Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Between the Lines: Israeli Veterans Explore Our Moral Boundaries

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She is often quite critical of Israel. So it appears to be the case with a recent commentary of hers highlighting the "Break the Silence" group.

On the surface, the commentary is not complimentary to Israel and, unfortunately, many readers will not go beyond the surface. Between the lines, the commentary can be used to highlight the way the Arab-Israeli conflict was initiated and is perpetuated by the Arabs, giving Israel unacceptable choices leading it to agonize over actions it has been forced to take.

For Israel, unlike the Arabs, the conflict is an existential issue. The so-called occupation began as a consequence of Jordan's attack on Israel in 1967 and has continued as a result of the Arab refusal to agree to peace.

If anyone had any doubts before, the aftermath of the unilateral pullout from Gaza has made it clear Israel cannot just give away territory without a mutual agreement. Indeed, it would need a mutual agreement which, unlike the Oslo Accords, would be adhered to by the Arab side.

Israel is thus in an unenviable situation, with no good choices. It's a testament to the character of Israel that, even in the midst of an existential struggle not of its own choice, its own citizens continually question not only the choices of their government but the actions of individuals forced into difficult situations.

This is a sharp contrast to the sickness in the Palestinian Arab society, where the last election was won, in a landslide, by a terrorist organization whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel -- over another terrorist organization whose charter does the same. One cannot even imagine any similar introspection among Palestinian Arabs. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to come up with any society, other than Israeli and American, which is ever so self-critical in the midst of war - and even in America, the wars during which we have indulged in self-criticism have not been clearly existential the way Israel's struggle is.

It is also interesting, and typical, that although "Breaking the Silence" highlights the way the war has put Israelis in situations in which individuals have sometimes taken less than admirable actions, there are no alternatives suggested.

There is an Israeli expression, "ayn breira," no choice. It epitomizes Israel's overall situation and is why Israel's critics have never been able to come up with any reasonable alternatives.

We include excerpts from the commentary, which may be found in full on the Inquirer's web site. We also add some of our own comments.

Worldview: A look at the limits democracy must set

Trudy Rubin

At a time when Americans are debating whether torture is acceptable in a democracy, I recommend an exhibition in Philadelphia by a group of young Israeli military veterans called "Breaking the Silence."

On view at the Rotunda, the show consists of photos, films and discussions on the daily routines of soldiers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. (You can read about it at This material is not about torture per se, but is a courageous examination of the boundaries any democracy must set for itself if it wants to remain true to its values.

[From reading this, one would think Israel occupies Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Israel totally left Gaza more than two years ago, while the areas in Judea and Samaria where most Palestinian Arabs live have been under the corrupt administration of the Palestinian Authority since the mid-1990's.]

The main goal, say the organizers, is to "expose the true reality in the (occupied) territories and as a consequence to promote a public debate on the moral price paid by Israeli society."

[The parenthetical word "occupied" was apparently added by the writer, distorting the meaning of the original statement.

Six decades of war, forced on it by its Arab enemies, have forced Israel into many choices it would have preferred to avoid.]

Over my years of covering the West Bank and Gaza, I have seen all sorts of behavior at checkpoints. But, Shaul says, occupation "instills total indifference in you. Questions pop up, and you find a way to go on." He remembers manning a machine-gun post on a Hebron hill -- a photo shows a Palestinian neighborhood spread out below.

"They shoot, and then we shoot into several supposedly empty buildings." The shooting is blind, and a one-minute pull releases 80 grenades. "No, we never knew what we hit. Questions are not something you have."

[War is ugly.]

And does he care whether or not Palestinians are doing similar soul-searching, say, about suicide bombers? He does not. "For me, Palestinians are a political issue. Israeli society is an existential issue." Shaul begs the question of whether a political solution is possible.

[It is a tribute to Israel's character that, even in the midst of an existential struggle against an enemy trying to liquidate it, Israeli's continue to question the morality of the actions it is forced to take.

Obviously, there is no corresponding soul-searching on the other side.]

To read the full article, go to

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