The last time I have had to punch someone in the face, I was an IDF officer and I hit one of my soldiers.
When the first intifada erupted in December 1987, it took the country and the IDF totally by surprise. Overnight, the rules of the game changed, and the IDF struggled to find new methods and creative tools to deal with the Palestinian uprising, which at the time truly was grassroots.
We, an armored battalion of Central Army Command, were sent to the Ramallah area for a week that turned into three long months. We were forced to make decisions under physical and mental pressure, while dealing with confusing commands and trying to maintain our values in the face of reality. For example, when then-Defense Minister Yitzchak Rabin said “break their bones” and gave soldiers wooden clubs, he intended giving the soldiers a non-lethal method of reacting to attacks. But we commanders, only in our early 20s, had to lead frustrated, tired and sometimes vengeful soldiers, who took the Minister’s instructions literally.
War is hell, anywhere in the world. Although it can bring out the best in people – courage, responsibility, comradeship – it can also bring out the worst.
It was “just another day in 1987”; disturbances had been reported and we were sent to stop the rioters. Those who were in their 20s all disappeared into hiding places in the hills around the villages, leaving behind some teenagers whom we arrested. Although nowadays we see hate-filled Palestinian teenagers stab Jews with knives and scissors, back then they were primarily the supportive crowd.
Approaching the spot where several teenagers were lying face down on the ground, hands cuffed behind their backs, I could hear shouting. As I got closer I saw one of my soldiers – normally a regular guy and dedicated soldier – in a complete frenzy, viciously kicking the captured youths who were already lying on the ground.
“Stop! Stop kicking!” I yelled as I ran up to him, but he didn’t stop. When I got within arm’s reach I realized he was too frenzied for words to reach him. I grabbed his shoulder, turned him around and hit him in the face. The soldier seemed to awaken from a nightmare, shook himself, moved away from the teenagers and began yelling at me: “What’s wrong with you, you Arab-lover?!”
Today we are witnessing the “knife intifada.” The incident of “the soldier who shot” has been examined from just about every possible angle. Briefly: A few minutes after two terrorists who tried to stab IDF soldiers in Hebron were neutralized, another soldier arrived and, without warning, shot one of the stabbers in the head. A video of the incident was posted by B’tselem and ignited a national debate. Was the soldier a war criminal? An undisciplined, irresponsible soldier who disobeyed open fire rules? Or a hero who reacted to signs of life in the injured terrorist and saved his comrades by “confirming the kill” (a universal military concept for taking vital steps to ensure the enemy is eliminated and cannot injure our forces).
Yet of the thousands of comments, arguments and opinions, my attention was most drawn to a Facebook cartoon showing the Biblical story of David and Goliath. The young shepherd’s sword is raised to cut off the head of his gigantic enemy, who is lying prone after being felled by David’s slingshot. The caption: “David beheaded Goliath while he was neutralized. Anyone got a problem with that?”
The comparison of the young shepherd, armed with only a slingshot, to the fully armed IDF soldier who shot the injured terrorist on the ground, is problematic – even outrageous – and illustrates an important message.
What is that message?
Simply this: We must recognize that the People of Israel are no longer the young David.
Jewish history since Abraham, shows two relatively short periods when we were master of our own fate within our own borders: the Kingdoms of David and Solomon, and our State of Israel.
So Jews are more accustomed to seeing ourselves as a people in exile, persecuted, few against many. We can even see this in Israel’s anthem (“our eyes turn to Zion”). But wait! We may be surrounded by enemies who “rise up to destroy us,” but we are also celebrating already 68 years of Israel’s existence. We are no longer the young boy armed with only a slingshot!
Thus, we must understand one of the most important challenges that the Jewish people in Israel face: internalizing that we are a free people in our own land. Yes, surrounded by enemies, but sovereign.
We have just celebrated the Festival of Freedom. Freedom is not free, and one of the prices is ethical values. What was permitted to the young David does not befit a soldier in the army of the independent, sovereign State of Israel.
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College. Sagi serves as President of the Harvard Club of Israel. He is the author of “Son of My Land” and can be contacted at: email@example.com.
This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.