Here’s a confession: When I was 6, I drew a swastika in my notebook. I rushed home and showed it to my father. I was proud of my handiwork. The lines were straight, and the whole thing looked just like the symbol I had seen in the photographs my school’s librarian would glue to black sheets of cardboard every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day and hang up in the hallway for us to see. I hated those pictures because I didn’t understand them. I had no idea why all the kids portrayed were always so thin and so sad. But the symbol—the symbol was interesting. It ran on banners that draped beautiful cities. It hovered above the heads of people who were all smiling and doing a funny thing with their right arm. I was happy to have learned how to replicate it and thought my father would be, too.
He wasn’t. He turned white and asked me if I had any idea what the symbol meant. I said I didn’t. He asked me to tear the page out of my notebook and then sat me down for a conversation about the Holocaust that conveyed more actual information than anything I had been taught at school to that point. And oddly enough, the next time I saw a swastika, I didn’t find it particularly mysterious, or even menacing. Once shackled by context and reason, it was just a historical artifact to be filed away.
All of this, I realize, is not particularly evocative. It’s almost banal. Except, that is, for the top brass of the Israel Defense Forces’ officer training academy.
Last summer, the men in olive-colored uniforms who run Israel’s equivalent of West Point ejected an otherwise excellent cadet from the academy for the unpardonable offense of drawing a doodle of Adolf Hitler. The story came to light this week after it was reported by Haaretz columnist Uri Misgav, and it deserves attention for reasons that far transcend its own strange and Kafkaesque premise.
Behold, then, the tale of B., the grandson of Holocaust survivors and a highly motivated soldier in the Israeli navy. Like the cream of the army crop, B. made it to the academy, where he was good enough to be appointed as his squad’s peer leader for many weeks in a row. From the letter his fellow cadets delivered to their superiors, B. comes off as dedicated, passionate, and highly motivated.
He is also, sadly, artistically inclined. During tedious lectures—and please trust me that the academy offers more than a handful of those—he liked to doodle. Mainly, he liked to sketch out faces of famous men. Harry Potter and Moshe Dayan were favorites. So was David Ben-Gurion. And, one time, listening to what must have been a particularly bleak talk, B. drew the führer. A fellow cadet was moved by the gallery of history’s (and Hogwarts’) great men and asked B. for his doodles. B. handed them over, and his friend slid it under the see-through plastic cover of her three-ring binder, where it was soon discovered by an eagle-eyed commander. B. and his friend were summoned to appear before their commanding officer, and B., bewildered, said he saw nothing wrong with committing the likeness of people—even bad people, even very bad people—to paper. He and his friend were both reprimanded and booted out of the academy. When B., still motivated, appealed and asked to be permitted to apply to the academy again, he was denied by none other than the navy’s commander, who told him that his doodle had “brought shame on the navy.”
This might’ve been just another one of these maddening stories we all hear every so often. There are idiots everywhere, after all, even in excellent institutions. Folly is to be expected, corrected, and then forgotten. But not in this case: The story of B. tells us about a mindset that seems endemic among the army’s most senior officers and that must be addressed immediately and with little tolerance. Since I’m a former non-commissioned officer in the IDF myself, let me speak in a blunt way my fellow soldiers are likely to understand:
Recant. Now. Apologize to B. Say you understand that art isn’t a crime, that drawing Hitler doesn’t mean agreeing with Hitler or sympathizing with his views. Make sure the commander of the navy, the commander of the officer training academy, and every other bigwig involved with this disastrous decision know that only madmen and zealots attribute magical meanings to innocent illustrations. In fact, discipline them for lacking the sort of basic common sense that I—and pretty much every other well-balanced human being—displayed at 6, which is about the time in the development of the brain when you learn not to attribute inexplicable omnipotence to symbols and figures and idols. Failing that, issue a detailed list of individuals whose portraiture is itself an irredeemable offense, lest some future cadet sin by doodling Eichmann, say, or Ahmadinejad, or Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, which would be very confusing.
This is no joke. Israel faces very real existential threats, and among its key weapons in its struggle to survive and to thrive are not just high-tech missile defense systems but also the sort of moral and intellectual clarity that has made the IDF, with a few notable exceptions, a remarkably ethical army considering the circumstances under which it toils. The sort of blind and dumb fanaticism so many senior officers have displayed in the case of the cadet B. is mind-boggling. A calm, grown-up voice is sorely lacking here, and I can offer my father’s: Emotional after our talk, I was tearing up, so deeply ashamed that I had been so thrilled with having traced out a symbol that evoked my people’s darkest hour. Giving me an encouraging hug, my father said to me what the IDF brass must now hear: “Don’t worry. It’s only a stupid drawing.”
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.