It wasn't even my story, but I should not have been surprised by the amount of flak I took this week for Amos Harel's report. The stories told by alumni of the Oranim pre-military academy about their experiences as soldiers in Operation Cast Lead were not going to blow over anytime soon, and when you work for a newspaper that has just come out with one of the most controversial stories of the year, you are guilty by association. You also share part of the glory - and indeed, a number of Israel Defense Forces officers I spoke to in recent days, both active-duty and reserve, said how important they believe the report was in opening a long-overdue public debate.
One night I came home and launched one of my periodic forays through the Jewish blogosphere and suddenly discovered that I had become an accomplice to blood libel. So said one of the most popular Jewish columnists in the world, Melanie Phillips, in a blog post titled "The Ha'aretz blood libel." In two lengthy posts, Phillips excoriated this paper for, among other things, publishing rumors and hearsay, exaggerating and overplaying the soldiers' accounts, playing into the hands of a notorious ultra-leftist (Danny Zamir, the head of the Oranim Academy), distorting the truth in our hatred for the "occupation" and, worst of all, giving succor to Israel's enemies.
I believe that Israelis should be grateful to Jews around the world who are ready to stand up for this country. In many places, and especially in Britain, the role of Israel's advocate is a thankless job. Few successful Jewish journalists in London are prepared to constantly wear their heart on their sleeve for Israel as Phillips does. It is not just the inherently hostile atmosphere toward the Jewish state, it is also sheer exhaustion. Barely a week goes by without another couple of reports from nongovernmental organizations or United Nations agencies lambasting Israel for war crimes, with at best only scant mention of the crimes of its enemies. Just this week, there were four new reports detailing the IDF's alleged atrocities in the Gaza operation.
So just imagine: You have spent untold hours picking apart a 120-page report, hunted down ambiguities and hypocrisies, painstakingly found evidence to refute the claims, and the next series of allegations is already upon you. But now, it is not another group of latent anti-Semites and Israel-bashers; this time, it is coming from Israeli newspapers, quoting Israeli soldiers. I can understand the frustration. But all too often, that frustration translates itself into angry responses that brand Israelis who are sincerely concerned for their society and the actions of their government as traitors to the cause.
Take Danny Zamir, who chaired the Oranim alumni's symposium and compiled their stories. Since 1998, the academy he founded has prepared hundreds of young men for IDF service in combat units. Many have gone on to be officers. In 1990, as a reserve company commander, he refused to guard a settlers' procession in Nablus. He was disciplined and sat in a military prison for a month. Despite this, the IDF realized that his concern for the army's moral stature was real: He remained in service and has since been promoted. Maj. Zamir is deputy commander of an elite reserve battalion and, in his role as academy head, works closely with the IDF to educate new generations of soldiers. Now he is being vilified by people like Phillips as a dangerous subversive for giving his graduates a voice.
Discussions like the one in Oranim Academy are going on in many places around Israel. The vast majority of Israelis still believe that the Gaza operation was unavoidable and that in fighting an enemy such as Hamas, significant civilian casualties are inevitable despite all the precautions. But the question of whether those precautions were sufficient, or alternatively excessive, and of how we minimize the number of "rotten apples" that turn up in every army will not go away.
These debates are taking place in academies, in homes, in yeshivas, in kibbutz dining halls and also in many parts of the army itself. Some of them are being recorded and will come out in the media and, later, as books. And they have a hallowed place in Israeli culture. Some call it "siach lochamim" (warriors talking) and others refer to it, perhaps disparagingly, as "yorim ve'bochim" (shooting and crying). But it is an integral part of what this society is about.
For the last 40 years, Haaretz has seen the promotion of this debate as its central role. This paper has never made a secret of its opposition to the occupation and the subjugation of another people - not just because of the injustices inflicted upon the Palestinians, but even more because of the deep moral and material damage it has caused Israel. In doing so, we have incurred the wrath of those who believe we are serving Israel's enemies. For that reason, despite the fact that the Oranim soldiers' story also appeared in Maariv and on Channel 10 television, it was Haaretz that took all the blame.
Having represented this paper abroad for much of the last year, I naturally enjoyed basking in the glory of the high regard in which it is held around the world. But there were also uncomfortable moments, when I heard praise from those who could barely conceal their hatred for my country. None of us work for Haaretz so we can be regarded as "the good Israelis" by those who instinctively put Israel in the dock. After the paper published the report on the soldiers' stories, Amos Harel turned down dozens of requests for interviews in the international media. No one had any illusions that the story would not be picked up by newspapers and television channels, but we were not doing it for them. It was for us, Israelis.
Jews in Britain and other countries who speak up for Israel before hostile audiences are often bullied and told that they cannot be staunch supporters of Israel and loyal citizens at the same time, and that they should blame only themselves when Jews are attacked in response to "Israel's crimes." To that they respond, quite rightly, that as citizens of a democratic country, they have every right to support Israel, and that being afraid to do so would be surrendering to anti-Semitism.
"Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East," they constantly say in its defense. We also believe that. But if we were to refrain from voicing our concerns over the direction in which the country has been going for too long, it would not be much of a democracy any more. And if we were to ask ourselves, before publishing every report, how it will be used by Israel's ill-wishers, that would surely be the ultimate capitulation to anti-Semitism.
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