Opinion

Criticizing the Israeli Army Is a Jewish Obligation

The trend of banning criticism of the Israeli army clashes with its ethical foundations and with religious tradition

IDF troops in Hebron.
Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters

Recent years have witnessed growing debate in Israel regarding public criticism of the Israel Defense Forces and its operations in both the West Bank and along the border with the Gaza Strip. A prominent example can be found in the controversies surrounding the B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence organizations, both of which are involved in documenting transgressions by IDF troops in the territories.

Many on the right assume that moral criticism of the IDF is the province of the left, but this is most certainly a mistake. In particular, criticism of IDF policy in religious-Zionist circles in recent years must be noted, among other things with regard to the Joint Service Order (which sets out the conditions for women serving beside religiously observant men), which is based on a document from the chief of staff’s adviser on gender issues. In light of this, the present trend of placing the IDF beyond the sphere of criticism is a cause for concern. This includes legislation prohibiting Breaking the Silence activists from entering schools and the recently proposed bill seeking to prohibit troops from documenting their operations in the field. A 2017 bill aimed to criminalize libelous statements about IDF fighters.

Is the current trend toward prohibiting criticism of the army consistent with Jewish tradition? Assuming that effective criticism must be based on facts, and that it requires basic access to evidence regarding IDF operations, let’s consider the role of such criticism from the ethical standpoint. Values and morals occupy an important place in rabbinic law and, even earlier, in Prophetic texts: Abraham tries to save innocents at Sodom; Moses criticizes Pharaoh, his adoptive father, over his enslavement of the Israelites; Nathan confronts King David about the murder of Uriah the Hittite; Jeremiah is critical of the corruption in the Temple.

More specifically, there is a place in Jewish tradition for awareness of error as an aspect of humanity, and for criticism of human errors. The Bible offers evidence not only of injustice among humans in general but also among some of our people’s towering figures. Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Aaron and the Israelites – all become objects of criticism when they sin. Of course, this does not take the place of responsibility or of the need to make reparations vis-à-vis the Other, but it shows a deep awareness of the ongoing need for moral discourse. This sensitivity has made its way fully into Jewish tradition, where adoration of holy figures (hagiography) is found less than in other religions.

The fact that the Bible was critical of its heroes is also the reason that Muslim sages consider the Bible a fake, for how can it be that prophets sin? The concept of infallibility led to the Catholic Church’s 19th-century codification of the doctrine of papal infallibility to shield Pope Pius IX. Several decades later, secular totalitarian regimes in Europe took similar steps with regard to the dictators who led them. In light of the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17, which presents the political sovereign as being answerable to moral precepts like any other person, it seems that there is something deeply anti-Jewish, and perhaps even idolatrous, about the conferral upon humans and human institutions of complete immunity from criticism.

The 1976 Basic Law on the Army places the IDF under the authority of the government. But, just how are the public and its representatives in the Knesset supposed to be exposed to criticism of the way the army comports itself when it comes into contact with a civilian population? From the Jewish point of view, the manner in which the army functions is what determines its level of morality. Its actions are to be evaluated according to the standards of the army’s ethical code.

Part of the IDF’s ethos revolves around optimal fulfillment of its mission, the “drive to victory,” and part involves minimizing harm done to innocents – the idea of “the purity of arms,” which is rooted in the obligation to value and respect human life. However, beyond the morality of the actions undertaken by soldiers themselves, what makes the IDF moral is the very fact of its openness to criticism. Even in the most moral army there will be deviations from morality. Therefore, the true test is not the absence of deviations, but the willingness to investigate them. Thus, it follows that the very claim that the IDF should be “above all criticism” undermines its moral foundation. In light of all the above, such an idea contradicts the emphasis on morality that pervades Jewish tradition.

There are practical implications to this argument. The morality of an army cannot possibly be maintained over time on the basis of an axiomatic claim that it is the most moral army in the world, an axiom imposed by means of silencing and violence. Valid criticism must be based on honest facts, not on false ones, but the question of what constitutes truth regarding a particular event requires clarification and investigation.

The creation of proper conditions to allow public debate acquires great importance. From Nathan Hale to Josef Trumpeldor, patriotism has long been an important human value. Yet, if it is not tempered with basic human decency, which in Jewish tradition is established by the idea that people – all people – are created in God’s image, it is liable to lead to dark places. Not only that, but the current trend in the IDF of the transition to technology-based warfare carried out from a distance demands even more moral scrutiny of its operations, certainly not less. For in these situations, the question of responsibility for morally improper operations becomes exponentially more difficult and complex.

The concern over “what will they say in Gath?” cannot be used to justify the prohibition of criticism. It would in fact be a great accomplishment for those organizations promoting boycotts of the State of Israel if they managed to alienate it from its Jewish and democratic values. Moreover, attempts to repress information could foster enmity against Israel among the silent majority of humanity that does not have an unequivocal view of the country. Legislation that is intended to quash moral discourse over the IDF deserves to be rejected, as it contradicts the character of the state as both Jewish and democratic.

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. Dr. Nadav Berman Shifman is a post-doctoral fellow in the philosophy department and in Judaic studies at Yale University