By Omri Bezalel
Gadi Eizenkot, chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said earlier this month that Elor Azaria, the soldier who stood trial for shooting a neutralized Palestinian terrorist, was not “the son of all of us.” In return, protestors in Tel Aviv who support Azaria’s release called for Eizenkot’s death, chanting “Eizenkot use caution, Rabin’s looking for a companion,” referring to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a yarmulka-wearing Jew in 1995.
The need for Eizenkot to make his proclamation, and the reaction against it, indicates that “the son of all of us” has become a detrimental part of Israeli mentality that has led the country down dangerous paths. Israel is a small country with a conscription military service; almost every parent will have a son or daughter serving in the Israel Defense Forces at some point, and almost every citizen has a brother, sister, niece, nephew, or friend who’s a soldier. When a soldier dies, it’s a national tragedy. Every soldier is everyone’s son or daughter; he or she is a child that belongs to “all of us.”
The roots of “the son of all of us” can be found in Israel’s invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982, when it retained the border in what it called the Southern Lebanon Security Gate. Soldiers served in posts atop hills, ran routine ambush missions, and, mostly, took cover when Hezbollah shot rocket after rocket at the Israeli posts.
More and more soldiers were killed there during the 1990s, the pinnacle being the Helicopter Disaster in February 1997, when two Israeli transport helicopters crashed into each other, killing all 73 soldiers aboard. Four mothers to sons serving in Lebanon created the Four Mothers social movement, which tried to turn Israeli public opinion against the occupation in Southern Lebanon. The combination of the Helicopter Disaster and the success of Four Mothers led Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000.
The Four Mothers’ word choice in voicing their demand helped change the country’s perspective and mentality regarding its soldiers: The organization’s main tagline was “Bring the sons back home.” Sons, not soldiers. That was the beginning of viewing soldiers as sons and daughters instead of adult men and women entrusted with protecting a nation.
This view was enhanced in 2006 when Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who spent five years in captivity before being released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners and terrorists. The main slogan of the five-year-long campaign for his release was “Gilad is the child of all of us.” Another important word choice: It changed “son” to “child.” It was easier to sympathize with Shalit’s mother and to think of Shalit as the “child of all of us” because Four Mothers had accustomed the public to think of those in uniform not as soldiers but as sons. From there, the leap to thinking of the soldier as a child was easier to make.
At a Jan. 4 protest in solidarity with Azaria, a woman said, “Today it’s Azaria, tomorrow it’s your son.” The same phrase was used at rallies to bring Shalit back home: “Today it’s Gilad, tomorrow it’s your son, father, or brother.”
The sentiment that Azaria is the “son of all of us” has been met with fierce resistance in Israel. Eizenkot spoke against it, as have many journalists. Sima Kadmon, a writer for Yediot Achronot, wrote, “Azaria isn’t the son of all of us because our son would never shoot a defenseless man in the head.”
Suddenly this woman at the protest is wrong. For 20 years she’s been told that soldiers are sons; for five years she was told daily that soldiers are the “children of all of us.” But now she’s told that it isn’t true if that soldier shot a neutralized terrorist in the head.
The problem is, we don’t get to decide which soldier belongs to all of us and which is orphaned. There’s no room to play favorites. Four Mothers said “Bring the sons back home,” not “Bring the good sons back home.” If Shalit was the son of all of us, and the soldiers of Lebanon in the 1990s were our sons, then so is Azaria. Why is this suddenly not true? Why is this sentiment only now receiving pushback? Where was the Chief of General Staff 10 and five years ago to tell us that Shalit isn’t the “son of all of us”?
Many think the Shalit and Azaria cases are morally different: You can’t compare a soldier who willingly shoots an unarmed man to a soldier who is unwillingly captured. But Shalit was asleep in his tank when he was attacked, and after two of his friends left the tank to fight and were killed, Shalit came out with his arms raised, without his rifle, and surrendered without a fight. His defenders say you can’t judge a soldier under fire; you don’t know what you would do. They’re right, of course, but then, are we allowed to judge Azaria? I would like to think that I wouldn’t act the way Azaria did, but then I’d also like to think I wouldn’t act like Shalit if I were in his situation. While there are differences between Azaria and Shalit—Azaria was the aggressor while Shalit was not, and it’s harder to sympathize with an aggressor—there are still more commonalities between the two than most people would care to admit. Azaria isn’t a hero, and neither was Shalit. Azaria didn’t behave as a soldier should, and neither did Shalit. Azaria went against the IDF ethical code tenet “purity of arms,” and Shalit went against another element of the ethical code: “devotion to duty.”
If Shalit was everyone’s son, then so is Azaria. Saying differently is hypocritical. But here’s the truth: Azaria isn’t the son of all of us, but neither is Shalit. Neither was I. I served in the Israeli Naval Commandos for five years and I wasn’t a child, nor did I belong to everyone. The citizens of Israel weren’t collectively responsible for me; on the contrary, I was responsible for them and their safety. I did what I did for them. Of all Israel’s citizens, only two were my parents. The soldiers of the IDF don’t belong to us; the Israeli mentality that they do is what has led to Israel’s irrational prisoner exchange deals and to the divisive response to Azaria’s court case within the country. The slogan plays on a sensitive chord of Israeli discourse, and this way of thinking perpetuates the slogan by turning Israelis’ view on soldiers into a mentality. This becomes especially problematic when the government makes important decisions with long-term consequences based on pressure from and the opinion of a public that has an emotional and manipulated view. If the Israeli population could see the sentiment as a slogan rather than a way of life, government officials might not be swayed to make decisions that go against the nation’s interests.
After Azaria is sentenced, after the decision is made whether to pardon him, and after tempers cool and people calm down, maybe then we can begin to re-educate the Israeli people. More chiefs of general staff need to make the same statement as Eizenkot. Soldiers in uniform need to tell the people of Israel: “We’re charged with your security. We make life and death decisions. We fight. Yes, we all have a responsibility toward each other, but we are not children, and we are not yours.”
Omri Bezalel is an Israeli writer and filmmaker, currently studying dramatic and creative writing and journalism at New York University.
[Photo Courtesy of Israel Defense Forces]