Forward Thinking

Don't Reward Hamas for Israeli Soldier's Body

By Eliyahu Federman

Palestinians celebrate after Hamas’ armed wing said it had captured an Israeli soldier / Getty Images

Immediately after a Hamas military spokesperson announced the capture of an Israeli soldier this Sunday, the streets of Gaza, Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem erupted in fireworks and celebration. Israel confirmed this week that the body of, Oron Shaul, a soldier presumably killed when an armored vehicle was hit by an anti-tank missile, went missing.

If Hamas has the body they are likely to demand the release of prisoners in exchange for the body. In 2008, Israel released five Lebanese prisoners, including notorious murderer Samir Kuntar, for the corpses of two Israeli soldiers.

But rewarding terrorists by releasing prisoners in exchange for the body will only embolden Hamas and incentivize more kidnapping attempts and lead to more terrorism.

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I'm Done Apologizing

By Menachem Creditor

A Palestinian gestures as flames rise from the site of an Israeli air strike in Gaza / Getty Images

I’m done apologizing for Israel.

It’s tiring to apologize over and over. Instead, I’ve decided to come clean: I am a progressive American rabbi who leans left pretty hard. I’ve been engaged, as a US faith leader, in work to reform gun laws, extend LGBT rights around the world, grant refuge to illegal immigrants, protect women’s reproductive choice, and more. Paint me blue.

So, when it comes to Israel, many of those with whom I engage in social reform expect me to react to Israel’s military actions in Gaza with scorn and criticism. To be fair, there are times when I do. My Zionism demands I speak out on behalf of the Israel that remains, in my world-view, the most ambitious project-in-process of the Jewish People. Whereas Israel’s 66 short years have witnessed strength and resilience that have redefined Jewish identity in profound ways, the global Jewish family remains interwoven with Israel. If you question this, scan the last week’s news for anti-Israel rallies in Antwerp, Los Angeles, Paris, Boston, and elsewhere that featured widespread anti-Semitic chants and violence against Jews.

So I’m a progressive US faith leader. I’m a Zionist in Berkeley, CA. I’m a Jew in the world, worried for my family. So here is my response to those criticizing Israel this week.

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Is Gaza Fight Israel's 'War of Choice’?

By Brant Rosen

Israeli armored personnel carrier rolls at army deployment near Israel’s border with Gaza / Getty Images

In his piece “Israel’s Moral Army?” in these pages, Michael Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” — or, to use a title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”

Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”

He concludes:

If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.

Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.

Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. While Israeli and American politicians — and Israel-supporters the world over — have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.

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Israel's 'Moral Army'?

By Michael Mitchell

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.

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Yesh Atid's Ofer Shelah on War, Grief and Promise

By J.J. Goldberg

It’s been a while since I’ve had the weekly privilege of translating and editing Ofer Shelah. Some years back he was the Forward’s Israeli commentator as well as a military and sports correspondent for Maariv. Now he’s Yesh Atid’s Knesset faction chairman. Today, marking Soldiers’ Memorial Day in Israel, he posted these thoughts on his Facebook page (in my poor translation - the Hebrew original is after the jump). His bottom line: The only true respect for the fallen is to vow that force will never again be used except in genuine self-defense.

It’s worth a read, especially if you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that Lapid and Yesh Atid are just a warmed over yuppie version of Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu. ! היידה עופר

In the years after the First Lebanon War, Memorial Day was for me a day of private grief and longing. In that war, which remains to this day deeply divisive, my generation – comrades, commanders, soldiers – went first and fell, and their loss was immediately and deeply felt. For one day, it managed to cover over the helpless, bitter anger that that costly, pointless war aroused.

The years passed; the faces of the dead faded. In my annual Memorial Day conversations with my father, who with his generation fought and lost more than we ever did, the anger became stronger than the sadness. We would speak about the fact that this place, where we live and which we fought to defend, as it’s customary to say and as we say to the families of the fallen in a clumsy attempt to offer comfort for our friends who fell, is taking on an appearance that transforms our longing for them to anger over our lives that aren’t worthy of their loss.

