Israeli General: Officers Must Speak Out on Moral Issues, Proper Use of Force

Former IDF deputy chief, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, refuses to retract remarks comparing developments in Israel to those in pre-WWII Germany

IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for a memorial to IDF soldiers in Metula, May 7, 2017.
Gil Eliahu

Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the former deputy chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, says that if he’d known that his comments last year comparing some aspects of Israeli society today to those of pre-war Germany would spark so much political controversy – he would not have made them, but refuses to retract them. “I do not take them back,” he asserted. “I am completely convinced that as ‘a light unto the nations’ and a model society, we [Israelis] need to be strict about moral superiority, which is the most important thing.”

Golan, who completed his term in May, was speaking in an interview that was published Monday on the official army website. The interview took place in army headquarters in Tel Aviv, a few days before he was replaced as deputy IDF chief by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. At present Golan is taking a year off to study while awaiting a decision on who will replace Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot – most likely either Golan himself or Kochavi.

In a speech given on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2016, Golan said: “If there’s something that frightens me about remembering the Holocaust, it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then – 70, 80 and 90 years ago – and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.”

Golan reiterated in the interview that he didn't think he had said anything irregular or controversial, but did say, “I made a mistake, I admit my mistake.”

He also explained that he did not intend to direct his comments last year at any specific individual, but spoke generally about the responsibility Israel's leaders have.

“The leadership has a very heavy responsibility. People sometimes are as ‘clay in the potter’s hands,’ especially young people," he said. "In the IDF, we deal with young people, and we need to produce better people while they are in the army, citizens with a higher moral level and a strong set of values."

“I admit I was appalled at the time, mostly after the Elor Azaria affair” – a reference to the army medic convicted of manslaughter after shooting and killing a wounded and incapacitated Palestinian assailant, in Hebron in 2016 – an act which Golan called improper and immoral. “Some people think we need to cut corners, not to preserve a proper [moral] level, and to treat things a bit differently than what is accepted."

Chief of Staff Eisenkot addressed that same issue last year, Golan said, "when he said that not every girl waving a knife needs to be shot in the body with a full magazine. This is exactly where I’m coming from.”

At the time, Eisenkot too was criticized for asking IDF soldiers to use more caution when using live ammunition.

“The day they gave me a weapon," Golan recalled, "I understood that, based on my decision, I could take the life of someone. Does that seem to you to be a trivial matter? It is a serious matter and I want to know that in Israel, in the IDF, when we use weapons we do so because it is the best and most correct thing to do."

Defending himself against criticism directed at him, the former deputy IDF chief said: “It is impossible to accuse me of cowardice. I fought all my adult life. It seems that I was in combat situations more than most of my critics: It is impossible to say that I don’t know what combat is. I carry the scars of fighting on my body and know how to distinguish between good and evil, between right and wrong, and when the use of weapons is appropriate and when it is inappropriate. I was appalled when seeing cases in which force was used and lives were taken not in accordance to proper moral measures and standards.”

Senior officers have a clear educational role to perform, despite what some people say, added Golan: “It is our job. As senior military officers we cannot remain silent. We need to talk, we need to speak out. It doesn’t have to be in a forum that is open to the press, but we are obligated to talk about these things. Whoever does not understand this does not understand what the IDF is. The IDF is the people’s army, the army in which we are educating the next generation."

Elsewhere in the lengthy interview on the IDF site, Golan spoke about other issues such as the IDF’s five-year “Gideon” modernization plan, preparations for coming wars, combat and mental health, and enemies of Israel including Iran and other states.

Golan was drafted into the Paratroopers in 1980, where he served in a number of positions, including as commander of Battalion 890. In 1997, he was wounded in clashes with Hezbollah. As Nahal Brigade commander, Golan led various operations in the West Bank following the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. In 2008, he was promoted to major general and named GCO of the Home Front Command.

In 2013, as head of the Northern Command, against the backdrop of the civil war raging in Syria, it was Golan who authorized the treatment of the first seven wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals as a humanitarian gesture. He was appointed deputy chief of staff in 2014.