I was given my first pistol at age eleven. Growing up in the heart of the rust belt, I was fed a steady diet of equal parts hot dish and “for every Jew a .22” ideology. I was in high school by the time I realized that this flag was not the Israeli flag. My father was (and is still) convinced that if European Jews had met each Nazi at their front doors with guns blazing, WWII would have looked decidedly different. Even today, I’m a better shot than my IDF-trained tank commander husband.
Needless to say, I was raised a right winger. Militantly so. Upon my relocation to Israel in 2004, however, I began to learn that it’s exponentially easier to maintain a steadfast carpet-bombing philosophy when you’re an ocean away. Black and white began morphing into increasingly muddled shades of grey. I sat next to Palestinian women at our local park, sharing snacks while our children played together. We compared prices of canned corn side by side at the supermarket, placating identically demanding cart-bound toddlers with promises of shoco in our respective languages. I felt a growing inner conflict – I was raised to see these people as my enemies. We are, in fact, at war.
As anyone in the trenches of child-rearing knows, however, there is little available energy to contemplate world issues as all focus must be dedicated to tantrums, dinner, and sanity preservation. I successfully pushed my inner struggle to that ever-expanding place in the back of my brain reserved for “later”.
Last week, I was forced to extract that issue from its mental storage box and take a critical look at it. I attended a lecture on Israeli military ethics given by Bentzi Gruber, who is not only a Colonel in the IDF but a PhD in behavioral science, successful hi-tech entrepreneur, and religious Zionist: a pedigree that I was unable to minimize or summarily dismiss as left wing. I needed to sit up and listen.
And listen I did.
I was not the intended audience of this address – Bentzi isn’t in PR. And he asked to be addressed as Bentzi. Not Dr. Gruber, not Colonel Gruber. Just Bentzi.
He was speaking to a group of 50 IDF officers – young, impressionable 23 year olds in training for battle, who eyed me, my American accent and my Mac suspiciously. Quietly authoritative and approachable, Bentzi made it immediately clear that he was not dispensing his opinion. This was direction that came from the Chiefs of Staff, and his role was to disseminate the directive, as he has done for countless officers before, in hope that the weight, importance and severity of the message infiltrates.
Bentzi spoke about humanity. About the value of life. Not just Israeli lives. Not just soldiers’ lives.
Lives of those we often categorize as “collateral damage”.
And what battle soldiers need to do, are required to do, to prevent any loss of life. This moral code – these ethics we live by as an army, said Bentzi – is the only way we can preserve our own humanity, and that needs to be our goal. Whenever there is a drop of doubt about whether or not to use force, he insisted, there is no doubt. The answer is no.
Initially, the eyes of the soldiers narrowed incredulously, as did mine. We gazed at Bentzi with cocked brows, wanting to wave him away – to explain to this bloody-do-gooder that this is war. We need to do whatever we can to be triumphant.
Clearly not Bentzi’s inaugural address of this sort, he graciously tipped his hat to the air of skepticism in the room. Bentzi went on to walk us through the tactical rules of engagement; when a soldier can use force and when he must refrain. He spoke elegantly about the meaning of collateral damage, assigning tangible value to the lives of those standing next to a terrorist. He outlined for us that while there are indeed 35,000 terrorists with whom we are at war, there are also 1.8 million Palestinian civilians with whom we are not at war.
Deftly navigating between authority and compassion, Bentzi gave us a litany of real-world, battle based examples. A soldier has 8 seconds, Bentzi testified, to make a life-changing decision. These 8 seconds will secure or extinguish not only the future of the man in his rifle sights, but his own future as well. His future of humanity, of sensitivity and empathy – as a man, as a father, a son, a human with the ability to recognize and value other human life.
When a terrorist grabs a child and holds him to the chest as a shield, the Israeli sniper is not to fire. The writhing, frightened child he holds has value. He selects a child because he knows the IDF’s code of ethics better than most of the world does. He knows we won’t be shot. He’s right.
Bentzi asserts that while the greater world will never recognize the IDF’s code of ethics, we don’t practice it for their benefit, so world opinion is not of our concern. Yes, our priorities include keeping our nation safe – we are trained as soldiers and we must protect Israel. But we cannot demote ourselves to savagery, as once we compartmentalize human life into “valuable” and “insignificant” we cease to be a nation worth protecting.
My upbringing punched me in the face and I left the lecture dazed and introspective. Once I recognize the enemy as individuals, it’s considerably harder to arbitrarily expel them. Can I maintain my right wing perspective while simultaneously assigning value to individual Palestinian lives? Isn’t all fair in love and war?
In the days following the lecture, I have forced myself to reexamine my position. As a secular Jewish Zionist, I have always been in a unique camp. How many expats vote Chardal yet spend TishaB’Av at the beach? A rarity in Israel, Bentzi’s discussion transcended politics. Instead, he spoke the language of Humanity, which begets the question – can I simultaneously be a humanitarian and a right winger?
A mother tongue English speaker, I’m comfortable in Hebrew….but perhaps I’m not fluent in Humanity.