In War Over Israeli Hearts and Minds, Army Becomes Ideological Battlefield

A new campaign castigating educational institutes that offer programs promoting pluralism in the IDF, in addition to recent incendiary comments by religious and political figures in that vein, show that the army has become not only a legitimate field of battle but a strategic outpost to be captured.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Israel Defense Forces troops: 60% of career soldiers retire with pensions worth $1-2 million, five times the norm.
Israel Defense Forces troops: 60% of career soldiers retire with pensions worth $1-2 million, five times the norm.Credit: Reuters

The well-made video clip that’s been making the rounds of the social networks lately was designed, shot and written in the finest tradition of Israeli media consultant Moshe Klughaft. It makes use of stigmatizing, scare-mongering effects that have been resorted to in the past by right-wing organizations such as Im Tirzu and Ad Kan, under Klughaft’s inspiration. The aim: to warn the public about the dangers of the left and single out its activists. The target this time is the New Israel Fund, the red flag of such ultranationalist groups. They’ve been after the NIF since Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, in 2008-2009, and the subsequent publication of the Goldstone Report about the operation in 2009.

But in the current round, the NIF is only the explicit enemy. The real targets of the new clip, for which a new organization called Lavi takes the credit, are two liberal institutions that receive NIF financing: the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem-based Jewish education and research center, and Bina, an organization that runs what it calls a “secular yeshiva” and a pre-army preparatory course in Tel Aviv. If it was already obvious that the NIF presents a clear and present danger to Israel generally, now it turns out, according to this clip, that by supporting these institutions, the NIF is also “skewering” the Israel Defense Forces.

The attack is related to a tender set to be issued next month by the Defense Ministry for two of the major projects that the IDF Education Corps will be continuing to offer with the aid of external organizations. One is “Destiny and Distinction,” a program for officers with the rank of captain and major, currently run by Bina; the other is a leadership workshop under the aegis of the Hartman Institute. The previous tender was issued in 2013 for one year, with an option (which was realized) for a two-year extension.

In four effective minutes, the video clip sets forth the same arguments that another group, the Liba Center, articulated in a lengthy document posted online last month. In a nutshell: The Hartman Institute and Bina are accused of instilling a defeatist spirit in the IDF, and the new tender is an opportunity to stop them.

Using dramatic music and fast-paced editing, the clip creates an incriminating link between statements made by senior figures in Bina and Hartman, and manifestations of confusion and weakness in the IDF in the face of the enemy. Hartman faculty are seen and heard in their lectures saying that the army has a duty to be cautious, even to the point where soldiers’ lives may be endangered, when it comes to preventing harm to civilians from the enemy side. These recordings are spliced into Channel 2 News reports, one of them about a Border Policeman who was apprehensive about opening fire on young Palestinians who had set his post ablaze with Molotov cocktails. Other items, from Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip (2014), are about paratroopers killed by a bomb planted in a Gaza clinic, and about pilots who were forbidden to open fire in order to help extract an IDF force on the ground, because Palestinians nearby might be hit.

IDF soldiers stick their heads out and hold the Israeli flag as their APC exits the Gaza Strip during Israel's withdrawal from the coastal territory, Sept. 12, 2005.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The new clip, which has no voice-over narration, ends with a written message: “In the weeks ahead, tenders will be issued for the education of thousands of IDF officers. Will the New [Israel] Fund again win the tender to educate our boys about how to fight on the battlefield?”

The Lavi organization was registered as an NGO four months ago. Its official documents state that the group aims to work for “human rights, proper administration and encouragement of land settlement.” Its active members include attorney Doron Nir Zvi, who is a legal adviser to the Samaria Settlers Committee and represents residents of settler outposts, and attorney Avichay Buaron, a former director of Ma’ayanei Hayeshua, a movement to enhance Jewish-religious awareness, who was a Knesset candidate last year on Habayit Hayehudi’s slate.

The founders of Lavi, which is based in Ofra, are members of that northern West Bank settlement – with the exception of one, who is from the Adei-Ad outpost in Shiloh Valley. Their goal, they say, is to deal with issues relating to orderly administration and civil rights, ranging from the smuggling of meat from the Palestinian Authority into Israel, to “the monopoly of New [Israel] Fund organizations over the education of IDF soldiers.”

They maintain that, in a period in which the army is showing high sensitivity to outre remarks, such as those made by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, from the pre-military academy in the settlement of Eli, it is out of the question to have what they term left-wing organizations leading programs for officers. Among other things, in a controversial speech Levinstein assailed the Education Corps for preaching about the ideal of pluralism to soldiers. But in its explanation of the new tender, the Defense Ministry explicitly advocates such an approach: “The supplier undertakes that the content and values of the workshops will be congruent with the IDF’s approach in the realm of Israeli-Jewish identity, [which is] a pluralistic and multivocal approach.”

