One morning, as I woke up from unsettling dreams, I found myself transformed in my bed into a monstrous vermin: I found myself agreeing with Gideon Levy.
Levy, to those who seek sweet refuge in ignorance, is the Haaretz columnist who, being the Savonarola of self-hating Jews, has made a mint peddling an increasingly sordid—and fantastical—account of Israel’s alleged crimes to the regressive left around the world. Formerly a good journalist, Levy proved to be an even better businessman: Complex analyses of the conflict, he realized, sold for pennies on the dollar in Paris and Cambridge and Rome, but thundering accounts of Jewish perfidy paid a premium. What followed were fawning profiles in Le Monde and Der Spiegel, human rights awards in Leipzig and Stockholm, even a stint on an Israeli reality show. As the sensationalists embraced Levy, serious readers shuffled off in search of more nutritional stuff.
And yet even a blind squirrel sometimes stumbles on a nut: In his column this week, Levy was right on the money, although for all the wrong reasons. It’s worth reading, if you can brave the bluster and the topsy-turvy morality, if only because it sharply addresses one of the more pertinent public discussions Israeli society has had in years.
It involves Major General Yair Golan, the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Speaking last week at a ceremony commemorating Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, Golan blisteringly compared contemporary Israel to Germany in the 1930s. “If there’s something that terrifies me about the memory of the Holocaust,” he said, “it’s seeing the same sickening processes that took place all over Europe, but especially in Germany, 70, 80, 90 years ago happening here, in our midst, today in 2016.”
Golan’s speech provoked all the reactions that followers of Israeli politics would expect. The right, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, admonished the general, the left praised him and crowned him a prophet of peace, and the officer’s mother adorably sprang to the defense of her decorated child. It was mostly noise, but Levy, surprisingly, made the only point worth making: If Golan truly feels this way, he has the power, not to mention the obligation, to effect real and immediate change.
A general who believes the Hitlerization of his nation is imminent, Levy correctly argued, has at his disposal an entire armory of options. Being at the very top of a stringently hierarchical organization, he’s at liberty to change policy. Take, for instance, the practice known as nohal shachen, Hebrew for “neighborly procedure.” This IDF tactic was used in cases where an armed Palestinian terrorist was hiding inside a house. Israeli soldiers would urge Palestinian neighbors or relatives of the terrorist to knock on the door and convince him to come out and give himself up. In 2005, Israel’s Supreme Court found the practice illegal, arguing that it amounted to using Palestinian civilians as human shields. The IDF argued that the tactic was a necessary and effective tool that minimized risks to its soldiers and very seldom led to any injury to civilians, but the justices were unmoved. Two years later, the commander of the IDF’s forces in the West Bank, a young and promising brigadier general, was disciplined and had a promotion denied after he admitted to using the tactic despite the court’s ruling. His name was Yair Golan.
Maybe the general has had a change of heart. Maybe he came to see the error of his warlike ways. But it’s also instructive to recall what he said during his 2007 interrogation. He employed the banned tactic, he argued, because there was no better way to keep soldiers and civilians alike out of harm’s way.
Thankfully, throughout his career, Golan continued to act like a commander even as he spoke like a Haaretz columnist. He could’ve done away with roadblocks. He could’ve torn down the security fence. Or, if his attempts at reform failed, he could’ve resigned and preached about the dangers of creeping Fascism. Instead, he fought by any means necessary, and then, enjoying the privilege of living in a robust democracy, made a shockingly irresponsible and vile statement, a khaki-clad version of virtue signaling, endearing himself to liberals everywhere at no real cost to himself.
To Gideon Levy, that’s cause for stripping Golan of his liberal bona fides. But a better argument could be made that the general’s statement is reason enough to kick him out of the army, or, at the very least, insist that he and other uniformed officers kindly refrain from making incendiary political statements, a minimal courtesy tightly enforced by virtually every other free nation on earth. If there’s any real threat to democracy, in Israel or elsewhere, it is likely to occur when career soldiers begin to see it as their duty to pontificate on matters of state.
It’s a testament to the expansive boundaries of Israeli civic discourse that the country’s number two soldier would feel sufficiently at ease to talk politics without giving much thought to the consequences. But if Israel is truly to defend itself against a slide into unreason, it must enforce a simple rule: if you’re a senior officer and you fear your nation is descending into benighted times, use your power to make change; if you feel you can’t, quit; and if you don’t, have the basic decency to shut the hell up.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.