I was sitting in a café on East 84th with three friends earlier this summer; we were all catching up. I turn to my friend (who will remain nameless in this post), and ask him if he still plans on making Aliyah in the near future. He said yes, and I responded by commenting on what a shame it would be that he would have to join the IDF.
His response was unsurprising: if he was going to move to Israel, he would want to feel a part of its society, and serving in the IDF is crucial to social integration.
Yes, this is certainly true, I remember saying, but serving in the IDF is not a privilege, it is a duty for Israeli citizens. Indeed, we are lucky that we live in a much more secure society and thus do not have to maintain a large domestic standing army. But on top of that, depending on the position you get, wouldn’t serving the army basically mean aiding in the management of the Occupation?!?!?!?
I hadn’t thought about this conversation again until the beginning of this week when I read two separate but connected articles in Haaretz. One, which has received little public attention, featured a company of Armored Corps reservists who decided to change the tone of their interactions with the Palestinians they met while working at checkpoints. For example:
“Instead of saying ‘gib al awiya,’ ordering them to show ID, we said ‘min fadlakum‘ (please), with an emphasis on the request…But it wasn’t just the words. We decided that we would look everyone in the eye and that we would not aim our gun at anyone.” (Haaretz)
The second, which has received an incredible amount of public attention, talked about an ex-soldier who posted photos of herself with Palestinian prisoners on Facebook. Since this issue has been talked about extensively, I don’t think it is necessary for me to explain the scenario further or to insert a piece of the article.
But I will say this: the latter article outlined a situation that I find repulsive. I appreciate the psychological explanation for this behavior: the long endurance of the Occupation has certainly made behavior from soldiers that I find entirely unacceptable weirdly conventional. Nonetheless, it is simultaneously important for us to realize that the soldiers who started treating Palestinians more humanely came from and work for the same institution as the soldiers who post inappropriate photos of Palestinian prisoners on Facebook.
These two phenomena make a number of suggestions about military service in Israel. One is that the IDF currently houses a lot of different ideas about how the “enemy” ought to be treated. While I normally find a lot of merit in diversity, in this case I do not. It is entirely clear that the IDF needs to detoxify its ranks, not necessarily getting rid of the bad eggs currently serving, but transforming the institutional culture so that it is categorically humane toward the Palestinians. This is a lot to ask of any army, but my prescription should be understood as a (reachable) goal.
They also suggest that the IDF is in need of an injection of left-wing blood. My first experience engaging in left-wing activism in Israel taught me to admire the refuseniks, and convinced me that if I were an Israeli or if I were to make Aliyah, that the best course of action would naturally to be to avoid military service, even if it meant imprisonment. But I’ve since changed my mind.
I’m not sure whether those Israeli citizens who are opposed to the existence of the State of Israel should join the IDF instead of refusing to serve. But I am much surer that those left-wing Israelis who are critical of the State of Israel but ultimately support and want the state to exist–people like myself and my friend– should have long military careers, ascending the ranks of the military so that they gain influence and decision-making power. If this were to become the status quo, then I think we would notice a markedly better culture and better conduct within the IDF.
It’s about time I give my friend a phone call and support his decision to serve in the IDF.