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Born again peaceniks: How ex-IDF generals clean their conscience

For years they have served in high-ranking positions in the Israeli army, taking part in the most violent aspects of the occupation. Only once they leave do they suddenly discover that, perhaps, military rule isn’t such a great idea.

Yoav Galant (L), commander of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command, Gadi Shamni (C), general of the IDF Center Command and Moni Katz (R), the new commander of the Givati brigade attend of a ceremony of the changing of the Givati brigade. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

Yoav Galant (L), commander of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command, Gadi Shamni (C), general of the IDF Center Command and Moni Katz (R), the new commander of the Givati brigade attend of a ceremony of the changing of the Givati brigade. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

By now it has become a tired ritual: every once in a while a former high-ranking member of Israel’s defense establishment “wakes up” and discovers — to his and his supporters’ utter surprise — that over the past 50 years Israel has been maintaining a violent occupation over millions of people who lack basic rights. This week came Gen. Gadi Shamni’s turn to express remorse for his part in upholding the occupation, while getting his 15 minutes of fame. “We are the world champions of occupation,” he said at a glitzy conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, promoting himself to the rank of “occupation champion,” no less.

The Israeli political discourse loves these kinds of expressions — the kinds of scandals that supply ammunition to every side of the inter-Jewish political map: the Right will become enraged over the politicization of the security establishment and the need to uproot the subversive elements that prevent it from “getting the job done.” Meanwhile the Left will hug its new star, who uses his storied past to legitimize his current positions. The Palestinians will continue to look on at the Israelis who have, for the past 50 years, been astounded to discover — time and time again — that the occupation exists.

This ritual repeatedly raises the question of why these insights arrive a moment after the army uniform comes off — not before. Personally I tend to believe it stems from a place of utilitarianism: as long as they wear the uniform, they have a clear interest to not see or recognize the crimes they are complicit in. They reap very real benefits from this type of blind spot: promotions, ranks, salaries, status. The “moment of clarity” also has its benefits: symbolic capital, prestige, etc.

It is possible that there are less cynical psychological explanations for the phenomenon, but that question is less important at the moment. We must not focus on the processes — psychological or social — which create these security-oriented “born again” peaceniks, but rather on whether they put their money where their mouth is. Okay, we understood that the occupation is immoral and that the army is the body maintaining the occupation. Now what?

Have a ‘meaningful’ service

On paper, the obvious answer to this question should have been a call to refuse to serve in the army. After all, if the person who was part of the army’s top echelon declares, in retrospect, that he was part of the occupation, it should be obvious that this will also be the fate of every single soldier who enlists. If the army maintains the occupation, and if the occupation is immoral, what other conclusion can one come to other than to refuse to be part of the army, which at its core allows and perpetuates this situation?

It is astounding that all those who supported Shamni’s “brave words” have not come out in open support of conscientious objection. Some members of Knesset from the left-wing Meretz party, for instance, supported 19-year-old conscientious objector Tair Kaminer, and even tried to bring about her release. They, too, have refrained from openly calling for refusal, and Meretz does not take a position on the issue.

Having a “meaningful” service in the army continues to be a value worth upholding in the Zionist Left. But what is the meaning of a “meaningful” service in an army in which the higher you rise in the ranks, the more active your role is in the occupation? To enlist yet not excel inside the system? After all, even ordinary soldiers are complicit in maintaining the occupation and its crimes, as we can see from the trial of Elor Azaria, who shot and killed an immobilized Palestinian on a street in Hebron earlier this year. Should they excel and serve as a different model for military leadership? Gadi Shamni will be the first to admit that the army implements a policy determined by the government. So how can one translate his insights into practice without openly calling for refusal?

Last Thursday, on the first day of the new school year, the Council for Humanitarian Education sent out a letter detailing students’ educational rights. One of those rights was the “right to become convinced of the IDF’s morality in the run-up to mandatory service.” Despite the grotesque wording, one can assume that the intentions of the authors were positive: to grant the teachers and students the legitimacy to discuss the army’s morality.

This is a noble intention, but the authors of the letter, as well as Shamni’s supporters, have to honestly answer the following question: what happens if the students are not convinced of the army’s morality? Would this be a legitimate stance to take? If an ex-general, who spent much of his adult life in this organization, could not be convinced of its morality, are high school seniors who are about to enlist expected to do so? If so, are they not worthy of support among their close circles — from their schools to the political leadership — for their decision not to take part in this immoral organization, instead of looking back and lamenting the crimes they were forced to commit?

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    1. Bernie X

      Easy for you to judge, Orly. Since your hands are clean, so is your conscience.

      Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      I have to agree with much of what you say here. Shamni is certainly a hypocrite.
      The fact of the matter is that virtually all generals who go into politics end up on the Left. Sharon bounced back and forth between Right and Left for decades, but ended up on Left. Ya’alon started out on the Left, went quite far to the Right (he even tried to ally himself with Moshe Feiglin) but is not sliding back to his roots on the Left.
      The question is “why is this”. Naive people will say “it is because of their experiences in the West Bank”, but that doesn’t make any sense today, 50 years after Israel came into control of the West Bank. A commander today who gets command of the region today certainly knows all the political arguments. Thus, it is logical that they keep quiet in order to further their careers. The bottom line is that virtually all high ranking generals come out of the “elite secular Left” and that is where they feel most comfortable. For someone like Ya’alon who goes to the Right, one has to face a lot of ostracisim from family and friends so the best way to re-establish one’s place among this elite is to adopt their political positions.
      It must be remembered that throughout history, most soldiers were mercenaries. It has only been since the time of Napoleon, about 200 years, that generals came to be looked upon as “patriots” and “ideological warriors” fighting for some sort of “higher cause”. However, we see that really isn’t the case. Generals are people who enjoy the army and the martial life and for them,”Patriotism” is really secondary, if it exists at all. Recall Ehud Barak’s comment that had he been a Palestinian, he would have been a terrorist. He is a man who likes “action” and the fact he was born in Israel put him in the IDF, but it really was just a matter of chance. Thus, Israeli generals who socially feel comfortable with the elite Leftist Establishment will continue to serve in the West Bank and will then end up saying how terrible it is once they have milked everything they can out of their job for themselves.