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Israel and Iran: What '60 Minutes' Didn't Tell You

By J.J. Goldberg

Leslie Stahl’s “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan (transcript) gave important exposure to his views on the folly of attacking Iran. However, she got two things very wrong, both of which weakened the strength of his case against a military strike. The bottom line is, she let you think Dagan is a lone voice. In fact, it’s Bibi Netanyahu who’s nearly alone on this. The trouble is, Bibi’s the one who gets to make the decision. That’s why Dagan and nearly every other military or intelligence chief is speaking out against him: They’re scared of him.

Stahl suggested as though it were credible that Dagan was pushed out of the Mossad, supposedly because of the messy assassination of Hamas arms procurer Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010 — and hence that his campaign against the Netanyahu-Barak war talk is a petty act of revenge. In fact, Dagan was supposed to retire in late 2009 at the mandatory age of 65, but Netanyahu asked him to stay on for another year and he ended up retiring on schedule in January 2011.

More seriously misleading is her assertion early on that it’s “unheard of for someone who held such a high-classified position to speak out publicly.” That makes it sound like he’s a lone voice in the wilderness. In fact, as I’ve written before, Dagan’s views have been publicly echoed by every single ex-Mossad or Israel Defense Forces chief going back to 1996, with the single exception of super-hawk (and Netanyahu ally) Moshe Yaalon. Now, that is unheard of.

Even more astonishing, the current heads of the IDF and Mossad, Benny Gantz and Tamir Pardo, have now gone public resisting Netanyahu’s war push. Even Dagan didn’t dare to do that. That’s beyond unheard-of.

Here’s the roll-call:

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Connect the Dots: IDF vs. Rabbis, Silencing the 99%

By J.J. Goldberg

Sometimes the biggest news isn’t found in a hot new scoop, but in a recapitulation of a string of things you knew about but hadn’t put together already—or in little details that flesh out a trend you’d heard about, showing you how fast it’s building up.

An example of the first: Former labor secretary Robert Reich’s Christian Science Monitor blogpost last Tuesday about the ways in which the wealthy have gained and used their access to public discourse in order to change the rules of the game and further enrich themselves —

Yet when real people without money assemble to express their dissatisfaction with all this, they’re told the First Amendment doesn’t apply. Instead, they’re treated as public nuisances – clubbed, pepper-sprayed, thrown out of public parks and evicted from public spaces.

An example of the second: Haaretz military reporter Amos Harel’s news analysis the Friday before last about the growing culture war within the Israeli military between the secular values of the senior command and the increasing numbers of increasingly devout Orthodox soldiers and officers. You’ve heard about the tensions. Here are some of the details:

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New Year's Greetings From the IDF Chief of Staff

By J.J. Goldberg

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, offers a 2-1/2 minute video new year’s greeting to “Jewish people in Israel and around the world.” Here’s the Hebrew version, in which he says mostly the same things but sounds a lot better, if you can follow it. He’s got a nice touch, IMHO.

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Demography as Destiny: Israel's Growing Right Shapes Law, Military

By J.J. Goldberg

The increasingly progressive Atlantic Monthly correspondent and former Forward staffer Jeffrey Goldberg (for the last time, no, we’re not the same person) posted a link on his blog Tuesday to an online essay — which he called “hard to disagree with” — by senior research fellow Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine. Here’s the excerpt Goldberg posted on his blog:

The anti-boycott law isn’t about protecting Israel from boycotts that target the country in general, because basically these don’t exist in reality. It’s about protecting the settlers from boycotts of settlement goods, a movement that is very real and growing, especially in Europe. But the anti-boycott law is only the tip of the iceberg in a profoundly anti-democratic shift in Israeli political attitudes. This is partly a consequence of a siege mentality, but it also has a great deal to do with demographic shifts among the Jewish population.

The large Russian immigrant community is better organized than ever, and the extreme religious community is growing at a much faster pace than the rest of Israeli society. Both constituencies are pushing Israel toward a new form of authoritarianism, within Jewish society.

For the record, I’ve been writing about this Israeli demographic shift for a couple of years now: (Here and here with numbers on the overall demographic trend; here, here and here on the way it’s affecting the army and the alarm within the General Staff over the topic.) Up to now the issue hasn’t much entered the public discourse in this country, partly because it’s obscure and rarely hits the front pages in Israel; partly, too, because it touches on some pretty radioactive Jewish sensibilities. It seems like it’s taken the Boycott Law and the larger debate over anti-democratic legislation (here is a pretty sharply framed Haaretz piece on the trend) to put it on the agenda here.

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