Israel’s Slippery Moral Slope

Jerusalem—Following my last military reserve duty, I was kicked out of my unit, the educational corps of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

There was a surrealistic dimension to the whole experience. I had driven a few hours to a base located near the Egyptian border after having been asked to lecture about “leadership” to 60 soldiers from the Givati infantry brigade who were about to begin an officers’ training course. These young men are the military’s future commanders, its elite.

I decided to concentrate, in the lecture’s first part, on the relationship between leadership and moral virtue, examining the characteristics distinguishing leaders such as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot from others like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. In the discussion that followed, the soldiers concluded that all of the leaders mentioned possessed charisma, intelligence and rhetorical skills, but only the latter three were guided by universal moral values—the equality of all people.

The second part of the presentation focused on leadership within the IDF. My main contention was that so long as the occupation of Palestinian territories continues, the Israeli military will not produce worthy leaders. The argument was mainly structural: that within the context of the occupation, even the most humane officers would find themselves trampling human dignity. To substantiate my claim I offered several examples in which IDF soldiers committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip, an area well known to my audience.

Following the lecture, the soldiers contested my analysis concerning IDF leadership. First, they argued that the IDF’s primary objective is to protect Israeli citizens, and therefore must, at times, violate human rights and international law. “To save lives in Tel-Aviv, I have to detain Palestinians at a checkpoint,” one soldier exclaimed, adding, “If, for example, in the process an infant dies because of delayed access to a hospital, then so be it.” When I asked if the same rationale applied to two, three or more babies, he replied in the affirmative, without batting an eye.

The soldiers then went on to claim that the “IDF is the most moral army in the world.” While several thought this to be axiomatic, others felt it necessary to offer evidence. “Several months ago we entered a refugee camp to apprehend a ‘wanted’ Palestinian,” one said. “We could have ordered a helicopter to bomb the house where the suspect was hiding, but we decided that the platoon would enter the camp despite possible risk to our soldiers; we did not want to harm innocent people.”

Other soldiers also presented examples to show how on numerous occasions the IDF could have employed more brutal means, but refrained from doing so to minimize the number of innocent Palestinian casualties.

While these two arguments are powerful, both suffer from a common fallacy of moral relativism. Regarding the logic underlying the first claim—the hypothetical death of the child at the checkpoint—Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt once said that when the end justifies the means, then everything is permitted.

And indeed, during the past two years we have seen the dangerous and devastating implications of a moral position that lacks an anchor. It began with the unremitting curfews, followed by reports of babies dying at checkpoints and snipers shooting children. This was just the beginning; the military continued its moral slide as soldiers demolished homes with their residents still inside, and Israeli pilots bombed populated buildings located in town centers.

The soldiers’ second claim suffers from a similar error of moral relativism.

Because there is no limit to human cruelty, it will always be possible to argue that the IDF could have behaved more brutally in a given situation. The soldier who detained a sick woman for seven hours at the checkpoint could have beaten her and prevented her from passing through at all; yet this in no way justifies a seven-hour delay. The pilot who dropped a one-ton bomb on populated houses, killing nine children, could have destroyed an entire neighborhood; but the “mercy” he showed does not in any way make his act moral.

The chain of events since the outbreak of the second intifada suggests that the IDF has employed more and more force against a primarily civilian population, and that every action is justified by comparing it to more brutal actions the IDF could, theoretically, have carried out.

In the absence of a universal moral approach—whereby there are things that one simply does not do—one is left with a tribal or relativistic worldview. Here the right to human dignity is contingent on national, ethnic or religious affiliation.

Because the IDF has rejected the notion that human beings are created equal, every young commander who follows its codes will inevitably slide down the slippery moral slope. As the soldiers themselves seemed to understand at the outset of the lecture, universal moral values are what distinguish corrupt from worthy leaders—an axiom that must be applied to the IDF, too.

Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University and is a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press).