Judging Israel in a broken world

We live in a world whose state may be described as being broken.  Broken by the continuous violence perpetrated by mankind since the beginning of recorded history. Violence perpetrated by man against man, and by man against the earth itself and its living beings. In a world in which too many actors choose to play by the rule of might makes right and the power of the sword, all mankind is forced to play by these same rules. The consequence for refusing to do so leads inevitably to vanquishment. Unfortunately, for the sake of survival in this world we are forced to engage the tool of violence.

Today, the ever more prevalent Western mindset fails to make the moral distinction between the ends to which violence is implemented, and instead vilifies violence as an absolute evil. Yet, in our broken world, sometimes the refusal or lack of resolve to implement violence itself constitutes a moral failure.

Both survival and morality places before those seeking the path of civility the unenviable task of maintaining to the best of our ability a delicate balance — the use of force at the right moments and in the correct proportions. Inevitably, this is a messy, abhorrent game, and moral lines are inevitably crossed.

Israel today would be accurately categorized as an actor in the world which has always sought and continues to seek the path of civility. But the state of the world, and specifically the region in which it is situated, has given Israel no choice but to engage in measured violence in order to safeguard the life of its citizens and their right to inhabit the land.

It is therefore the CONTEXT in which violence is implemented that provides us with the tools to judge and determine the morality or lack thereof of the resort to force.

Context is crucial to accurately and fairly judge Israel’s actions. Without context a simplified assessment of what takes place on the ground today understandably leads people to sympathize with the Palestinians. You witness the socioeconomic gap, the separation barrier, the checkpoints, the military control over the majority of the West Bank, the nightly military operations inside Palestinian controlled territory and subsequent arrests. On its face, without context, one can understand the conclusion arrived at by so many that in the face of such an oppressive reality Palestinian hatred and terrorism is at the very least understandable, if not justifiable.

Many civil minded people fall victim to this lack of context, and unfortunately, this includes many civil minded Jews. It is precisely this civil minded tendency among many Jews, including Israeli Jews, that leads to moral confusion and disproportionate and misplaced self-criticism.

As an immigrant who made Aliyah to Israel at the age of 34, I had the very unusual privilege of serving in the Golani Brigade from the age of 36 to 38 as a combat soldier. I use the word privilege both in the sense of taking part in the defense of my country Israel, as well as gaining insight and experience impossible to obtain through other means.

As a soldier I recall my first encounter with the Palestinian population in the territories. It was the olive harvesting season. Throughout the West Bank there are olive orchards owned by Palestinians which abut Jewish communities. When the Arabs come to pick the olives in these sensitive locations a modest military presence is required. This in order to form a buffer to prevent clashes between the two sides, but also to protect the Jewish residents from the potential of a terrorist using the guise of olive picking as a way to perpetrate an act of terror.

A fellow soldier and I descended into the olive orchid we were assigned to patrol. We approached a group of olive pickers — young and old Palestinian men and women. My fellow soldier lived in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, a place known for having endured a proportionately high number of terrorist attacks, including the infiltration of homes leading to nuclear families being virtually wiped out in a single incident in the most brutal and bestial of ways.

My fellow soldier took it upon himself to request the olive pickers present identity documents. All the documents were in order with the exception of those belonging to an old hapless looking Palestinian man. My fellow soldier questioned him and called in the details to central command for the purpose of clarifying the background of this man.

I stood there, my weapon in hand, observing the poorly dressed olive pickers wearing faces ranging from fear to hate fueled frustration as their father or grandfather temporarily became a potential suspect. It was (and is) such an unnatural role for me to play and my nature caused me to feel ugly pangs of conscience and moral uncomfortability. This very mundane and in relative terms very mild situation threw me into emotional turmoil. I hated doing what I was doing. After about 15 minutes the hapless old man was cleared as not being a security threat and we moved on.

This is where context was crucial in tempering my emotional reaction and putting things in their proper proportion. There was a legitimate reason why we were required to patrol this area, and certainly, especially in the eyes of my fellow soldier, there was legitimate reason to vet the olive pickers.

Later as my military service progressed, I took part in operations which required us to enter Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, whether because of a suspect thought to be present there or as a means to protect our forces from being vulnerable to enemy fire. The family members would be grouped into a specific room in the house determined to be safe from enemy fire and kept under guard. Needless to say, this was always a terrible experience for the men, women and especially the children whose home was taken over by dirty, sweaty heavily armed young soldiers in the middle of the night.

These experiences could have caused me to go the way of those who allow this reality to cloud their judgment and, overcome by emotion, lose sight of why we do what we do. But awareness of context helped me to put things in their proper perspective. This was not the wanton, hatred driven brutality exhibited by our enemies, and behind all our actions was the intention of pursuing security for our people. Of course errors in judgment are made along the way, but this is to be expected — there is no perfection.

I chose not to lay out in this article the facts, historic and current, which create the context which justify Israel’s use of measured force and control over the Palestinian population. These have been and are written about extensively, and perhaps I will devote a future piece to the subject.  I will nevertheless assert that as long as one believes in the right of the Jewish people to live in their ancestral homeland, the context is solidly in our favor.

Those civil minded people, and especially fellow Jews, who blast Israel and target it for disproportionate criticism, have lost sight of the context and have exchanged rational thought for emotionalism. In our broken world, Israel is by-and-large doing the best that it can, trying to find the moral balance in an inescapable reality that forces it to play by the rule of the sword.

About the Author
Ran Zev Schijanovich was born in Israel in 1970 to an Argentinian father and American mother, lived in Argentina through age 11, and then moved to New York. He made aliyah in 2005 and served as a combat soldier in Golani from the ages of 36 to 38. Ran is graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.