November 20, 2018

Israel’s vicious video

BDS is the Next Big Fear gripping the Jewish world.

But I want to devote this column to something terrible happening to Israel that has nothing to do with the international movement to Boycott, Sanction and Divest. What I’m worried about is just as terrible, if not more so — because it is something Israel is doing to itself.

I’m talking about the erosion of democracy.

The latest example — and there are many — happened two weeks ago. A video released by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem from March 24 shows the death of a Palestinian terrorist, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, 21, who, along with an accomplice, had just stabbed and wounded two Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. As Israeli medics load the wounded IDF soldier into an ambulance, al-Sharif can be seen alive, lying wounded and disarmed on a Hebron street. Then, as an ambulance passes by, an IDF soldier shoots al-Sharif in the head. 

That should be a shot heard round the Jewish world. 

It is disturbing that the Israeli soldier disobeyed IDF protocol. It is appalling that a soldier’s voice can be heard cursing the Palestinian as a “dog” just before he’s shot. It is frightening that right after, the soldier who allegedly shot the terrorist — whose name is under a gag order — is shown in another video shaking hands with Baruch Marzel, a devoted disciple of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Marzel is the man who in 2000 threw a Purim party at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the religious extremist who perpetrated the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre.

The soldier in the videos was arrested and faces a manslaughter charge in the Palestinian’s shooting. Nevertheless, it is positively disheartening that a recent poll shows the majority of Israelis consider that IDF soldier a hero. It is not the soldier whom a majority of the Israeli public is angry with — it’s his IDF commanders who detained him and charged him with violating army protocol. 

Responding to the outcry, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot wrote an unprecedented letter to all soldiers last week, which was published in Israel’s newspapers.

“The IDF places the responsibility for fulfilling the mission in your hands — to protect the country,” Eisenkot wrote. “The commanders, with myself at their lead, shall continue to support every soldier who errs during the heat of battle against an enemy endangering the lives of civilians and soldiers. However, we shall not hesitate to exercise the law with soldiers and commanders who deviate from the operational and ethical criteria according to which we operate. Preserving the spirit of the IDF and its values is not a privilege, it is a duty, in order to maintain the IDF as the people’s army in a Jewish democratic state.”

Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon immediately condemned the shooting, ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet attacked Eisenkot for the letter. Protesters stormed the courthouse where the soldier is being held, demanding his release. Ministers circulated fliers around the defense headquarters denouncing Eisenkot and calling for his resignation.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a majority of Israelis side with the soldier. Facing the constant threat of terror, many Israelis feel knife-wielding terrorists deserve what’s coming to them.  But it is dangerous and unprecedented for ministers and their minions to turn against the IDF commanders who seek to prosecute the soldier. 

“If soldiers are getting commands from the outside, from ministers and agitators,” professor Yoram Peri, a former adviser to late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said at a conference this past week at Brandeis University, “the IDF will collapse. And if the IDF collapses, Israel collapses.”

Turning the IDF into the enemy is to turn against the country’s founding principles. And that has been happening with alarming frequency not just among the mob, but at the highest levels of government.

Over the past few years, Israel’s lawmakers have sought to increase control of the legislature over the judiciary, weaken the rights of Israel’s Arab minority, and limit overseas contributions that support the activities of nongovernmental organizations, like B’Tselem and New Israel Fund, whose points of view they don’t agree with. None of this is brand new: Back in 2011, a law went into effect exposing anyone who calls for a boycott of settlements to a lawsuit. 

“Right-wing Knesset members do not understand that real democracy means not only majority rule,” Labor MK Avishay Braverman, former president of Ben-Gurion University, wrote in 2011, “but protection of free expression, respect for the rights of minorities and a constant struggle to preserve the principle of separation of powers, as well.”

Israel’s supporters abroad tend to ignore the inside-baseball maneuverings of Knesset lawmakers, but they shouldn’t. Bills like these strike at the core of what the vast majority of American Jews care about when they support Israel. 

The vicious video is stark evidence that there is another Israel, in which democracy is under siege, in which every part of the phrase “the people’s army in a democratic Jewish state” is a target of contempt. Israel’s external enemies, from Iran to ISIS to BDS, pose a serious threat, yes. But nothing like this.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.