Two dozen high ranking officers from a wide range of IDF units sat around the table, brought together for an educational seminar. I’d been invited to speak about Zionism and its contemporary challenges. But almost immediately we got into a passionate discussion about Yair Golan, the IDF’s deputy chief of staff, who in a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day a few days before had warned that there are “signs” in Israeli society of “revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then.”
I began by acknowledging that there are indeed horrifying trends on the fringes of Israeli society – and an indifference in parts of mainstream Israeli society toward those dangers. There were vigorous nods around the table.
One of the officers noted that Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – is an appropriate time for the Jewish people to take stock of itself. Enough seeing ourselves as victims, he said.
I agreed. We call it “Remembrance Day” and not “Memorial Day,” implicitly turning trauma into memory, mourning into reflection. And we need to reflect on the two anxieties that preoccupy us today as a people. The first, I said, concerns the external threat facing Israel – Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas, all the dangers that are the business of all of you around this table. The second anxiety is internal – the threats to Israeli democracy, including our rule over another people and the growing intolerance and anti-democratic sentiments among young Israelis.
Had I said those words to certain right-wing American Jewish audiences, I would have gotten angry responses. But here, among the defenders of Israel – some of them wearing the knitted kippot of religious Zionism – there wasn’t a murmur of disagreement.
Yom Hashoah, I affirmed, is precisely the time to deal with the lessons of the Holocaust. And if it’s legitimate to speak on that day about the Iranian threat, then it is also legitimate to speak about the self-inflicted threats to Jewish and democratic values.
The question, though, is how. We cannot deal with one threat in a way that undermines our ability to deal with another threat. And that, I argued, is precisely what Golan did. In opening the door to a comparison of Israel with Nazi Germany – in any way – Golan inadvertently but substantially boosted the campaign to demonize the Jewish state, to turn us into the new Nazis.
But he didn’t say that, protested one of the officers.
Yes, but a wise man understands the consequences of his words, I replied.
Yair Golan is one of the IDF’s most thoughtful and intelligent and courageous leaders, he countered.
I appreciate the affirmation, I said. It’s important that, when we disagree, we acknowledge each other’s shared commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.
But Golan, I continued, failed to understand – as any IDF officer must – that today’s mission isn’t only to defend Israel’s borders but Israel’s good name. Golan wasn’t only speaking to an internal audience but also to the world. There is no such thing any longer as an internal Israeli or Jewish conversation; our enemies are listening and amplifying.
That doesn’t mean we should suppress honest, even harsh self-critique. The opposite: To do so would bring us closer to becoming the caricature with which our enemies portray us. But the existence of a growing international movement to criminalize the Jewish state means that we need to express our critiques mindful of what we’re up against. And how much more so if you are the IDF deputy chief of staff. Anti-Israel web sites around the world are using Golan’s speech as proof that we are indeed the new Nazis. We will, I fear, be living with the consequences of his reckless words for a long time to come.
One officer agreed with me. But another vehemently disagreed. This will only help Israel’s image, he countered. The world will see that we are capable of self-reflection.
Yes, but why Nazi Germany? If Golan wanted to compare us to Germany, then let him invoke today’s Germany, where refugee hostels are set on fire and thousands of anti-Muslim demonstrators chant racist slogans. Compare us to France, where Le Pen may win the next election, or Belgium and Sweden and Englandת with their rising nativist parties. Or for that matter, America 2016.
And finally: Golan failed as an educator even toward his intended Israeli audience. Any educator – and that is the role he assumed – must avoid turning himself, rather than his subject, into the substance of the message. But that’s what happened. Now, instead of debating the moral state of the nation, we are debating the wisdom and patriotism of Yair Golan. Instead of encouraging self-reflection, he has provoked self-righteousness. Those on the left who needed no persuasion loudly defend his courage. And those on the right who needed to hear his warning loudly denounce his offensiveness.
He could have chosen his words more carefully, conceded the man who had spoken about Golan’s integrity.
Every Israeli who has served in the army knows how flawed the institution known as the IDF can be. I have little use for the claim some Israelis insist on making that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world.” That seems to me merely the reverse of the accusation that the IDF is a monstrous army. The IDF, like Israeli society, is deeply human – sometimes more humane, sometimes less so. Since our creation as a state, we’ve been confronting pressures and threats that would have long since broken other societies.
In large part, that resilience comes precisely from the kind of open, even agonizing conversation that occurred with those officers, and which the IDF takes for granted as part of its culture, its mandate.
Like Golan, I worry about the cracks in Israel’s democratic being. But as we enter Remembrance Day for the IDF’s fallen, followed immediately by Independence Day, I will recall the remarkable persistence of our Jewish and democratic spirit. And in a way I didn’t anticipate, I will owe that moment to Yair Golan.