Every now and again, there is a ripple in the water. The initial effect spreads out from the direct point of impact, eventually subsiding completely. In between the ripples, the water surface is still, totally undisturbed. Looking out across the water, one is easily lulled into a false feeling of tranquility.
Every now and again, Israelis break an unofficial vow of silence, and create a ripple effect in Israeli society by offering personal testimonies from their service in the IDF that defy the accepted norms. And like water ripples, the initial effect quickly subsides until all is forgotten.
In two separate occasions in 2003, IDF pilots and soldiers belonging to the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) objected to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians by refusing to do reserve duty. This weekend, it was the turn of forty-three former members of the IDF’s intelligence Unit 8200, who wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu and top military officials, saying they would refuse to do reserve service because of Israel’s “political persecution” of the Palestinians. To these testimonies, one has to add the “Breaking the Silence” organization which is dedicated to sharing experiences by former soldiers who served in the West Bank, the fantastic documentary film by Dror Moreh, “The Gatekeepers” which contains ground-shaking interviews with six retired chiefs of the General Security Service (Shabak or Shin Bet), and many other cases of Israelis feeling the need to share their experiences or clear their conscience.
Together, these testimonies send out a crystal clear message – something is awfully wrong with Israel’s current policies towards the Palestinians. More than anything though, they provide Israelis with a chance to take a good look of themselves in the mirror and see beyond the accepted narrative. But sadly, these rare opportunities are often squandered, and the ripples created by these disclosures are usually limited in effect.
Sure – there is usually a significant initial effect. These units are considered the crème de la crème of the IDF, and ex-members of these units usually find themselves in leading roles in the Israeli job market – as doctors, lawyers and Hi-Tech wizards. So coming from Israel’s elite, these admissions are often accompanied by political controversies involving wide media coverage and heightened public discourse. But the long term effects are close to nothing. Counter testimonies by “patriotic” soldiers are quick to follow, and so are accusations of betrayal. In this latest case of Unit 8200, the timing is also problematic. In the wake of yet another round of violence, these testimonies find the Israeli public extremely un-receptive to messages that defy the accepted Israeli narrative.
Why do we find it so hard to contain these brave personal testimonies? I delve into the reasons in my post “Vow of Silence“, but to cut things short:
- As these testimonies are perceived as criticism of the IDF, they automatically lack legitimacy and are discredited. This knee-jerk reaction stems from the fact that the Israeli military enjoys a stature unrivaled by any other political or civilian body in Israel. It is the holy cow. Anyone, or anything, criticizing the IDF is usually labeled as anti-Israel or even anti-Zionist. Since the IDF is ultimately an executive arm of the Israeli government, this built-in reflex dangerously wipes out any real chance of a civil debate over IDF behavior as a reflection of official government policy. The fact that the main target of these testimonies is not the IDF but the policies dictating its operations, is of little importance.
- Israelis are not emotionally or cognitively equipped to deal with this information. Our identity as Israelis cannot entertain the thought that there may be an element of truth to these stories since that may place us at a moral disadvantage. Should we no longer be able to claim the moral high ground, we may lose our moral self justification. We need to know we’re right. This need is of course reflected in our steadfast belief and claim that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. Now, whether this is true, as many Israelis like to claim, is beside the point. We dare not, or cannot afford to, believe otherwise. Thus, we cannot fathom any claim or implication to the contrary.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this built-in difficulty. Yes – these testimonies damage the IDF, and they sure don’t help Israel’s position in the world. But by burying ourselves behind a wall of denial and patriotic lingo, we fail to understand the real long-term cost we are paying as a society for the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Instead of realizing that controlling a civilian population can only lead to a debasement of our soldiers and continued de-legitimization of Israel in the world (a battle long lost), we busy ourselves with delegitimizing contradicting narratives and blaming “traitors” within our midst.
The sheer number of these testimonies, not to mention their troubling content, means that they cannot be simply swept under the carpet. They demonstrate not only the price the Palestinian population is paying, but also the long term effects on Israeli society. Anyone wondering where the violence and extremism we are witnessing today within the Israeli society originates from, should start with this undeclared vow of silence.