Opinion |

The Israeli Army's Loss of Moral Ideology

There has been a deep change in the IDF: the abandonment of the classical military ethos of victory and the adoption of a 'moral superiority ethos' in its place.

Carolina Landsmann
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Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian during a searching raid by Israeli troops, in the West Bank city of Hebron September 20, 2016.
Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian during a searching raid by Israeli troops, in the West Bank city of Hebron September 20, 2016.Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasama / Reuters
Carolina Landsmann

Anyone following the trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria must not miss Moshe Ifergan’s enlightening interpretations on the Hebrew-language website Mida. This week, after the testimony by two generals in the reserves, Uzi Dayan and Dan Biton, Ifergan repeated his claim that the scene of an operation has its own internal logic. It shouldn’t be subordinated to the legal arena, unless, as Dayan claimed, “an investigative commission exhausts the matter ... and the commission says ‘here was a case of intentional manslaughter.’”

According to Ifergan, the Israel Defense Forces’ decision to hand the Azaria incident to the Military Police’s investigations unit and to the military legal system has thrown Azaria into the psychological chasm that separates civilian life (in which there is no permission to use violence) and military life.

This is a good line of defense, both from the technical perspective and in principle. (We can’t trust a judicial system external to the events; we should prefer the military command’s judgment over the judges’ judgment.)

But Ifergan’s superciliousness goes far beyond the “narrow interests” of the Azaria case. Ifergan regrets that the chain of command didn’t try at all to understand why an outstanding soldier (as can be perceived in his company and battalion commanders’ testimonies, and as shown by the fact that after only a year in the army he was named the battalion’s ‘outstanding soldier’) acted as he did. Ifergan also regrets that the IDF abandoned its values in favor of legalism.

To Ifergan, Azria’s case is an example of a deep change in the IDF: the abandonment of the classical military ethos (whose essence is victory and decisively defeating the enemy) and the adoption of the “moral superiority ethos” in its place. The price is subordinating “the combat way of life to the judgment of the ethics experts, the lawyers.”

Ifergan doesn’t spare the IDF from his criticism, but is lenient in taking into account the reasons for its actions. He identifies the reason for it in the trickling of ex-Supreme Court chief Aharon Barak’s legal revolution into the military, but he avoids asking the important question: What enabled this spillover? True, the IDF abandoned the classical ethos, but as opposed to Ifergan’s diagnosis, it hasn’t managed to instill a new ethos.

The “legalization” entered this vacuum. The reason is that the IDF has stopped fighting other armies. Instead of concentrating on fighting, it is primarily managing the lives of residents in occupied cities and fighting civilians, who in the “best case” carry weapons. It is no longer defending sovereign Israel territories, but territories not under its sovereignty and over Israelis who live there against the law.

When Israel fought a just campaign based on the classical ethos, it wasn’t forced to adopt the ideology of moral superiority because this was Israel’s from the outset. Israel had to invent the moral ethos the moment it lost it.

It’s for good reason that belief in the IDF’s morality jibed with the most dubious campaign in terms of the ratio between the killed in action and the killed innocents the 2014 Gaza war.

In practice, the IDF has drawn conclusions from its data that Azaria violated military norms, at least according to the classical ethos that when the battle is over you don’t shoot a wounded combatant.

Beyond the narrow technocratic sense, the IDF investigated the incident and found a military trial appropriate. This apparently was justified; for good reason the case is taking place on the spectrum between mistake and premeditation. Ifergan is right that we must not turn Azaria into a scapegoat for the IDF, and we must not turn the IDF into the scapegoat for the politicians.

Everywhere the classical Israeli ethos civilian or military has failed. All that is left is to adapt the law in court to the moral deviations.

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