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      Oops-I meant to say that Ya’alon is NOW sliding back to his roots on the Left.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Lewis from Afula

      Yes, I agree with the previous talkbacker. These generals are mostly secular, wealthy, Askenazi and elderly ie they mostly resemble “Peace Now” Leftist cuckoos.

      But the coming generation of emerging Generals will probably be more religious and so not prone to the “making peace with the friendly, democratic arabs” fallacy.

      So this is the good news for the future.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      Ike: This reads to me as a mishmash of right wing prejudices. It is really striking how the right worships the IDF right up until the point where the IDF leadership actually challenges their world view, and then all of a sudden the generals are all full of it. And not even patriots! Mercenaries! Realize you are saying that Ehud Barak is incapable of being an Israeli patriot and at the same time understanding that Palestinian patriots exist too. This reduces Barak to someone incapable of holding two complex thoughts in his mind at the same time and incapable of rudimentary empathy with the other side at a tactical level, a skill all good soldiers possess. And it reduces all Palestinians yet again to “bloodthirsty terrorists” incapable of higher order emotions and thoughts. And it reduces Israelis to ideological automatons incapable of anything but slavish left wing or right wing zombie thinking. (It always seems though that right wing thinking is styled by you as independent and knowing and wise while left wing thinking is robotic-“progressive”-zombie thought.)
      “The fact of the matter is that virtually all generals who go into politics end up on the Left.”
      This ought to tell you something plain and simple. The generals see what is really happening, know what their troops are really doing, know where Israel’s real security interests lie, and cannot be bamboozled by the fear-mongering claptrap of Netanyahu.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ray

      That’s the confirmation bias for you. I find it interesting how Ike thinks that the Israeli “left elite” is in such a powerful, cushy position, given the current government, and its electorate. Then again, the mind of every right wing nationalist in history has inhabited an alternate dimension where a cabal of evil socialists, community organizers, multiculturalists and muslims and whoever else has been secretly ruling the world, and they are the brave Rebel Alliance who are going to expose and dethrone them.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ray

      I should add that “Muslims” are replacing “Jews” on the list, as the hobgoblin of the nationalist right.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Lewis from Afula

      Ray, the current Israeli electorate is in a state of transition. Mostly of the “under 40 age group” is Right Wing while the “over 50 age group” is Left wing. Obviously, most generals tend to be in the latter group as are most of the elites – civil servants, big media people, bank managers etc. However, the future trend is obvious.

      With regards to Islamic Hobgoblins, this issue is plaguing most of Western Europe – see the murders and rapes in France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Sweden. These countries are currently in chaos. Hardly, a day passes without some stabbing, bombing, multiple rapes or shooting, always preceded by some cry of “alla akbar”.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Ray

      “Civil servants, big media people, bank managers” are leftists; I get what you’re saying, but it’s a red herring. They’re (Labor/old Mapai) nationalists with an economically interventionist streak, and it’s a testament to how “leftist” they really are that they’ve been committed to the occupation (or at least have done very little to end it) for all these decades, and have totally failed to curb the deluge of the right.

      And your second paragraph proves my point about the nationalist right. Only they would try to whip up fear and distrust of an ethnic/cultural group over the actions of a few alienated misanthropes.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Lewis from Afula

      Only “a few alien misanthropes”.
      Well, surveys have shown that an overall majority of European Muslims actually believe in death to apostates, execution of gays, implementation of Sharia Law and stoning of adulterers. One of the Paris attackers hid in the Brussels Muslim ghetto of Molenbeek for several months whilst he was widely known by fellow Muslims. He walked around freely and chatted with his neighbors, ordered a Pizza etc. When the police finally came to arrest him, they were attacked by dozens of local people.

      Of course, not every Muslim supports Sharia but those who believe in free speech and democracy have to keep quiet or else get death threats. They are in fact the “few alien misanthropes”.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Ray

      Care to share these polls?

      A better question is whether or not the majority themselves would do these things themselves.

      Reply to Comment
    12. i_like_ike52

      Wide scale terrorism can exist unless the surrounding population that doesn’t directly particpate is more or less supportive. They claim that “only a small percentage of Muslims are terrorists” does NOT prove that all the others strongly oppose the terrorists. Some wholly support them, others say “those who do it mean well but they are making a mistake” or there is apathy, or even general opposition but a refusal to openly denounced a fellow Muslim (“we don’t air our dirty laundry in public”). If the general Muslim population does NOT actively denounce and oppose the terrorists, then the rest of the public is going to wonder what the Muslims really think about it.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Ben

      Ike: Almost word for word, if you substitute “Jew” for “Muslim,” this paragraph could read as an accurate description of the passive acquiescence of the Israeli Jewish population in the terror enacted day in day out, routinely, by the settlers, the Israeli Army troops and Shin Bet agents that carry out the occupation.

      Reply to Comment
    14. cyndy

      While I am sure some of these people who claim to have a change of heart/mind after service are sincere,
      however IMO the majority of them are in reality just continuing their service in an undercover role.
      It is no secret that the best way to destroy something is from the inside and no one has more experience at infiltrating and destroying then the Zionist.

      Reply to Comment