Moral Minority

Readers Ask Haaretz: Can I Be Moral When I Work for One of Israel’s Military Industries?

'Am I deceiving myself? Do I need to take a hard look at my choices in life?' And the answer is ...

An Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) stands on display at the Singapore Airshow, February  11, 2014.
Bloomberg

If you don't know how to behave in a certain situation, if you need friendly advice but you've already driven all your sane friends away or if you've got the kind of embarrassing question that can only be asked anonymously, send a mail to: mechlak.musar@gmail.com.

Our answers will be generous and honest – but should not be seen as replacement for professional consultations. Obviously.

Question 1: Can I be moral when I work for one of Israel’s military industries?

Dear Haaretz,

For the past decade, I’ve worked for one of the country’s major “defense industries.” Admittedly, the pay could be better but the work is interesting and the people are nice. All fine and dandy. I vaguely recall the hesitations I had, as a good leftist, when I was offered the job concerning the morality of such work and whether it was a worthy use of my talents. But once I began working, I soon stopped thinking about that as I plunged into the various technological (and, alas, organizational) challenges as one would with any job. Actually, here there was a greater sense of purpose (defending the country, etc.) than was the case at my previous workplaces.

From time to time I find myself on the other side of the table (literally) when job applicants (the ones who are more open) share with me their thoughts about the problematic aspects of the work. I’m always glad to hear that they’re thinking about this and tell them that it’s a decision they need to give a lot of thought to.

The main point I cite to them is that I’ve been able to work exclusively on defense-related developments and those that make it possible to obtain better information and to improve the accuracy of the use of force. To me, this means that we’ll do more hitting of the real enemy and less hitting of young kids playing soccer on a beach, though there’s also an assumption being made here about who will ultimately use this weaponry. On the other hand, you know – blood, war, death. I haven’t personally come across anyone who is busy working on how to make a one-ton bomb kill more people, but there could well be somebody somewhere in the organization who is working on that too.

Am I deceiving myself and them as well (for it’s known that when your livelihood depends on it, your principles tend to fall in line accordingly, and that routine can habituate us even to terrible things)? Do I need to take a hard look at my choices in life?

Sincerely,

Q

Dear Dr. Strangelove,

First off, let me say that I was very impressed by your question. Not many workers in the Israeli military and defense industries wonder about the morality of their role in the military-industrial complex, and even fewer dare to question it aloud and to go as far as to send such a question to the newspaper.

So much for the carrot; now for the stick (I tried to adopt your industry jargon), which is much longer. Most Israelis probably admire the country’s arms industry and its contribution to their security and to the Israeli economy, but I am not among them. In my view, and I’d like to think in the eyes of the Lord and Mother Earth as well, work in the Israeli arms industry today is immoral in its very essence.

A clear example is this week’s International Defense and HLS Expo in Tel Aviv, in which representatives of countries that it is forbidden to sell arms to are among those attending. These countries violate human rights and probably use Israeli arms to do so. We cannot really know this for certain, because thanks to warm relations between members of the civilian security industry and politicians, everything, like incest, is done under the cover of darkness.

Team members of a project documenting the cost of the Israeli military industry only managed to identify the name of 0.02 percent of the people who deal in arms exports, out of 8,000 people and companies who receive 400,000 arms exports and marketing licenses a year for deals with some 130 countries. And there are not 130 countries that worry about human rights. The mechanisms of concealment of this provide fertile ground for corruption and unethical behavior because things transpiring in the night tend to go rotten.

You mentioned that you work only exclusively on defense-related developments and those that make it possible to improve the accurate application of force, but it seems to me that the limp tone in which you wrote this indicates that you also know that this distinction is ridiculous. Firstly, because anyone who works in this industry helps perpetuate it, including accountants and personnel managers, all the more so engineers. Secondly, because there is really no such thing as defense-related developments or improving the accuracy of the use of force. For example, rubber and sponge bullets and teargas containers, which are supposed to be “non-lethal weapons” (haha), have killed, paralyzed and blinded dozens of Palestinians and Israelis who were just exercising their democratic right to protest.

The same goes for drones, which are supposed “to improve the accuracy of the use of force,” as you said. Instead, they have become one of the most urgent ethical problems regarding military industries, in light of their use to kill innocents. Another example is surveillance technology, which has been turned against citizens who oppose their governments. Their use for bad ends has sometimes been done by mistake, because that is how it is with arms development, and sometimes with malice aforethought, because that is how it is with arms development. Moreover, defense products that are not weapons can be used for evil goals and for torture. In a debate on the issue two years ago, one engineer gave the example of an electric generator that was sold to operate a field radar station and instead was used to administer electric shock to prisoners’ genitals.

There is much more to say about the way in which the civilian defense industries contribute to horrors here and in other countries (we have been the leaders in this field for decades!), but I will stop for lack of space – and also because I have a feeling that you are aware of this, and so you certainly need to take a profound look at your life choices. It sounds like you are exactly at a place in which this look is too discomfiting, and that’s very good.

I will just note that one of the arguments by people to soften for themselves the fact that they are working in the military industry or in the Shin Bet is that, “If I don’t do it, someone else will.” Morally, this argument is invalid. It is easier to understand it if you think of someone paying you to shoot an innocent person. If you don’t take the money, he will pay someone else, but an action does not become more moral this way. Now, multiply that dozens of times. You perhaps do not see the blood spilling before you, but Israel’s military industries have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people across the globe.

