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If We Don’t Step in for Israel, Who Will?

Over the past few months, tempers have flared and debates have gotten feisty between various Zionist organizations within our own community.

In the short time since I have taken this post, accusations of the Zionist Federation excluding those critical of Israel from ‘the Zionist tent’ have abounded. Both in a private capacity, and in public forums, individuals representing various organizations have criticized the ZFA for refusing to acknowledge Israel’s faults.

I too received some heated responses following my advocacy update a few weeks ago, which unpacked the core issues of the peace process, specifically the issue of settlements.

These queries were to the tune of why I was justifying Israel’s continued occupation in the settlements, and in a separate letter; ‘Why do you feel the need to stand up for Israel when its actions are obviously wrong?’

It goes without saying that I disagree with this person’s summation. However, these series of exchanges really got me thinking about the way we come to Israel’s defence and how we should go about it in the twenty-first century.

Generally speaking, Gen-Y is different. Collectively, we are liberalist, human-rights focused, environmentally friendly and largely anti-war. In this regard traditional forms of ‘Israel advocacy’ will no longer cut it. Responding to criticism of Israel by focusing discussions on Israel’s extraordinary record of innovation (whilst all true), will fail to convince Israel’s rising critics.

By the same token, an all-out denial of Israel’s faults is also seen as lacking credibility and unrealistic. Indeed, the best we can do is to provide the broader context that is so often lacking from the media’s coverage of Israel.

The annual anti-Israel campaign (that seems to resurface every year as the Jewish festival season comes upon us) was again launched this week in full force.

The Australian newspaper published a damning article titled ‘Soldiers break silence on Israeli tactics,’ focused on the IDF’s human rights violations. It based its findings on testimonies from the Israeli based organization Breaking the Silence, made up of ex-military personnel who operate under the banner ‘Israeli soldiers talking about the occupied territories.’

The article says; “Questions are being raised about the culture of the Israeli Defence Force within former military circles. Breaking the Silence, an organisation with more than 800 Israeli veteran combat soldiers and officers who served in the IDF since 2000, has been attacked for focusing on Israel’s human rights record.”

It includes testimonies from ex-soldiers, such as Adam Ragson, who said that it “opened my eyes to the immoral and ugly face of martial law in the West Bank”.

He continued; “Israel is committing serious human rights violations that do not embody the fundamental Jewish values I studied in my Jewish upbringing.”

First, the obvious question is that of timing. It’s pitiful that critics are focusing their attention on Israel’s human rights record at a time when its neighbours in Syria and Egypt are systematically wiping out their own people.

But the key omission here is context.

The claim that Israeli soldiers are involved in the abuse of Palestinians is hard to refute because these aren’t critics accusing Israel of cruelty; they are Israeli soldiers freely conceding abuse.

However, like thousands of armies around the world, Israel has strict procedures and processes in place to deal with those who breach its strict code of ethics.

In 1992, the IDF drafted a Code of Conduct that combines international law, Israeli law, Jewish heritage and the IDF’s own traditional ethical code—the IDF Spirit. A fundamental pillar of this code is Human Dignity.

It states; “The IDF and its soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every human being is of value regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position.”

University philosophy professor Asa Kasher co-authored the first IDF Code of Ethics and continues to work on the moral doctrines that shape the parameters of the army’s actions. In 2011 he was interviewed about this in an opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post.

“A state is obligated to ensure effective protection of its citizens’ lives. In fact, it’s more than just life. It is an obligation to ensure the citizens’ well-being and their capacity to go about their lives. A citizen of a state must be able to live normally. To send the kids to school in the morning. To go shopping. To go to work. To go out in the evening. A routine way of life. Nothing extraordinary. The state is obliged to protect that,” he says.

“At the same time, the moral foundation of a democratic state is respect for human dignity. Human dignity must be respected in all circumstances. And to respect human dignity in all circumstances means, among other things, to be sensitive to human life in all circumstances. Not just the lives of the citizens of your state. Everybody.”

“This applies even in our interactions with terrorists. I am respecting the terrorist’s dignity when I ask myself, “Do I have to kill him or can I stop him without killing him?” 

Such omissions of fact and context, paints a picture of an institutionalised policy of brutality within the IDF which is entirely antithetical to the ‘Israeli spirit.’  

This article (and we can expect there will be more where this came from with the UN’s most anti-Israel  representative,Richard Falk, shortly headed for our shores), ironically coincides with the release of the Israeli documentary ‘The Gatekeepers’ – a film about the ethics of the Shin Bet, Israel’s leading security organization.  

The TV series, turned film, shows interviews with the six former heads of the Shin Bet. All six interviewees insist that Israel could have done more to extricate itself from this situation by negotiating peace with the Palestinians and ending the “occupation” in the West Bank. They say unanimously and repeatedly that successive political leaders did not want a two-state solution. This leaves an uncomfortable impression of Israel’s intransigence, at a critical diplomatic time.

What is most difficult to reconcile is that these are not hostile opponents of Israel. They are the very heart of the Jewish state’s security operation that would do anything to protect Israel and its citizens. They know what is happening behind the scenes and they have many ideas on how it should be solved.

On the other hand, however, director Dror Moreh uses his interviews with the six former heads of the Shin Bet, to highlight that moral and ethical issues are continuously debated in Israel by the people who count. It shows that the men behind Israel’s security operations have been burdened by human suffering on all levels.

Raising complex questions of mass targeting, interrogation and responses to terrorism, the interviews show that the security apparatus has been run by successive leaders of conscience and morality. They were genuinely conflicted about how to protect Israelis without harming Palestinians.

That a self-analytical film, critical of Israeli leadership and its intelligence, is screened on Israeli television, and as part of the Israeli Film Festival, is testament to the morality and humanity of Israel’s military and security apparatus. In this regard, they certainly can’t be perceived as being mere mouthpieces of the government.

For all of its nuances, one thing is clear; Israel strives to be as militarily moral as possible. At the Zionist Federation that is something we take great pride in, and we never seek to condone those who act to the contrary.

At the same time, however, there are enough destructive forces working against Israel, knit picking her every action and distorting truth. This has been the strategy of both the EU and the UN in recent times. Increasingly it seems that if we, as Jews and Zionists, jump on this ‘critical’ band-wagon the chance of getting our ‘Gen-Y’ to truly love Israel, is slimmer and slimmer. If we don’t come out in Israel’s defence, sadly, no one else will.

And importantly….

Most of you would have been keeping a close eye on developments in Syria. Surely as things progress we will keep you informed. But as our brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends ready themselves with gas masks should the worst materialize, let us send our love, prayers and wishes. 

All the best,

Gabrielle Debinski

Zionist Federation of Australia