Thursday, April 16, 2009

Yitzhak Laor & Yagil Levy on Soldiers' Testimonies

In the first op-ed below, Yagil Levy sees nothing new about the type of wanton, excessive violence reported recently by Israeli soldiers following Israel's assault on Gaza. It has been practiced, he says, since before the state's foundation. Soldiers' violence levels, he goes on to claim, are crucially (though not exclusively) affected by the competitive culture within the military. The internal dynamic within a given unit either encourages and worsens, or tends to contain, violence levels. According to Levy, competitiveness is fiercer—making excessive violence more rampant—among conscripts whose future and chances of social mobility depend heavily upon their military service. This is the case, he says, for conscripts from the social periphery, including the lower classes and religious Jewish-nationalist groups (and settlers' groups among them).

Levy thus ascribes higher levels of wanton violence to units staffed mainly with working class and religious conscripts than to units staffed mainly with middle class conscripts. While it conforms comfortably with prevalent stereotypes, such an hypothesis requires careful factual support, which the op-ed fails to mention or refer to. On one reading it can be understood to clear the (supposedly more liberal?) middle class of charges of brutalization. "It's not us, it's them" this hypothesis implies—the less educated, immoderate, etc. poor and religious fanatics, an implication which I find untrue and problematic.

This claim also constitutes the link between Levy's observations on violence and a topic he has been studying for years now, that is, the gradual shift in the sociological makeup of Israel's army. The op-ed reiterates Levy's findings that the army is steadily losing middle class conscripts and is, accordingly, disproportionately staffed today by conscripts from the social periphery. Due to this fact, Levy claims, competition has intensified within the ranks of the military and combat units lack the (middle class) troops who would presumably feel free to opt out of the competitive dynamic, opposing and restraining unnecessary violence.

In a later op-ed, Yitzhak Laor comments on the dismissal of the soldiers' testimonies to immoral, unwarranted violence, by the military and the incoming Minister of Defense. In agreement with Levy that there's nothing new about such violence by the Israeli security forces, he outlines a history of its dismissal and points out the pattern through which Israeli society evades its own inhumanity: A contradictory combination of tautological rejection (it's unthinkable so it simply can't be true) and projection ("we" don't do such things without good reason so "they" had to have been guilty and given us good reason).

Laor is looking at and including those parts of society that Levy claims would have stemmed the violence had they been better represented within the army's ranks. He sketches an account of the highly selective narrative constructed by Israel's hegemony, which serves to automatically clear the army and society of any charges of excessive violence or immorality. "The entire system," he says, "education, the army, the Shin Bet and of course, the media and literature - rule out any talk of struggle or of being sane and not belonging, it even rejects the possibility that something within it is fundamentally immoral. In other words, it is the privileged classes viewed by Yagil Levy as key to containing immoral violence, who create the mechanisms through which such violence and immorality are both whitewashed and perpetuated.

Rela Mazali

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Last update - 02:46 03/04/2009
It's the same violence
By Yagil Levy

The disclosure of testimony by graduates of the Yitzhak Rabin pre-military academy at Oranim Academic College about the conduct of the army during Operation Cast Lead drew three responses.

The first regarded the testimony as something anomalous that required investigation. The investigation, as usual, was sent to the Military Police Investigation Unit, which found the suspicions baseless.

The second was an attempt to link the improper behavior patterns with the prominent presence of rabbis with the soldiers, and the materials they disseminate to them.

The third reaction, which sums up the previous two, involved pondering the question of why the Israel Defense Forces have relinquished their traditional values. The implication was that if the scum was cleaned away, the ranks would no longer be defiled.

That is not necessarily so. An army by definition is a violent organization. The question is, what restrains the use of violence?

The rules of engagement give the officers and soldiers broad autonomy, and thus great deal responsibility. The soldiers' tendency toward violence does not merely stem from the values they bring with them from home or from ideological persuasion. An important role is played by the competition the soldiers feel for their status in the unit, the importance that their status in the army plays in determining their status in the civilian environment from which they came, and the degree of competition among the army's various units.

An army is a competitive environment no less than a violent one. The competitiveness is especially strong when the number of conscripts drops and when the fighting units are manned by a large percentage of soldiers from the social periphery and religious groups that move from the fringes to the mainstream.

An achievement in the military field is especially significant for someone who enlists in the army in order to gain social status or to leave an ideological mark and not merely to fill a basic civic duty, which is what motivates (now diminishing) parts of the established middle classes. An accomplishment is measured through the test of militancy.

The army itself intensifies this competitiveness; in its attempts to market itself among the public of potential conscripts, it increases the exposure given to the units and turns them into brand names. What is important in the testimonies that were disclosed is not the preciseness of detail about the use of fire but rather the enthusiasm to employ violence. As someone said: "Everyone went upstairs and fired together, they were really excited as if it were fun - we're shooting." In a competitive environment, it is more difficult to restrain violence. The key question is whether the units have a critical mass of soldiers who have heightened sensitivity and who can restrain their colleagues and if necessary report about irregularities in the chain of command. The change in the composition of the army makes this less likely in relation to the army of the first Lebanon war and the first intifada.

The late appearance of "breaking the silence," after four years of fighting in the territories, bore witness to that. The meeting of graduates of the Rabin academy and their attempt to influence (retroactively) the army's conduct outside the formal army channels also testifies to this.