In an interview with Haaretz, attorney Itay Mack, who works on expanding public oversight of Israel’s defense exports, noted that “the greatest fear of those dealing in the field is that a values-based discussion will develop here, a debate that the Defense Ministry well understands is liable to open up a Pandora’s box about the past and to bring to justice people who helped commit war crimes and other crimes against humanity around the world.” The public debate is perhaps silenced, but no one can prevent you from holding this values-based discussion within yourself – and to take responsibility for your actions. If more and more engineers refuse to serve as pawns in the service of war crimes, perhaps fewer of them will be committed. And if not, at least you yourself will stop lending a hand to this. You know what the big bad wolf has in common with the good soldier at the checkpoint? Neither of them really exists.

Question 2: My gay friend is dating women. Should I say something?

I have a friend who, after having come out as gay, has gone back to dating women, largely as a result of family pressure (As far as I know, he isn’t attracted to women at all.) Without it being made explicit, his giving up on dating guys has become a subject that is not talked about. The difference between the happiness and excitement he showed when dating men and how subdued and indifferent he seems in his relationships with women is very striking.   

My question is – What constitutes good friendship here? Is it my responsibility to break the silence and open a dialogue on the subject, or should I consider him responsible for his own happiness, assume that he consciously made his decisions as a mature adult, and respect those decisions? Does being a good friend mean letting a friend compromise on his life, or challenging him to be the best version of himself? And as a secondary question – Should the (slim?) chance of getting him to change his decision or the possible impact of my intervention on the future of our friendship also be taken into consideration?

Sincerely,

Perplexed pal

Dear Perplexed,

Without knowing more about the situation, I presume that there are one of three possibilities here: Your friend (for convenience’s sake, is it okay if we call him Alex?) once identified as gay and now identifies as straight; Alex is a bisexual who previously went out with men and now goes out with women; Alex is gay but as a result of outside pressure has started dating women, because it’s easier for him in some way. In all three cases, the correct course of action seems to me the same, but I presented all the possibilities because I think it’s important to recognize them: It’s possible that what you think about Alex is not correct, whether because he has not revealed certain things to you or because you are projecting your hopes and desires onto him.

Possibility No. 1, Alex currently identifies as straight: It is not that uncommon for people to change their sexual and gender definition in the course of their lives. If Alex is one of those people who formerly identified as gay and then moved to identifying as straight, there is no reason to pester him with your assumptions about his happiness. 

Possibility No. 2, Alex identifies as bisexual. He may have always identified this way, even when you thought he was gay, and perhaps not shared this with you because he didn’t feel comfortable or he worried you wouldn’t accept him. Many bisexuals experience a hostile attitude from straight and gay people both, partly by the denial of their existence, as when it’s assumed that if a guy goes out with men he must be gay, and if he claims that he is also attracted to women, it must be because he’s repressed. This can cause some bisexual men to conceal their sexual identity, even (and more often, in fact) from gay men.

It’s possible that Alex’s sexual identity hasn’t changed over time, and that he’s not subdued and indifferent because he’s going out with women, but because he’s in a relationship that’s not so good or because he still hasn’t gotten over his last relationship, or because he feels like he’s getting old and isn’t sure he made the right career choice, or is worried about global warming, or for lots of other reasons that have nothing to do with the gender of his dates. As a good friend, you should be concerned that Alex seems down. But rather than go ahead and explain to him what the reason is, you should try to find out from him, believe him, and help him with his problems, not with the problems you’ve decided he has.

Possibility No. 3, the trickiest of all, that Alex is really gay but due to external pressure has started dating women. He wouldn’t be the first gay man to do so, nor the last, unfortunately. This is the saddest of all the possibilities, because it arises from Alex’s own unhappiness rather than from a misunderstanding of the situation on your part, but that still doesn’t substantially change the way you should act. Alex is an adult who made a considered decision, even if that decision was influenced by the fact that we live in a shitty, homophobic world.

If he comes to you one day and tells you that this is the situation, as a good friend you should give him support and understanding and help him navigate this bleakness. But until then, don’t make him feel that you think you know better than him what’s right for him. It’s very unfair that this is the choice he’s been given, but if it makes it easier for him to deal with the problems he has to deal with, like with his family for instance, there is no reason for you to go compounding his distress by making him feel guilty over his decision to make life easier for himself where possible and to choose what he feels is the lesser evil.

In any case, as you noted, the chances of you changing his mind (in the event that it is the third scenario and not one of the other two) are close to nil. However, there is a much higher chance that your friendship will be ruined: Either closeted gay Alex will pull away from you because you’re only adding more stress and guilt to his already complicated and unhappy situation, before he himself is ready to cope with it; or bisexual/straight Alex will realize that you’re unable to accept his identity and the fact that he is now dating women. Either way, it won’t end up helping him – because it’s more a projection of your feelings and desires than friendly concern.

If you don't know how to behave in a certain situation, if you need friendly advice but you've already driven all your sane friends away or if you've got the kind of embarrassing question that can only be asked anonymously, send a mail to: mechlak.musar@gmail.com.

Our answers will be generous and honest – but should not be seen as replacement for professional consultations. Obviously.