Rabbi Eli Sadan, left, speaking with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein and IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, 2016. Credit: Lior Shtull / Bnei David military academy

Another allegation in the Lavi clip, aimed primarily at Hartman, is that the programs it offers to IDF officers are presented only by extreme left-wingers. In fact, Channel 10 News reported this week that the list of speakers includes many right-wing figures, among them Rabbi David Dudkevich, from the hard-line Yitzhar settlement; Ran Baratz, currently on the staff of the Prime Minister’s Bureau; officials from the Elad organization, which aims to Judaize East Jerusalem; and Temple Mount activists.

In fact, the background to the clip has to do with more than just this Defense Ministry contract. It’s part of a culture war in which the army has become not only a legitimate field of battle but a strategic outpost to be captured.

The uproar against Levinstein was stirred mainly by what he said against the LGBT community, but he was also highly critical of the IDF’s use of firepower. That critique also appears in the clip, which features recordings of two of the professors – Daniel Statman and Noam Zohar, both philosophers and Hartman Institute fellows – who formulated the “Spirit of the IDF” document, the army's updated ethical code, which came into effect in 2001. Levinstein, like the Lavi organization, is convinced that many soldiers were killed in recent campaigns because of inordinate risks that the IDF assumed, under the influence of left-wing groups and the fear of international criticism. This interpretation flies in the face of that offered by the international community, as articulated with extreme exaggeration in the Goldstone Report, concerning what it saw as an IDF policy of indiscriminate killing of Palestinians and in Lebanon.

A Palestinian man walks by burning tires during clashes with Israeli soldiers near Jenin. July 25, 2014.Credit: AP

In reality, the right would seem to have a case mainly with regard to the Jenin refugee camp battle during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. The families of the 13 soldiers who were killed in the camp asked why the army had sacrificed their sons’ lives in house-to-house fighting, instead of bombing the camp from the air. Contrary to initial claims by Palestinians, Israel did not perpetrate a massacre in the Jenin camp. The disparity in losses on both sides in the fighting was not extreme: 23 IDF soldiers were killed, as compared to 53 Palestinians, of whom only five were non-combatants, according to IDF data. The situation changed afterward. In the most recent campaigns in the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon, urban areas in which Hamas and Hezbollah personnel barricaded themselves were attacked, resulting in the death of hundreds of civilians.

The harsh public response to the IDF’s casualties in the Second Lebanon War (2006) prompted the army to adopt a more permissive use of firepower two years later, in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Even if the army officially endorsed the same rules that guided it in the past, in practice many units took a “minimum risk” approach (interpreted in some cases as “zero risk”) so as to avoid losses among Israeli troops. This approach was seen again on “Black Friday” – the battle in Rafah two years ago – when, in an attempt to prevent Hamas from taking an abducted soldier deep into the Strip, the IDF unleashed intensive fire, killing Palestinian civilians and endangering the life of the soldier himself. (It later turned out that the soldier, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was apparently killed early on in the abduction.)

The tenets of the use of firepower are described in “The Spirit of the IDF” under the rubric of “purity of arms” (that is, morality in warfare). Under this local interpretation of international law, the right of a soldier to open fire is contingent upon necessity (use of force only as part of the mission), differentiation (firing only at those taking an active part in the fighting) and proportionality (if harming noncombatants is unavoidable, choosing the means and method that will reduce the harm). Under international law, this policy is also what distinguishes permissible combat from war crimes. Moreover, as Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot put it, in responding to the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian in Hebron in March, it’s also what distinguishes an army from a gang. There is no shortage of armies that behave differently, of course.

Accused Hebron shooter Elor Azarya at the Jaffa military tribunal in July 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

The challenge to IDF policy goes hand in hand with the questioning of the principle of mamlakhtiyut (referring to a consciousness of state sovereignty), a principle that guides the army. A recent letter clarifying this subject from Eisenkot to the IDF’s chief rabbi-designate, Col. Eyal Karim, mentions recognition of the army as a unifying, mamlakhti element, in which soldiers come from different religious traditions but are entitled to equal and respectful treatment.

The right-wing attacks on the IDF, peaking in the Elor Azaria affair, are making it an object of ideological bashing. Certain figures in the political arena, including MK Avigdor Lieberman until his appointment as defense minister, grasped that it paid to attack the IDF also with regard to the basic ethos of purity of arms. The right-wing activists followed with their barbs in the wake of the politicians. By not blocking this trend from the start, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has allowed the current situation to develop.

The clip, the “Spirit of the IDF” document and Levinstein’s speech reflect broader criticism on the part of the Hardali stream, an acronym for the national-religious/ultra-Orthodox population on the political right and in the settlements. From its point of view, the document is vitiated by values of an assimilationist elite that has “hijacked” the army and imposed its ethos on it, even though its own sons hardly serve in combat units – which are instead manned by religiously observant (but not ultra-Orthodox) officers and soldiers in a proportion far higher than their share in the population. As Lavi, Liba and Levinstein see it, they are doing battle against the enfeeblement of the IDF that results from unconscionable liberal and humanistic concepts.