When a critical mass of soldiers of this type is lacking in the ranks, the action takes place outside the army and not within it. In both cases graduates of relatively established groups, who do not feel that the test of how they fight is definitive for their status in their own eyes or in the eyes of others, act toward restraining the army and do not flinch from dealing with criticism that raises eyebrows about their patriotism. Even inside the army one can discern different patterns of behavior between units that differ from the point of view of their social profile.

This is not a new phenomenon. The IDF of the present decade is in certain aspects more controlled and restrained than the army of the 1950s which carried out the retaliation raids, and than the IDF of the War of Independence or the organizations that preceded it.

The youths in the Palmach also operated in an environment that was competitive compared with other organizations. The way in which the Palmach generation competed for its place as compared with other groups led to a nurturing of excessive aggressiveness.

It was only when this generation and its successors became established that it became possible, after the Six Day War in 1967, to hold "siah lohamim," a frank discussion among soldiers about the fighting, which was critical at that time. According to recent reports, today's fighters brand their actions through T-shirts with nationalistic and sexist slogans.

The Palmach fighters did not put slogans on their shirts, but they could enjoy a song by Haim Hefer which spoke of the castration by the Palmach of an Arab who was suspected of raping a Jewess. The style has changed but not the substance.

Prof. Levy is a member of the faculty at the Open University

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Last update - 10:15 14/04/2009
The most moral army in the world. Fact
By Yitzhak Laor

On June 19, 1977, the Sunday Times marked the 10-year anniversary of the occupation with a wide-ranging expose on the torture of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The report concluded that torture was so widespread and systematic that it was impossible to dismiss these deeds as "'rogue' cops exceeding orders. It appears to be sanctioned as deliberate policy."

Israel's denial was, of course, adamant. No Israeli newspaper addressed the accusations directly. Our ambassador in London said the morality of the prophets does not permit torture, and therefore these charges were baseless. It was Menachem Begin of all people, who had just formed his government, who expressed shock and ordered the Shin Bet to cease and desist.

Yet the logic of occupation and the defense establishment were stronger than the shock of the former underground leader. Then came the Bus 300 affair and Izat Nafso, the Circassian Israel Defense Forces officer convicted of espionage in 1984, and it reminded all of us that the Sunday Times report was more accurate than the denials, and was more accurate even than Begin's good intentions.

On the other hand, every Israeli poll about torture or atrocities would reveal, beyond a shadow of a doubt, simple truths: first, this can't be so; second, it is right; third, they started it.

Anyone who thinks this logic belongs solely to bizarre internet talkbackers needs to read Ehud Barak's initial reaction to the soldiers' testimonies from Gaza: "The IDF is the most moral army in the world." Fact.

Even the shelling of towns along the Suez Canal during the war of attrition, during bombardments of targets deep within Egyptian territory, included the destruction of a school during the school day and a steel factory during the workday, all under prime minister Golda Meir, and chiefs of staff and generals from the Labor movement. Not even this changed Israel's self-image by one iota, and it is doubtful whether live Al-Jazeera broadcasts can do so, either.

Aided by a carefully crafted narrative (by intellectuals on the Zionist left) we have been built as a nation that makes no room whatsoever for a contradictory private narrative, or at least an argument about sacred cows. Everyone is marching to the same drummer. The symbols are always ready. Anything that did not fit the "nationalist" template was rejected. Exodus? Good enough for us. The Struma affair? Only for advanced researchers. Deir Yassin? It was not "us" who did it, but "dissidents." The massacre of Sasa, Tiberias or Lod? A non-sequitor. Qibya? Forget about it! Sabra and Chatila? That can be remembered (Christians killing Muslims).

Ehud Barak is right. By all measures, we are the most moral. Because we have no peers.

And yet, perhaps the defense minister is referring to acts committed by the Americans. Their army really committed more horrific atrocities in the last 60 years, from Korea to Vietnam, Panama and Iraq. But it is in this context that the time has come to address the misdeeds taking place here, those committed by the state and its army against those it rules, including soldiers infected with a vicious virus, all with the approval of a collective unmatched in the democratic world.

All the atrocities committed by the IDF always take place under the purview of "the compulsory conscription law," which is not only a law in the sense of income tax or driving on the right side of the road, but is a sanctified commandment. Only "crazies" do not go to the army, do not dip their hands into the ceremonial blood. This is the supreme, traditional norm of Israeli society, and it covers up everything, both in denial and in acceptance of one's punishment.

Not only does the entire system - education, the army, the Shin Bet and of course, the media and literature - rule out any talk of struggle or of being sane and not belonging, it even rejects the possibility that something within it is fundamentally immoral. Thus it is natural for the defense minister to sum up the current round of denial by praising the Military Advocate General: "I am happy that these are the findings, and it turns out once again we are correct when we say the IDF is the most moral army in the world, from the chief of staff to the last soldier."

Yes, this is the reality, one no satire can beat, even the words of Golda in Hanoch Levin's 1970 "Malkat Ha'ambatiya": "I've been examining myself for 71 years and God knows I discovered in myself a justice. And every day I am surprised anew. Right, right, right, and right once again. Once I took a nap in the afternoon and I said to myself, 'What if I do something stupid while napping? So did I do something stupid while napping? I'm the last person who does something stupid while napping!"

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