“The judge is the whore of an Arab!” shouted a woman at the bright blue sky, under Tel Aviv’s shining Azrieli towers. “She’s collaborating with the enemy!” said another.
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They were referring to Colonel Maya Heller, the head of a three-judge military court that had just found Sgt. Elor Azaria guilty of manslaughter. Azaria killed a 21-year old Palestinian who had stabbed a soldier, but the assailant had already been shot and incapacitated and apparently posed no threat.
Israeli Jews commonly refer to IDF soldiers as “habanim shelanu” – our boys, or our sons. The personalization of their fate has been a bedrock of Israel’s founding collective identity. Each soldier killed is a tragedy for all. Each living soldier is a protector of the state: by extension, he ensures the fulfilment of Jewish historic destiny.
For the outraged protesters outside Tel Aviv’s Defense Ministry compound, “our sons” are the front line of defense for modern Jewish history itself; and each attack by a Palestinian is a living threat to the entire Jewish nation: “I came to support him,” said a 17-year old with long sidelocks and braces, from the radical settlement of Bat Ayin. “He’s a hero.”
Soldiers and solidarity
For them, seeing Azaria the hero shackled, tried and convicted for killing a terrorist was too much to bear. But not just for a small crowd of protestors.
When videos of the incident first went viral in March 2016, wide swathes of the Israeli public were scandalized, not by Azaria's actions, but by the fallout against the soldier. Surveys and social media measurements indicated strong solidarity with the soldier’s actions at the time.
Many Israelis were therefore surprised when the country’s top political and military leadership condemned, rather than embraced, the soldier. The Chief of Staff, the then-Minister of Defense Ya’alon, and even Prime Minister Netanyahu at first spoke out against the as-yet-unidentified soldier’s actions - before Netanyahu quickly and characteristically flipped.
The shooting “does not represent the values of the IDF,” he said in March; a week later he called Azaria's parents to say he "understood their distress" and repeatedly stated that “we back our soldiers” . Mere hours after the verdict, he announced he would support a pardon).
Shooting and weeping
But in their initial reactions to the incident, these leaders spoke of the values of the IDF, and its morality. They reflected a second, competing national self-image, no less integral to the country’s identity than the soldier-defender of Jewish history.
That is the IDF as the world's most moral army, one that “shoots and weeps,” killing only with a heavy heart. This is the IDF of 1956, whose military court ruled, after the massacre of Palestinian farmers in Kfar Kassem, that soldiers are obligated to refuse an illegal order.
Thus the Azaria trial, from its May 2016 opening, quickly became a battle between competing self-perceptions of Israelis about their country.
On one side was the struggle represented by high officials to prop up the crumbling moral-army image, fading like the drab colors of a 1960s photograph after fifty years of occupation.
On the other side was the primordial Jewish struggle for survival that characterizes nationalism everywhere, in which Azaria did not take the life of a Palestinian, but saved the lives of Jews. As Hannah Arendt wrote: “it was history that stood at the center of the trial.”
Justice and cover-ups
And there was another role for the court in this case. Justice, as the saying goes, had to be seen to be done. But who needed to see it? In 1984, intercity Bus #300 was hijacked and the captured attackers were photographed alive, before turning up dead.
Israel’s top brass apparently didn’t think the Israeli public needed to “see” (or actually do) justice to the security forces who murdered the handcuffed terrorists. Under Defense Minister Shimon Peres, the higher echelons tried their best to cover the whole thing up.
Israel’s circumstances have changed. In 2015, the Palestinians acceded to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Joining other international agencies like UNESCO was mostly an annoyance; the ICC gives Israel the shivers. The notion that its “boys” could be tried for war crimes terrifies the Israeli public – and it is a great unknown for its leaders.
Maybe this would be a tipping point that finally redirects public anger; what if instead of blaming those perennially anti-Israel Europeans, Israeli voters start blaming their very own leaders?
But the ICC only hears cases in which it has determined that a given state is not investigating its own alleged crimes. If Israel has and “is seen” to have a functioning due process for judging and punishing perpetrators, it can help stave off the ICC threat – at least for now.
Could one trial possibly satisfy so many actual and symbolic roles? The two sides of a clash of national identity ('Israel under existential threat' versus 'the most moral army'), while also resisting the political forces closing in on Israel from abroad, and simultaneously bringing Azaria to justice?
Arendt herself felt that the Eichman trial was gravely compromised by having to fill numerous symbolic and historic roles that went beyond, and undermined, the bare pursuit of justice. In a macabre reversal that Wednesday’s protestors surely would not appreciate, Azaria's supporters too felt the process was utterly compromised.
Cultivating disgust for the rule of law
Back outside the courthouse, many spoke of a foregone verdict, a show-trial. “Politicians piggybacked on this case,” said one protestor bitterly.
The crowd mentioned enemies and terrorists only sporadically, reserving their real anger and disgust for the foundational institutions of Israeli society and the rule of law. Shula, a retired clerk from Petach Tikva, said:
“The extreme left controls us. The Supreme Court is the long arm of Meretz and the left, and Bibi fears them.” Others were less diplomatic: “Fucking media!” “Leftists are spies!” they chanted.
Stickers read “Enough of the dictatorship of the Supreme Court!”
Those views are the direct result of years of merciless right-wing campaigns against Israel’s courts and the mainstream media, among other institutions. Civil society and human rights organizations are, of course, a prime target. Prime Minister Netanyahu or other political leaders have often led the charge.
The trajectory is clear: in the recently released annual Israel Democracy Index the public gave these institutions dismal ratings; the court system enjoys 55% trust; a dozen years ago, the figure was 79%. In 2016, 71% of Jewish Israelis thought human and civil rights organizations were damaging the state. Only one-quarter trusted the media. But, as in every other year, 90% of Israeli Jews trusted the IDF.
When only the army remains
The irony then is that the right itself, political leaders included, has deliberately delegitimized numerous other central institutions and only the army remains trusted; now, the public can’t handle any questioning of that lone body buckling under the load of symbolizing everything they wish to be.
That portion of the public cannot accept that this is a “bad apple” verdict: for them, the court ruled against their whole sense of self.
Israelis encountered another level of confusion after the verdict, when certain politicians –- suddenly changed their tune and supported the criminal censure of Azaria.
Defense Minister Lieberman said the verdict was "harsh" but the country should accept it; calls for a pardon were "ignorance and slogans."' Mark, a 44-year-old Russian born optometrist demonstrating outside the ministry, said Lieberman should have canceled the whole trial. How could it work, he said, “when the system doesn’t know what it wants?”
His comment exemplifies the dissonance and incompatibility between Israeli reality and self-image that the Azaria trial dramatized.
Is the gap between what Israel is doing on the ground, and the kind of country it says it wants to be, becoming too fraught to manage? If so – will the country change its policies, or sell its soul?
Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute, researching comparative conflict dynamics. She is also a public opinion expert and an adjunct lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Follow her on Twitter: @dahliasc