[Ya’alon] said Thursday that he has been “surprised” of late at a “loss of moral compass on basic questions” in Israeli society. “We need to steer the country in accordance with one’s conscience and not whichever way the wind is blowing…”
Questions of moral compass and conscience are the essence of the cultural struggle that is going on in Israel today, but few seem to understand what these questions actually are.
The incident in which a young soldier, Elor Azaria, shot and killed an already ‘neutralized’ Palestinian terrorist who had just stabbed another soldier has become a litmus test, but for what?
Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon responded to the incident a few hours after it occurred, too quickly for many, when he and the Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, condemned Azaria for a “breach in IDF values.” Azaria was indicted for manslaughter, but large popular demonstrations in his favor broke out.
Later, Eisenkot’s deputy, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, made a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech in which he said that he found “certain processes” in Israeli society today that were reminiscent of Germany “70, 80 or 90 years ago.”
This was considered by many – including PM Netanyahu – to be far too close to comparing present-day Israel to Nazi Germany, an outrageous comparison often made by our enemies to delegitimize the Jewish state. It was considered a political speech, forbidden to a serving officer, since he made references to the “responsibility of leadership.” Nevertheless, Golan received strong backing from Ya’alon.
A majority of Jewish Israelis believe that Azaria should be freed, and a majority strongly disapproved of Golan’s remarks. At this precise moment, Netanyahu moved to reinforce his coalition by bringing in the 6 seats of Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beitenu party. Part of the price was the Defense portfolio for Liberman, and Netanyahu took it from the very technically competent Ya’alon and promised it to the somewhat mercurial Liberman. Ya’alon resigned from the government and from the Knesset. There is no doubt that Ya’alon’s opinions were part of the reason Netanyahu acted as he did.
I must interject at this point that I think Netanyahu made a serious mistake. But that is because of the abilities and personalities of Ya’alon and Liberman, not the moral questions involved.
Ya’alon and Golan had other things in mind in addition to the Azaria case. For the past few years a cultural gulf has been opening up in Israel. It is often referred to as “Right vs. Left,” but that is incorrect. Although the two sides do tend to be on the opposite ends of the political right/left divide, that is an effect rather than a cause.
On the one side, we have the primarily secular academic, cultural, military, legal and media elites, mostly Ashkenazim whose families have been in Israel for generations, who have become increasingly vocal, even frantic, about what they call ‘undemocratic’, ‘racist’, ‘ultra-nationalist’, ‘fascist’ and ‘theocratic’ trends in society.
On the other side – now a majority – are found many religious Israelis and those of Mizrachi or Soviet origin, who believe that the elites are anti-Zionist, self-hating, bigoted against religious people and ignorant about the true nature of our enemies.
Both sides believe that the other, if not reined in, will destroy the state.
This is a dispute about values and even style more than politics. Moshe Ya’alon is clearly on the side of the elites, but he is also politically right-wing. The real issue is deeper than whether the Oslo agreement was a good idea or whether Mahmoud Abbas can be trusted or whether Jews should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.
The real issue is the degree to which our moral system should be universal or tribal.
Universalism, the belief that we are obligated to treat all human beings alike regardless of who they are has reached its apogee in Europe and the US, where no crime is more detested than ‘racism’. Although the universalist principle seems self-evident to many today, it was not found in the ancient world, where it went without saying that one’s own group always deserved preferential treatment.
Christianity and Islam found it useful to say (although they usually failed to live up to it) that every man of the correct religion deserved equal treatment. The philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment in the West expanded the concept to apply to white men, regardless of religion. Non-whites, women and sexual minorities followed. Today, for most of the “first world,” one of the most important moral principles is non-discrimination.
Universalist ethics are opposed to tribalism, which prioritizes one’s own tribe, religious group or nation. There was no Enlightenment in the Islamic world, and Middle Eastern cultures are still highly tribalistic; so much so that attempts to create modern states while ignoring ethnic, religious and tribal realities have been (e.g., Syria and Lebanon) spectacular failures. One way to characterize the moral system of a culture is by where it falls on the universalism-tribalism axis.
Moral principles that are intuitively accepted in a culture – the general principles against which one’s actions are measured and which constitute one’s conscience – come into being by evolutionary processes not logically dissimilar to those that shape the physical organism as a member of a species. More particular moral rules are derived from these principles, and are accepted on the basis of religious or political authority, or a combination of both.
If Western philosophy has established one thing about moral principles it is that they can’t be proven like mathematical theorems or verified like empirical statements. Nevertheless, from within a culture, basic moral principles are treated like a priori truths.
But cultures change and evolve. Why shouldn’t moral principles evolve as well? The answer is that of course they do. Was Thomas Jefferson a man of conscience? Almost certainly he was. Then how could he have owned slaves? If he had lived even 100 years later, chances are that his conscience would not have permitted it.
Some biological mutations promote survival of the genes that carry them and some don’t. There can be mutations that produce an organism more or less suited to a particular environment. And sometimes the environment changes rapidly, and organisms must adapt, move or die out. The same is true of moral principles and the social environment in which a culture is embedded.
It may be that European universalist ethics no longer promotes the survival of cultures that espouse it in the environment that is present-day Europe. We certainly see in present-day Europe all of the above responses to this pressure: adaptation, migration and cultural failure.
From its founding, Israel consciously adopted a universalist ethic and tried to meld it with tribalistic Jewish nationalism. This is why our Declaration of Independence and Basic Laws refer to a Jewish and democratic state. There has always been a tension between these. Is Zionism about the Jews returning to their homeland primarily for their own sake, or to be a “light unto the nations?”
Former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak tried to force Israel into the mold of a European or American “state of its citizens.” In the name of democracy, the Court opposed attempts to maintain a special status for Jews or Judaism. Foreign interests like the American New Israel Fund and the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as European-financed NGOs support this universalist vision, even to the point of calling for changes in our flag and national anthem because they don’t speak to our Arab citizens.
Of course they don’t. Why should they, in a Jewish state?
For a long time Israel has been a Western island in a Middle Eastern sea, and it has turned toward universalist Europe and America for most of its cultural and economic intercourse. One of the arguments against Jewish tribalism has always been that our Western allies don’t like it. But now, in part because of weakness in the Western bloc, Israel is finding that it has no choice but to move closer to its more natural partners in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
The environment is changing and the cultural organism must change too, if it is to adapt to it. In our new environment, a strongly universalist morality is not an advantage; it constitutes unilateral moral disarmament. Our state won’t survive as a copy of the US or Sweden (indeed, the pressures are such that neither the US nor Sweden may survive in their present form).
That doesn’t mean that we need to give up democratic government or adopt all the cultural practices of our neighbors, like their misogyny, religious coercion, or beheadings and barrel bombs. It doesn’t imply that we ought to view ourselves as superior to non-Jews or that we should deny non-Jews that live among us their civil rights.
What it does mean is that our objective should be a state that unashamedly prioritizes Jewish people, culture, religion and values.
What are the consequences for our relationship with our neighbors, and our conduct of our long war – the one we have been fighting to create and keep our state on and off for close to a century? And what for our soldiers, like Sgt. Azaria?
That will be the topic of Part II. Stay tuned.