Instead, the army should base itself on Jewish sources – on “Jewish Military Ethics,” which is the title of a book published two years ago by rabbis Ido Rechnitz and Elazar Goldstein. The cofounder (with Levinstein) of the Eli pre-military academy, Rabbi Eli Sadan, likes to say in his talks that Israel can rely on the West for technology and on technical matters – because the Jews have little experience in running a country – but not on matters of morality.

This dispute was also reflected in a discussion held in the Hartman Institute’s educational leadership workshop last April. The deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, spoke there to officers from a Southern Command reserve division (not long before the storm he touched off with his remarks on Holocaust Memorial Day, when he warned against processes in Israel similar to those that occurred in 1930s’ Germany). In the workshop, Golan analyzed the controversial “commander’s sheet” circulated by the then-head of the Givati infantry brigade, Col. Ofer Winter, to his troops at the start of Operation Protective Edge. But Golan did not dwell on what Winter wrote in the first paragraph – which raised left-wing hackles and also wall-to-wall criticism in the General Staff – when he referred to the “Gazan terrorist enemy, who curses, blasphemes and vilifies the God of Israel’s campaigns.”

Instead, Golan focused on the next paragraph, in which Winter declared that the brigade would “make use of all the means at its disposal and all the firepower that will be required.” Invoking the “purity of arms” clause in the “Spirit of the IDF” document, the deputy chief of staff stated that in war, from both the professional and the moral perspectives, the army should use the minimum force required to achieve its mission and reduce harm to non-combatants as far as possible. His remarks outraged several of the reserve officers present. One synagogue newsletter afterward termed Golan’s approach a “moral cancer” that poses a threat to the IDF.

Who, then, truly represents the current spirit of the IDF? The deputy chief of staff, the officers who took issue with him, or possibly Elor Azaria, who has won widespread support from the public and from combat troops since going on trial?

One brigade commander told Haaretz that he has found himself wrestling with these issues frequently in the past few months. “I am from a different generation, a different background,” he said. “The parody by [the television program] ‘A Wonderful Country’ of the kibbutzniks and the Gevatron [a kibbutz folksinging troupe]? That’s about me.” He admitted that he’s had difficulty persuading all his battalion commanders of the justice of the moves undertaken by the senior command level in the Azaria case, and added, “It’s clear that many combat soldiers think otherwise. We have a significant challenge today: to connect the soldiers to the spirit of the IDF in the context of firepower policy and the treatment of the enemy. As a consequence, we are liable to see on the margins more anomalous events, like the Azaria case.”

These are issues that must be addressed by Chief of Staff Eisenkot, who is waging a rearguard battle in defense of the old values, even as he warns that the great threat to the IDF lies in the Israeli public’s loss of trust in it. At present, the public opinion polls don’t show a falloff in that trust. Still, a senior General Staff officer says that army-society relations are today “the central issue that is occupying the chief of staff. He is not neglecting for an instant the readiness and preparedness for possible war in the north or in the territories, but he views this [army-society relations] as the most strategic issue. He has no choice but to deal with it, even if some of his predecessors preferred to back away from these disputes, for fear of taking political fire.”

A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier near the road between the Hebron and Yatta municipalities, June 10, 2016.Credit: Hazem Bader, AFP

Pride and the president

Reminders of the intensity of the differences in outlook in such realms are unceasing. In his remarks in early July, Rabbi Levinstein blasted the air force for obliging its cadets to do volunteer work in an LGBT youth club. He even took pride in having brought about the end of what he called a dangerous custom. This week, Carmella Menashe, the military correspondent of Israel Radio, uncovered a similar episode. In recent years, soldiers from the school for military intelligence have been volunteering in Elipelet, an NGO that aids the children of refugees and foreign workers in south Tel Aviv.

Right-wing groups and local activists claimed that Elifelet is an extreme-left organization and alerted the deputy defense minister, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan (Habayit Hayehudi). He, in turn, contacted the chief of staff and put pressure on the Education Corps. The commander of the intelligence school, perhaps recoiling from a political brouhaha, announced that he was suspending the volunteer work. The chief education officer, Brig. Gen. Avner Paz-Tzuk, ordered a reexamination of all socially oriented volunteer work in IDF units.

When the army is showing signs of frightening itself, it’s good to know that the country’s president is here to remind us about basic decency. President Reuven Rivlin, who in the past awarded Elipelet a medal, took advantage of a public appearance – at a ceremony in which judges took the oath of office – to slap the army lightly on the wrist. “It’s no sin for IDF soldiers to lend a hand to the helpless, such as refugee children,” he said. The children’s parents may have broken the law by entering Israel, he noted, but added the self-evident: the children are not to blame.

President Reuven Rivlin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer

Newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, poses for a group picture alongside Rabbi Yonatan Szewkis, Chilean deputy Helia Molina and Gerardo Gorodischer, during a religious ceremony in a synagogue in Vina del Mar, Chile last week.

Chile Community Leaders 'Horrified' by Treatment of Israeli Envoy

Queen Elizabeth attends a ceremony at Windsor Castle, in June 2021.

Over 120 Countries, but Never Israel: Queen Elizabeth II's Unofficial Boycott