General Golan’s truth hurts – avoiding it will hurt even more!

Golan struck a number of the Israeli society’s raw nerves in his speech, and regrettably it led to overreaction instead of reflection

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

It is hard to tell whether General Yair Golan, Deputy Chief of the Israeli Defence Forces, could have anticipated that his speech a fortnight ago, in a ceremony on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, would cause a gale force political storm. In a very personal and reflective speech, he warned against alarming trends in Israeli society of intolerance, violence and moral deterioration, which undermine the very foundations of the country as a democracy. In response, a chorus of politicians from the right, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, embarked on unsavory attacks on the number two soldier in the Israeli hierarchy. Ostensibly, they were irked that on this poignant day of remembering the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis, Golan chose to state in public that “If there is something that frightens me in the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying horrifying processes that occurred in Europe… 70, 80 and 90 years ago and finding evidence of their existence here in our midst, today, in 2016.”

Golan may or may not have anticipated the tirade of criticism against him. However, accusing him of wronging the Israeli society and cheapening the Holocaust, as the Israeli Prime Minister did, reflects on Netanyahu’s reluctance to address the moral abyss into which he is leading the country. Vocal criticism cannot conceal the need to tackle the substance of Golan’s observations, especially as the country soon will mark the tragic 50th anniversary of occupying Palestinian territories. To be sure Golan received the full backing of the Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, but this was a lone voice of support among the wolves from the ruling nationalist-religious coalition, who were howling for his resignation. Not surprisingly the General’s remarks were embraced by the more liberal progressive-minded in Israeli society, but they are sadly a dwindling commodity.

Golan struck a number of the Israeli society’s raw nerves in his speech, and regrettably it led to overreaction instead of reflection. Zionism and the state of Israel, as its embodiment, have monopolized the memory of the Holocaust and its lessons. Evidently, one has to tread very carefully with any historical analogies, especially one as horrific as Europe and particularly Germany of the 1930s and ‘40s. Yet, at no point was it suggested that the Israeli army behaves like the Nazi one or that the Israeli society is heading towards where Germany was at its darkest time. This would be utter nonsense and counterproductive, as it is simple to refute. Nevertheless, it is legitimate, let alone necessary, to challenge the narrative of the Jewish state as the home of the eternal victims, who could do no wrong.

'Daily brutality'

There is genuine concern in certain quarters of the Israeli society, and among the military establishment, that democratic values of respecting pluralism, tolerance, accountability and transparency are all on a dangerous downward spiral. In addition to these trends the society is increasingly more violent, one such example thereof is the spread of organized crime around the country. In a country whose military relies on conscription and prides itself that its armed forces are the ‘people’s army’, if the society is beastialized, the army cannot escape a similar fate.

The occupation and its daily brutality alone are a prolonged abuse of human rights. When it carried out, however, by soldiers who have no empathy for the occupied, it ends in even worse human rights violations of the occupied.

Yossi Mekelberg

It is hence the duty of the security establishment to alert the Israeli society that the lesson for the Jewish people of ‘never again’ is a universal one. In its very narrow Jewish-centered meaning, it is not only wrong, but worse, it is harmful and immoral. An over simplistic narrative has taken hold of Israeli society, as part of its security paradigm, that the genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazis, licenses the state Israel an almost divine right to behave as it sees fit—regardless of international and moral norms. Too many in Israel and the Zionist movement are reluctant to espouse a moral stance, that those who suffered most have a responsibility to be the torchbearers of upholding human rights constantly and unceasingly. Hundreds of years of anti-Semitism culminating in the genocide of six million should have resulted in more sensitivity for the suffering of other people, not the hardening of Israeli society beyond being able to be empathetic with others.

The occupation and its daily brutality alone are a prolonged abuse of human rights. When it carried out, however, by soldiers who have no empathy for the occupied, it ends in even worse human rights violations of the occupied. Senior generals could not and should not stay silent when there is an incident such as the one in Hebron recently, where a Palestinian militant, who stabbed soldiers, was shot in the head whilst he was already lying on the ground injured and seemed to pose no threat. It allegedly appears to be a brutal assassination and not self-defense. It is not an isolated case, there are other ‘unexplained’ cases of killing of Palestinians including children, who were not even involved in militancy. This kind of behavior could lead the army, if not nipped in the bud, to a complete moral bankruptcy.

Furthermore, as General Golan eluded to in his remarks, as much as the country needs a moral army, the army needs a moral society, which is worth the sacrifice involved in serving in the military. Some of the vile attacks on Golan, highlight the importance and necessity of his intervention. Very few generals show civil courage similar to the valor they show in the battlefield, but they are those who deserve to be revered by the public. Judging by the venomous attacks on Golan, not only will the messenger be most probably overlooked for the position of Chief of Staff, but also the message itself will be buried under piles of patriotic demagogy.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.