Some issues are harder to write about than others.
Some touches of the keyboard are preceded by doubt and confliction, juggling the impulses of the heart alongside the knowledge of the mind. Nothing sums up this battle more than the sorrowful saga of the Israeli soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria, and as I follow the news of the verdict in his case, I gather that little resolution or healing will come of it. Azaria has come to be a symbol of whatever either side of this argument thinks is right, and that is a form of emotional argumentation that is perhaps understandable but potentially harmful to the fabric of the Israeli nation.
Three judges convicted Azaria of manslaughter for shooting Palestinian terrorist Abdel-Fattah al-Sharif in the head, 15 minutes after al-Sharif had already been incapacitated after he had attempted to kill a soldier in the town of Hebron. There was video of the event used as evidence in the highly publicized case — and despite several attempts by politicians on all sides to influence the case or use it to further their own careers — the 97-page verdict shows that the proceedings were surprisingly straightforward. The aftermath, however, proved to be anything but.
The judges presiding over the case have had their lives threatened, and similar threats have been made at IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. This comes as many, particularly on the right, are calling for Azaria to be pardoned. The reasons for this are that he is “the nation’s son,” “a child,” and that his actions are understandable given the enormous pressures he was under. Saying otherwise is now referred to as “breaking ranks,” and I guess that is what I am about to do. As a right-winger and a Diaspora Jew, I will surely travel well beyond my purview.
The men and women who serve Israel and ensure its defense are not children. They are somebody’s child but they are not children, and saying they are infantilizes them individually and undermines their heroic efforts collectively. Furthermore, the IDF, like any army, is dependent on the chain of command, and breaching it endangers the entire army, including many parents’ children. Pardoning one soldier sends a very mixed and confused message to all those who serve alongside him. However understandable Azaria’s actions were on a human level, we ask the superhuman of our IDF soldiers, and in an overwhelming majority of cases, they live up to that steep expectation.
If we pardon Azaria, a soldier who broke the chain of command and acted of his own volition, what does that then say about all those who go against their own hearts and wishes while following orders to evict Jewish residents from illegal outposts, hold fire when feeling both fear and threat or go into the lion’s den when every bone in their body tells them to retreat? The soldiers of the IDF do the impossible and unthinkable time and time again, and despite the horrors presented by their enemies, they remain the world’s most ethical army — or is it perhaps because of this very fact?
I learn Torah weekly with a study partner, and the lessons we learn leak into events throughout the following seven days. Last week, as I saw the reactions to the verdict, I recalled the conversation we had about the massacre of Shechem, in which Simeon and Levi avenged the rape of their sister Dinah by killing all the newly circumcised men and looting the city. I instinctively sided with the brothers against their father, Jacob. Jacob’s level-headedness angered me, knowing full well how I would react if, God forbid, something of that caliber happened to a child of mine. But my study partner quite rightly pointed out the burden of leadership and the importance of not making strategic decisions based on impulse or emotion. The pain Jacob felt must have been doubled by the fact that he was forced by his role as leader to keep his emotions in check.
The IDF is lucky I am not in charge, for I would have rushed into Shechem on heart and anger. And I am lucky that others are willing to hang that heavy crown on their heads, facing many awful choices. Our enemies care little for honor, regulations, or accountability, but we are not like them; we couldn’t be if we tried. We Jews are defended by the most accused and least guilty army, and there is great pride in being able to speak those words, perhaps not knowing but sensing the sacrifices that they entail. I feel for Azaria and I cannot say I would act differently in his shoes or even that I, on an emotional level, condemn him. But I also see his place in a larger entity, and we cannot act out of compassion in one case if it endangers the welfare of all others.
Many have said that the IDF is betraying Azaria by charging and convicting him and that parents no longer can be expected to give their children to this potentially life-threatening service if the IDF does not have their backs. But the IDF does, by honoring the code under which they serve, and we owe it to the IDF to honor them right back. This is not a left- or right-wing issue; it is a matter of trust in the eye of the storm and faith when the heart fails us. That is what we ask of the soldiers, and we should ask it of ourselves, to trust the leadership and the code, knowing it is there to protect us from human emotion, no matter how hard that may be.