How the Israeli Army Became an Unlikely Voice for Restraint in an Increasingly Radicalizing Society

With ultranationalism on the rise, Israel’s security establishment is suddenly troubled by a phenomenon that is largely its own creation.

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A rally held in support of IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who killed a subdued Palestinian attacker, in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2016.
A rally held in support of IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who killed a subdued Palestinian attacker, in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

Maj. Gen.Yair Golan, the Israel Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff, became the latest senior military officer to be savaged by Israel’s right wing this week. He’s been accused of everything from “cheapening the Holocaust” to being “Deputy Chief of the Wehrmacht.” There are currently at least two online petitions to remove him from his post. 

The reason for outrage was a speech Golan gave on Thursday in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which he uttered the following controversial line: "If there's something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance 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’s statement sparked a huge uproar within Israel and made headlines worldwide. Right-wing Israeli politicians like Education Minister Naftali Bennet and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked accused him of comparing Nazi Germany with Israel in 2016, and likening Israelis to modern-day incarnations of 1930s Germans. They postulated that he got “confused” and decried his choice to “provide fodder” for Israel haters abroad. Some called for his resignation. A senior TV reporter noted that if Golan was a British Labour politician, he’d have been suspended from the party within the hour. 

Golan, of course, just wanted Israelis to remember the lessons of the Holocaust, and avoid dangerous societal trends often associated with the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, such as “intolerance, violence, self-destruction and moral deterioration.” He was eventually forced to issue a clarification, but the reactions to his speech, some of which bordered on hysteria, pretty much proved his point. 

Golan is the most recent among several high-ranking IDF officers, among them IDF Chief Gadi Eisenkot and the IDF’s intelligence chief Herzl Halevi, who in the past few months have dared to raise their concerns about Israel’s conduct and overall direction before being subsequently condemned as left-wing propagandists or worse by Israel’s radicalizing right wing. 

Somehow, Israel’s military — the same military that’s constantly accused of indiscriminately using force against civilian targets by human rights organizations and activists, in Israel and abroad — has found itself today in the curious and unlikely position of serving as a voice of reason and restraint in a society that increasingly places less value on such things.

Consider, for instance, Gadi Eisenkot. The IDF’s Chief of Staff caused public outrage in February, after he said: “I don't want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl with scissors.” 

Eisenkot was actually defending the IDF’s rules of engagement, stressing that IDF soldiers do not kill people, even suspected terrorists, unless it’s a life-threatening situation. “The IDF cannot speak in slogans, such as 'if someone comes to kill you, rise-up to kill them first,” he said.

Eisenkot received widespread condemnations from right-wing politicians. Some, like Deputy Foreign Minister and Likud MK Tzipi Hotoveli, insisted that “if someone comes to kill you, rise up to kill them first” is “an important Jewish principle.” When two Israelis were stabbed by 14-year-olds in the West Bank a day later, Transportation Minister Israel Katz, pointing to the fact that both minors were captured alive, said he hoped Eisenkot’s statement did not make soldiers “hesitate and risk Jewish lives.”

Consider also the IDF’s intelligence chief, Herzl Halevi. Back in November, during a closed cabinet meeting, Halevi surveyed the reasons that led to the current terror wave in Israel, among them the feelings of rage and frustration among younger Palestinians who carry out attacks because they feel “they have nothing to lose.” His analysis was immediately criticized by Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin, who accused Halevi of minimizing the effect of Palestinian incitement and essentially adopting the Palestinian narrative.  

And of course, there is the right-wing campaign to pardon Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier who was caught on tape fatally shooting a subdued Palestinian terrorist in Hebron in March. The IDF, who’s been accused of executing Palestinians without trial during the recent spate of knifings and car rammings, made an exception of Azaria and charged him with manslaughter, but encountered a violent backlash. While Azaria’s actions were condemned by most Israeli politicians, he was still considered a hero by large segments of Israel’s right wing, which attacked the army for being overly concerned with preserving the lives of Palestinians. An analysis of interactions on social media platforms showed that Israelis are evenly split in their view of the soldier’s actions between those who side with the military, claiming that Azaria committed manslaughter and should be brought to justice, and those who support him. Shortly after has was charged, 2,000 people attended a rally in Tel Aviv calling for his release.

In all of these cases, it was Israel’s military — the same one keeping conscientious objector Tair Kaminer in prison for more than 95 days, whose job among other things is to maintain the occupation of the West Bank — that served as a voice of reason and as a check on Israel’s radicalizing political discourse. 

This is a unique situation, to say the least. Usually, politicians are supposed to scrutinize the actions of the army, not the other way around. But in Israel, where the army has always been given a certain kind of moral authority, the opposite seems to be the case.

While some may be tempted to claim that this proves that Israel does indeed have the “most moral army in the world,” this phenomenon tells us more about the worrying state of Israeli politics, where Jews can only ever be seen as victims, than it does about the morality of the IDF.

The irony is that the IDF had more than a hand in nurturing the kind of right-wing zealousness and disregard for human life that now worries its highest-ranking officers. Yair Golan, for instance, has been disciplined in 2007 for using the infamous “neighbor procedure,” a tactic in which IDF forces would send neighbors and relatives to the homes of barricaded terror suspects to try to get them to surrender. (The procedure, which has been criticized for using Palestinians as “human shields,” was banned by Israel’s High Court in 2005). 

Now, with ultranationalism on the rise, Israel’s security establishment is similarly troubled by a phenomenon that is largely its own creation, and the IDF officers who try to maintain some semblance of ethical standards suddenly find themselves treated as if they were the ones being oppressed.