargain in return for information on the location of the body. But in the end, it was a hiker who found the remains in a forest near Halabi’s home, suggesting it was a more mundane crime.
“The remains were discovered approximately two weeks ago, near the town of Usfiya, and were identified by the Institute of Forensic Medicine,” said the statement. “The circumstances of his death are currently under investigation by the Israeli Police.”
Ynet’s Atilla Shomfalvi quotes unnamed government insiders who say Prime Minister Netanyahu can’t order a military strike against Iran, even though it’s his decision to make, because the security establishment is unanimously opposed and the cabinet won’t approve an action over the defense chiefs’ opposition.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last night [Tuesday] that he is responsible for deciding on military action in Iran, but senior political figures involved in the discussions reckon that in light of the determined opposition at this point of the heads of the security establishment—the chief of staff, the director of the Mossad, the chief of military intelligence, the IDF chief of operations and the heads of Mossad directorates—it is unlikely that ministers asked to vote for an attack will do so.
Shomfalvi writes that although Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak strongly favor an attack, Netanyahu has permitted his ministers to debate the issue freely behind closed doors. The eight-minister security cabinet reportedly is evenly split between advocates and opponents of a strike, as it has been for months.
No one should have been surprised that a photo of two male Israeli soldiers holding hands would have gone viral and provoked a huge response after the IDF posted it on Monday on its Facebook page in honor of Pride Month. As of Tuesday evening, it had garnered 9,500 likes, 7,330 shares, and 1,360 comments. Most of the reactions were pretty much expected, but one was not.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the religious authorities to chime in with their disapproval. While the IDF and the Foreign Ministry were proud that they were declaring to the world that Israel treats all its soldiers equally,” the IDF rabbinate was far less so. Behind closed doors, military rabbis were saying that they thought the posting of the photo was inappropriate, because it was insensitive to the feelings of religious soldiers. Such a public display is “confusing for religious soldiers,” they said. “People need to remember that there are religious and Haredi soldiers in the army, as well.” It’s highly unlikely, though, that anyone has forgotten this fact, given the disproportionate influence the religious authorities have had over military life lately.
Then there was the anti-Israel accusations that this was just “pinkwashing in action”—the notion that Israel promotes its image as a country open to and tolerant of homosexuality in order to draw attention away from its policies toward the Palestinians.
My friend Aviad Stier, who lives in Herzliya, told me that he, as a gay man, wasn’t too thrilled with the photo for other reasons. “I wasn’t wild about the picture to begin with, seeing that the soldiers are shown from behind, like the [closeted] 1980’s all over again,” he wrote to me on Facebook. “But I guess it’s nice to know LGBT people are mainstream enough to be flaunted around by the IDF,” he conceded.
It was a no brainer to predict all three of these reactions. But what threw me for a bit of a loop was the prominently placed article on the homepage of The Times of Israel, its headline screaming, “Army’s ‘gay soldiers’ photo was staged, is misleading.” The reporter did some digging and proved that the scene was not spontaneously captured, but rather staged with two men serving in the IDF Spokesperson’s Office (one actually gay, the other straight) posing as boyfriends (or at least two men close enough to be holding hands).
I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief now that Andrew Adler has resigned as publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times. His January 13 column, proposing that Israel might consider assassinating President Obama, was enormously embarrassing to Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere.
Removing him from his visible position makes life a lot easier for the rest of us, doesn’t it?
One could argue that Adler’s outburst shouldn’t cause Jews to cringe; after all, we know that supporting Israel and loving America are not incompatible. We can’t be blamed collectively for the blathering of one fool, even if he provided fuel for the fevered imaginings of those who believe Jews are disloyal. We should have outgrown the old habit of worrying about what others think of us. Proud Jews do what they need to do, not what the world tells them to do. On the other hand, we also worry that Israel is waging a war against delegitimization and isolation, fighting for its good name and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. That is, we sneer at the opinions of the world, but we’re also worried sick about the opinions of the world. I’m sure those two thoughts fit together somehow, though I’m not sure how.
More and more frequently, I am confronted with alarming examples of the growing chasm between Israeli Jews and American Jews. Sometimes it is the Israeli misperception of American Jewish life that rankles me. On other occasions, I am dumbfounded by the lack of understanding of Israeli realities and sensibilities on the part of American Jews.
I would put an opinion piece by Joshua Bloom, Director of Israel Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America published Tuesday in the Huffington Post into the latter category. In his article, Blum criticizes Gadna experiences for North American teens visiting Israel. Gadna (an acronym for g’dudei noar ivri, which means “the Hebrew youth battalion”), is the Israel Defense Force’s pre-military program for pre-army age teens. Gadna is staffed by IDF soldiers, and a minimum week-long Gadna stint has, in recent years, become a typical component (sometimes optional, sometimes mandatory) of many youth group Israel adventures.
Bloom seems to think that there is no justifiable reason for a week of Gadna on these trips. For him, American Jewish youth learning about life in the army, visiting different kinds of military bases, engaging in physical challenges, learning orienteering and survival skills, getting briefed on IDF history, and training to shoot a weapon amount to “the promotion of violent institutions.”
I beg to differ. I personally did Gadna for three summers in a row when I was a teenager back in the mid-1980’s, well before it was a common thing to do. And I didn’t just do one-week stints — I toughed it out for six weeks at a time. Those 18 weeks were probably the most formative ones of my life. Looking back nearly 30 years later, I can say unequivocally that I emerged from those summers not only more physically fit, but also a different, more aware person. And let me assure you, I did not turn out to be a promoter of violent institutions.