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I will not turn the other cheek

He'll go to the mat for Israel's judges, but he won't hand over his sons to defend a nation that doesn't deserve it
Elor Azaria hugging his mother and father in Jaffa military court on July 5, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 2)
Elor Azaria hugging his mother and father in Jaffa military court on July 5, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 2)

This is hard for me to say. Not because I have a problem with politically unpalatable commentary, but because I dislike the pretentious screaming fits of the chattering classes. A nation’s life, its real life, its culture and anxieties and loves, is lived outside the bounds of the echoing egotism we sometimes call the “public debate.” The right screams about betrayal and a national loss of nerves — then forgets its fits of anxiety when the mettle of this nation is proven yet again in the next inevitable crisis. The left howls about the death of democracy and kindness, but in each new crisis, each new death of our democratic life, we discover its cat-like qualities; it has a few lives left yet.

These voices, the loudest and shallowest of our countrymen, are all one hears beyond our borders, and so this prattle is all we hear echoed back at us from so many cohorts of well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) foreigners.

And yet, here we stand, as strong as ever, as happy, flawed, resilient as ever. We the people are ordinary people. We spend our days worrying about our kids’ homework, not about the collapse of national solidarity or civic democracy. We have wisely outsourced that sort of thing to the chatterers.

And yet.

Many hundreds of Israelis took to Facebook over the past two days to wish bodily harm to the three judges who convicted Elor Azaria of manslaughter.

The facts of the case are deafeningly irrelevant. This 19-year-old sergeant who shot a fallen Palestinian stabber in the head out of anger — he’s the least important part of this story.

Is he “everyone’s son,” as the press releases from his supporters keep insisting? Should I tell my own sons, who, like their father and grandfather before them, will one day feel the cold, jagged butt of an assault rifle against their shoulders as they take aim at our enemies; should I tell them that the meaning of their long, shivering nights of desert training, of the violence we ask them to inflict in our names, that this abuse we commit, this egomaniacal demand that they hand into the nation’s keeping so very much of their beautiful innocence in order to forge the defensive line behind which other children may remain innocent; that this gift they are giving us (and may, unfathomably, end up giving, impossibly, more) — is being given to a people that deserves it, a people that knows what gratitude is, that does not confuse a petty act of vindictive murder for this heroic thing that we — you, you thankless nation — will be asking of them…?

These are hard words to write, even harder to write clearly.

My sons are my sons. No one else is my son. I have bled and sweated for my people, handed over years of my youth to its defense and more than half of whatever meager riches I have earned by ceaseless work to its coffers. But now I am a father. Now this nation asks from me something vastly larger than anything I gave before.

When I give over my sons to defend you, my people, you will owe me this one overpowering debt: you must deserve it.

The ordinary Israeli, unfamiliar with the conceits of the chattering classes, would at this point ask: What could it possibly mean to say that a nation might “deserve” something? Excellent question, ordinary Israeli, as always. Maybe this is one of those times where you can’t actually have a thing, but you can lose it. A nation cannot “deserve,” but it can make itself undeserving.

Those Israelis who think loyalty is more important than justice will, in the end, have neither. Those who think judges should be cowed and abused until they cannot discern justice from injustice threaten us in those quiet, subtle ways, those real ways that the chatterers only notice when it’s already long obvious to the cab drivers.

My father at 19 stood on the defensive line on the Golan Heights, as it shattered before the Syrian onslaught. I at 19 sat shivering in nighttime ambushes in the West Bank watching the dark valleys through which suicide bombers were then wending their way into our cities to spray their shrapnel into our children.

I don’t like taking stands. I prefer the sympathy and sincerity of an unencumbered mind to the half-blind professions of grand devotion that are all the rage nowadays. But here I take this stand, paltry though it is.

Go ahead, my fellow countrymen, whom I love and know and defend to all those anxious foreigners who try to reduce you to the size and shape of their moral anxieties, go ahead and start this war against our judges.

I say here, today and always, I, for one, will stand with our judges, beside them and before them. I won’t bother with the caveats: it doesn’t matter one whit whether I have ever critiqued the court or agree with yesterday’s verdict. I won’t pander to your brutality by leaning on the very distinctions against which you are rebelling, and on which justice, since the days of Moses, depends. No, you don’t deserve the dignity of care and caveat. There is only one thing I have to say to you after these two days of threats and abuse: raise a hand to our judges, to their sacred trust, and I vow, as I once vowed at the Kotel on a Bible and a rifle to defend you, that your hand will strike me first. We are not Christians, my friends. I will strike back.

There. I stood grandly. That fellow Israelis forced me to this embarrassment is a crime all its own.

I will not hand down to my sons, when the time comes for them to gather up their childhood and march out of my home into the cruelties of the world, a nation that cannot distinguish between them and the petty criminals that sometimes arise in their midst — a nation that does not deserve them.

Go ahead and strike, my fellow countrymen. Do it soon, because if you continue with this unrealized rhetoric for too long, you run the very real risk, in your blind rage, of accidentally joining the chattering class. If we must play out this campy melodrama you are forcing upon us all, if we must settle this question in a way that will definitively cure you of your confusion about our national character, let’s at least be Israeli about it. Let’s get it over with quickly.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.
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