Armon Hanatziv Promenade in Jerusalem on Jan. 8 following a terror attack. Four Israel Defence Forces soldiers were murdered – Yael Yekutiel, 20, Shir Hajaj, 22, Shira Tzur, 20, and Erez Orbach, 20 – and at least a dozen other people were injured when a truck driver, from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Jabel Mukaber, drove at speed at a group waiting at a bus stop. The terrorist was shot dead. (photo from Ashernet)
Israel is threatened by enemies who respect no rules of engagement, as we saw in the brutal vehicular attack that killed four and injured many others in Jerusalem Sunday.
Israel has faced the challenge of maintaining the moral code of a democratic, humanitarian society under the cloud of threatened annihilation and incessant terror. At the age of 18, young Israelis are often faced with the most impossible dilemmas as citizen-soldiers sworn to uphold national security while conducting themselves in a manner as ethical as the national ideals they are defending.
When Israeli soldiers go rogue, as they occasionally do, and contravene the moral code of the country and the Israel Defence Forces, the response is often polarizing. Worldwide, critics depict individual crimes as symptomatic of the culture of an illegal, apartheid state that is rotten at the core, while defenders cite the judicial processes that follow as evidence that Israel does indeed live up to its values. Sometimes, these cases open deep schisms, as we have seen recently in the case of Sgt. Elor Azaria.
Last year, Azaria, an IDF medic, shot dead a Palestinian terrorist in Hebron who had been disarmed and incapacitated. Azaria told a fellow soldier: “He stabbed my friend and he deserves to die.”
A panel of three Israeli judges unanimously convicted him of manslaughter with a possible sentence of 20 years.
“The fact that the man sprawled on the ground was a terrorist, who had just sought to take the lives of IDF soldiers at the scene, does not in itself justify disproportionate action,” the judges determined.
The trial and its aftermath have opened a debate – or reopened an endless one – about what is moral and immoral as Israel, depending on your perspective, struggles for its existential survival or perpetuates the occupation of Palestinian lands.
The case is being depicted as a fight for the moral soul of the country, although many issues have been portrayed in this dramatic fashion over the decades.
For other countries, addressing essential questions of national morality, of right and wrong, is not necessarily second nature. Yet much of the world is facing choices as stark or starker than Israel’s.
Donald Trump is about to be sworn in as president of the United States. While governments in European and other democracies have, at times, been led by unpredictable individuals, Trump’s ascension is unprecedented for a plethora of reasons that do not need itemizing.
In responding to Trump, and to myriad other current events, we have few precedents to guide us, yet how we respond will determine what our world will become.
Do we quietly accept the presidency of the bigoted, petulant, potentially dangerous Trump, recognizing that, for better or worse, he is the leader of the world’s ostensibly greatest democracy? Or do we stand as steadfast in every way possible against the regressive parts of his agenda (as scattershot and incoherent as that agenda may be)?
Do we try to empathize with, understand and transform the economic, social and racial outlooks that led 63 million Americans to vote for him, or do we dig in our heels and declare them, if not outright racists and women-haters, at least voters for whom xenophobia, race-baiting and misogyny were not deal-breakers, and seek to isolate them from mainstream discourse?
Further afield, do we oppose with every fibre the far-right movements that are growing in France, Hungary, Poland, Italy, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, or do we seek to ameliorate the conditions that are leading increasing numbers of Europeans to support these sorts of ideologies?
Do we choose to view Syrian refugees as potential terrorists or, at least, as products of a society where antisemitism is deliberately inculcated? Or do we see in them the same desperate humanity of our recent and long-past ancestors?
There are situations in the world that can reasonably cause us to seek solace in isolation, to retreat to the literal or figurative woods and cut ourselves off from the daily news that is so unsettling. However, we have a tradition that encourages discourse and action, one that tells us to repair the broken world, even if we are unable to complete the task.