I'm a Friend of the IDF. And I Am Worried.

As a former combat medic, I'm dismayed to find the Israeli army under attack and vulnerable from a direction in which its defenses are being stripped weak: the Israeli right.

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Thousand rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square for soldier who shot Palestinian assailant in Hebron. April 19, 2016.
Thousand rally in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square for soldier who shot Palestinian assailant in Hebron. April 19, 2016. Credit: Moti Milrod
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

I'm a friend of the IDF*. And I am worried.

I say this as a former soldier, a combat medic. I say this as a citizen of Israel, a person who loves the country, and was proud to serve in its army.

I say this as a person who was proud to see his daughter take the oath that I did, becoming a medic herself. The fourth generation of our family to serve in a medical corps.

I'm a friend of the IDF, and dismayed to find it under attack and vulnerable from a direction in which its defenses are being stripped weak: 

From the Israeli right.

Last week at a demonstration on behalf of an IDF soldier who killed a prone, wounded, disarmed Palestinian assailant in the West Bank city of Hebron a month ago, protesters alternated chants of "Death To Arabs" and "A Jew is a Sweet Soul, an Arab is the Son of a Whore" with a song about Defense Minister Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, who had strongly criticized the soldier's actions on moral grounds:

"Oy yo yoi yo yoi yo yoi, 'Bogie' is the name of a dog!"

Demonstrators also demanded that the soldier, Sergeant Elor Azaria, be freed without trial or censure, and that both Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who also spoke out clearly against the killing, be imprisoned instead.

Following the March 24 killing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially backed Ya'alon and Eizenkot. Almost immediately, however, as anti-Ya'alon outcry mounted on the right — in particular within his Likud party's powerful Central Committee — Netanyahu signaled loudly if not directly that he was switching sides, taking the unusual step of phoning the soldier's home and holding a conversation "from the father of one soldier to another."

This week, the signal got clearer, as Sheldon Adelson's Israel Hayom newspaper, which reflects with pinpoint accuracy the real-time orientation of the Prime Minister's Office, featured photos of the hero's welcome accorded Azaria as he was released for a 48-hour Passover holiday furlough, in itself an unusual step for a soldier charged with a serious crime.

Under a heading reading "A Storm Within The IDF" in black and yellow — the colors of the pro-Kahane extremists of La Familia, Lehava, and other far-right groups — the newspaper featured a state radio poll which showed that 62% of Israelis support the soldier's action, demanding that the manslaughter charges be dropped and the soldier freed outright.

Meanwhile, despite appeals by the army and the Shin Bet security service to curb rightist-religious activism on Jerusalem's tinderbox Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, a government green light to visits by Jews to the holy site gave rise to Israeli-Palestinian clashes on Tuesday.

The visits, and fears that they will rekindle widespread Palestinian attacks on Israelis, have forced thousands of Israeli security forces to pull extra duty over the week-long Passover holiday.

Pressure for Jewish visitors on the Temple Mount continued this week, with a leading far-right figure declaring that interference with visits by Jews was itself immoral.

"This is Apartheid," said attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Kahanist who represents many of the Jewish Israelis suspected of acts of terrorism against Arabs. 

"This is racism. What — just because I'm Jewish I can't go up to the Temple Mount? That's Apartheid, and we must not accept this."

Former Shin Bet official Yaron Bloom responded that Jewish Temple Mount activists were causing large-scale damage "by entering into a powderkeg while they are themselves somewhat on fire." 

The visits could cause "Mehumot Elohim," literally "riots over God" but figuratively, cataclysmic unrest, he said.

Hamas and other groups are inciting around the issue of the Temple Mount, Bloom continued, alluding to Islamist contentions that Israel is actively seeking to destroy the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque and replace them with a rebuilt Jewish Temple.

"There are three issues which will send all Muslims into the streets: the Temple Mount, murders of innocent Arabs, and land," Bloom told Israel Channel 10 television. "Those who incite around the Temple Mount — both Hamas and Jews — are laying the groundwork for the next terrorist attack."

That day two years ago, when our daughter took the medic's oath, swearing to  provide care to every wounded person, whether a loved comrade or a bitter enemy, and to treat them all with respect, understanding, wisdom, and love for humanity, my wife and I watched as scores of other soldiers took the pledge as well.

One of them was named Elor Azaria. 

Sergeant Elor Azaria is not the problem. He was caught on camera doing what many, many soldiers have done before him. The difference is that Elor Azaria was caught. And that his supporters are declaring, in essence, that if it comes to a dilemma over killing an Arab — and even if your orders say otherwise — the answer is yes. 

Make no mistake. This is not a debate over whether or not Israel is, as the prime minister often declares, the most moral army in the world. Every soldier knows the truth: The only army which can truly be said to be moral, is the one whose soldiers never, ever, need fire a weapon in combat.

You will also hear, from other quarters, that Israel's soldiers are, to a one, monsters, war criminals, bloodcrazed murderers. Soldiers know the truth here as well: This is a country which — for various reasons, some entirely beyond its control — is genuinely under permanent, multi-faceted mortal threat. 

It is defended by an army which is a reflection of the country. Its soldiers are often, too often, forced to make decisions on their own. The army, like the people who serve in it, can be extraordinary in creativity, sensitivity, humanity, or extraordinary in stupidity and blunt-force, ideologically driven brutality.

The debate here goes much farther, to the heart of the ultimate purpose of the state of Israel. Is it the purpose of Israel to achieve the aims of its Declaration of Independence — equality, democracy, human rights, a true refuge for those living within its borders?

Or is its fate and purpose, in Netanyahu's words, to live forever by the sword, in the service of extreme Messianic religious goals, which translate to permanent occupation, permanent settlement expansion, permanent war?

I'm a friend of the IDF. I choose the Declaration of Independence.

And one last note, this for the Friends of the IDF organization from a former lone soldier: Please weigh in on this issue, on the side of the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff. Don't abandon them on the battlefield. 

*Not to be confused with the Friends of the IDF organization

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