The political situation in Israel has become toxic. Parallels exist in the United States, but one problem hasn’t hit America—yet.
As I wrote (January 27) in “Knesset, Congress and Chaos,” Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and his far-right partners seek to gut Israel’s supreme court. The Knesset, rather than pass a law, could overturn a court decision by a simple majority vote.
Israelis have taken to the streets to protest this threat to democracy. Protest is nothing new. But recent developments raise questions neither Israelis nor Americans can let slide.
Many retired senior officers of the Israel Defense Forces have spoken out against the judicial-reform measure. The ten living former Air Force chiefs published a letter that the proposed judicial overhaul left them “trembling.” Okay, they’re retired.
But many IDF reservists, including fighter pilots, have entered protest mode. Some signed letters that they won’t participate in nonessential duty. Others took part in Thursday’s “Day of Disruption.” A lieutenant-colonel was arrested.
That military personnel would engage in such protest is, from an American point of view, disturbing.
I’m not an Israeli citizen, but as a Jew who loves Israel has a right—indeed, a duty—to speak out. As such, I strongly oppose Bibi’s judicial overhaul. But protests by active and reserve military personnel leave me uneasy.
Politically active militaries almost always threaten democracy. Their involvement inevitably leads to repression and dictatorship. Examples spanning continents: Greece, Egypt, Chile, Myanmar and more.
American tradition calls on our military to remain apolitical. Military personnel may vote. They’re encouraged to. Politicking is off limits.
Still, both Israeli and American military personnel are called upon to follow their consciences. During my training at the Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, our battalion commander held a pre-graduation chat with my company. A combat veteran of World War Two and Korea—soon after, Vietnam, where he served as a battalion commander—he reminded us that we were not German troops fighting for a Nazi regime. We had a higher duty not to follow orders we judged to be immoral. That, he emphasized, can be a tough call.
In recent years, many retired American generals and admirals have spoken out against Donald Trump. They included his former secretary of defense, Gen. John Mattis. These generals and admirals likely will do so again if Trump is nominated—and for good reason.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend, Trump, running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, said, “In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
Trump the warrior dodged the draft during Vietnam. At CPAC, he pledged only one policy: He will go after his enemies.
Hopefully, Israeli military personnel will take a step back regarding the proposed judicial overhaul. They’ll choose to keep the IDF out of politics while exercising their individual rights to vote. Still, Israeli society may fragment further.
May American military personnel avoid public politics in our own fractured society. (The various branches have been rooting out far-right cells; some active-duty and former military personnel participated in January 6).
Conscience challenges us all—at least, those of us who have one.
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