Lacking a military tradition of its own, when it came to establish the pattern for its own memorial events for fallen soldiers, the young State of Israel largely copied the rituals and customs of the 11th of November, Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth, with a few Jewish traditions thrown in. It was familiar to many from the days of the Mandate or from serving in the Second World War in the British army. Regrettably, one element of the British Remembrance ceremonies was not adopted – that politicians attend them in respectful silence and no speeches are made.
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On IDF Soldiers’ Memorial Day, most ministers and Knesset members, from coalition and opposition, fan out across the country, volunteering to represent the state at military cemeteries. There, after the siren is heard at 11 A.M., they each make a speech. Beyond the standard messages of condolence to the families, tribute to the fallen heroes and promises that Israel will remain strong, there is of course the thinly-veiled political message.
In Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in Tel Aviv, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, warned that even in “tough times, when the blood boils and rage is high, we mustn’t lose ourselves or our values. Our morals and ethics should be sanctified; compromising on them could push our society down a slippery slope.” To prevent that, he said, Israel must “root out racism and violence, physical and verbal violence towards women and fight for equality for all regardless of religion, race, gender or sexual orientation.”
Meanwhile, in Rishon Letzion Education Minister Naftali Bennett was saying that the IDF “pays a heavy price for being the most moral army in the world. No other army sends warnings before attacking enemy houses or avoids harming civilians to the extent of putting soldiers in harm’s way. Jewish morality comes with a heavy price for us. And no one has the right to preach morality to this amazing people – and the tombstones here are a testimony to that.”
One minister was warning of the dangers of forgetting Israel’s morals; the second minister is convinced that Israel already pays a fatal price for those morals.
Continuing argument over Sgt. Azaria
There was no need for either minister to add any details. They were simultaneously continuing the argument of the last few months in their words to the bereaved families and silent tombstones. Ya’alon was backing up the IDF’s chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, who has spoken out against trigger-happy soldiers shooting young Palestinian attackers even after they no longer pose a threat. He was supporting Eizenkott’s deputy, Yair Golan, who caused a furor last week when he said in a Holocaust Remembrance Day address that he sees trends in Israeli society reminiscent of those in Germany during the Nazi era.
Ya’alon himself was the target of furious attacks for criticizing Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot to death a wounded Palestinian attacker two months ago in Hebron, and calling for him to be put on trial. Bennett is now the main spokesman of the camp denying these voices in the government and the army and portraying them as weakening the IDF and besmirching Israel’s image abroad. But this isn’t just about recent events and statements; it is increasingly about competing visions of the Jewish state. It is about two different Israels.
It is surprising perhaps that the politician calling for Israel’s army and society to preserve its moral values is the older one, the former general who has spent nearly his entire adult life with the military while the one rejecting calls for a reckoning was the younger high-tech entrepreneur who spent years as a civilian in the United States. It’s almost like the defense and education ministers have changed places. But then the roles have been reversed. This is no longer a debate between left and right over Israel’s identity and soul; the left has largely abdicated its role in this dialogue. It is now almost entirely an internal conversation going on within the right and the defense establishment.
Ya’alon, who was brought up within Israel’s labor movement, represents that part of the historical Zionist left who have gone over to the right, following what they see as the failure of the Oslo process and the intransigence of the Palestinians. As far as he is concerned, his values have not changed, just his assessment of the viability of the two-state solution. He has linked up with the Likud stalwarts who have clung to Jabotinskyan ideals of “decorum” and Menachem Begin’s commitment to the rule of law. The figurehead of this camp is President Ruvi Rivlin, a man literally born in the national camp, who has angered many on the right in his constant criticism of anti-Arab racism.
Bennett is playing to a different audience – a different strand of opinion, perhaps a younger one within Likud and the constituency of voters traditionally to the right of the party. Electorally, many of these last year drifted away from his Jewish Home party to vote Likud and ensure Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory. On an ideological level, the split within the right is about a much deeper and growing divide in Israeli society.
Bennett and Netanyahu have for now placed themselves on the hard-right side of that divide, though at least of those who are close to them believe it is only tactical-electoral positioning, and they will shift towards the center at a later opportunity. But this is beyond party political tactics. It is about the two Israels. The dividing line between these two is increasingly defined by an adherence to democratic and liberal ideals, which do not always correspond to established party and political limits.
Occupation not the issue
While from afar, the main ideological split in Israel still seems to be about the future of the West Bank settlements and the resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, it has long ago ceased to be about this. Actually, it never was. When the first settlers arrived in Hebron, 48 years ago on Pesach 1968, it was the leaders of the Labor Party who gave their blessing. Yigal Allon visited them and congratulated them on “constituting a continuation of generations of Jewish settlement in Hebron.” David Ben-Gurion wrote them in a letter that “the Jewish settlement of the City of the Fathers should belong to all of us, also Mapainiks [Labor supporters].” They may have changed their rhetoric but the leaders of the center-left never dared to uproot a settlement. It was Begin in Sinai and Ariel Sharon in Gaza who destroyed entire settler blocs in pullbacks.
No, the real split between the two Israels is not over the settlements and how Israelis see their future alongside the Palestinians. The real split is over how they see themselves. It is between an inward-looking Israel, convinced of or indifferent to its moral justifications, seeing any criticism of these as hostile and motivated by post-Zionism at best and anti-Semitism at worst, and an Israel that still believes in Zionism as an aspiration for a better and more just democracy in a Jewish state. With the state entering its 69th year of independence, the differences and discord between these two Israels are becoming starker.