Posts Tagged ‘Sgt. Elor Azaria’

THE MORAL IMPERATIVE

Last week, I wrote about the military trial of Israeli Sgt. Elor Azaria, convicted of manslaughter in killing a wounded Palestinian knife wielder. The response by Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), reminded me of an experience I had fifty years ago.

Many Israelis opposed to Sgt. Azaria’s conviction pleaded that he should be exonerated as a child of Israel—“everybody’s child.” Eisenkot replied, “An 18-year-old in the Israeli Army is not ‘everybody’s child’. He is a fighter, a soldier who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”

The IDF’s code of conduct states that military personnel must respond to a high moral standard that empowers them to refuse orders by their superiors. Jews are all too familiar with “good Germans” who, during World War Two, insisted that they were only following orders when they worked at death camps and took part in or enabled atrocities.

This brings me to Lt. Colonel Bert Bishop, commanding officer of the 97th Student Battalion at the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. In May 1967, shortly before my class was to graduate, Col. Bishop informally gave us a glimpse of some of the situations we might confront in Vietnam. (The Army sent me to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and left me there.)

A combat veteran of World War Two and Korea—later a battalion commander in Vietnam, where he was promoted to full colonel—Col. Bishop covered a variety of practical matters, including relationships with our non-commissioned officers on whom we would depend. He informed the Jewish candidates—three of us in a class of 194—that we would have to assume some of the duties of a chaplain for Jewish soldiers wounded or troubled throughout the region where we served. There weren’t enough Jewish chaplains to cover all of Vietnam.

Most important, Col. Bishop told us that we should refuse to carry out immoral orders. How unexpected and extraordinary that was. Our battalion commander, who’d been on the battlefield and whose task was preparing us to close with the enemy and kill him, reminded us that as officers we were responsible to uphold the Army’s code of conduct. Regardless of risk to our careers or legal action some quarters might take, we were not to emulate the Germans who carried out the Holocaust.

We know that in Vietnam—a war we never should have fought—some American troops went awry. We remember the massacre at My Lai in 1968 that stained the Army’s reputation. But I will never forget Col. Bishop’s urging that no situation could allow us to be anything but professional and moral.

Gen. Eisenkot has made the same statement. And while some Israelis will plead that IDF troops face complex challenges—which they do—I believe the majority will agree with the chief of staff. True, we Jews are held to a higher standard. But that’s the standard we set for ourselves. Morality in combat or anti-insurgency situations does not represent weakness. By keeping the Israeli military and society grounded and disciplined in law and Torah, it creates ongoing strength.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And may the New Year bring a more peaceful world so that soldiers everywhere can disengage and no longer face these universal moral dilemmas.

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ISRAEL’S “UNTOLD” STORY

Two days ago, Israel experienced bad news and good news. Sadly, most of the world will focus on the bad. But the military court verdict regarding #SergeantElorAzaria must be noted for the good it presents about a nation so often maligned—and blindly so.

Last March, Sgt. Azaria shot dead a Palestinian man—one of two knife wielders in the West Bank city of Hebron. The other Palestinian had already been killed. Israeli troops have the right to defend civilians and themselves under attack. The problem lies in Sgt. Azaria having shot Abd Elfatah Ashareef eleven minutes after another soldier had shot and “neutralized” him.

The court determined that Ashareef had posed no danger and convicted Sgt. Azaria of manslaughter. Many Israelis support Sgt. Azaria. Many Israelis adhere to the law and do not. Yesterday police arrested two Israeli Jews for inciting pro-Azaria violence on social media. Here we need to recognize that Israeli law remains as impartial as it can be in trying times, holding all Israelis—Jews and non-Jews—responsible for appropriate conduct.

This is not the first time an Israeli court—military or civilian—has found a Jew or the government liable for criminal or civil actions. True, not all court decisions are balanced. But Israeli Arabs and Palestinians often achieve legal victories because the law—with support by Israeli Jews—recognizes that they are in the right.

Imagine the same scenario in a military court elsewhere in the Middle East. Would a soldier killing someone who acted against his government face legal—let alone public—discipline? If you can say yes, you know something about the region that I don’t.

Would a court in Russia or China try one of their soldiers who killed someone bearing a weapon with deadly intent after that would-be killer had been neutralized? Would journalists be allowed to report on the case? Would government leaders, pro and con, discuss it? Would those who incite violence on Moscow’s or Beijing’s behalf be arrested? If you can say yes, you know something about Russia and China that I don’t.

Yet these two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council voted to condemn as illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (I wrote last week that those settlements are wrong and provide the Palestinians with another excuse to avoid negotiations.) Russia and China hardly stand as advocates for human rights.

Finally, can you imagine Hamas or the Palestinian Authority bringing to trial Palestinians who assault or murder Israelis? I can’t; it doesn’t happen. The killers are praised. If they’re killed, massive funerals celebrate their martyrdom.” Cash payments go to their families.

Israel survives in a region filled with hostility flowing in all directions. The country can and should present a better image to the world, starting with a halt to settlement building. But Israel stands head and shoulders above its neighbors as a nation where law has real meaning, where Israelis of all religions—and Palestinians—can call on the courts with a reasonable, if still imperfect, expectation of justice.

The matter of Sgt. Azaria constitutes a painful story. Still, it must be told and seen in context. Hopefully, American law will remain as respectful of justice.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you find yourself discussing Israel, discuss the whole story.

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