What the Breaking the Silence Report Says about the Gaza War–and Doesn’t

Excerpt from my new op-ed in The Forward In its most recent report , Breaking the Silence does something different — it points its spotlight at the haze of a full-scale military operation, last summer’s Protective Edge incursion into the Gaza Strip and tries to draw from its testimonies bigger lessons about an Israeli army … Read moreWhat the Breaking the Silence Report Says about the Gaza War–and Doesn’t

Of Feet and the Man — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

photo by Marc Render

In the valley that runs west of the Omer ridge I wrestle with my angel. Noon is approaching and I’m munching a bagel-and-cheese sandwich under a tamarisk tree with my hiking buddies at our meeting point on the most boring section of the Israel National Trail. It’s a 21-kilometer stretch that is nearly all flat; the sky is cloudless and the sun blazes despite the mid-November date. Halfway through our hike, the five of us stink to high heaven from sweat and grit.

Since we have only one car, we’ve split up. Asher and I were dropped off at the northern end of the route, while Marc drove with Gary and Yitzhak to the southern end and started there. Here under the tamarisk Marc hands Asher the keys. When we get to the end, we’ll drive Marc’s car back to pick up the others. We estimate that we have three to four hours more to walk. It’s time to get up.

I shoulder my pack and rise slowly to my feet. I mutter a curse under my breath and take a step, then another. Each step sends pain shooting through my body. My right ankle is stiff and my foot twisted so that I can only walk on the distal, outward edge. This is no surprise—it happens every time I hike. At the age of 40, thirteen years ago, I contracted a serious illness that resulted, among other things, in the amputation of all my toes. Toelessness placed unnatural demands and pressures on muscles and joints, and one result was severe arthritis in my right ankle. The pain, which is most severe after a rest stop, is the price I know I will pay when I go on a hike. But, to add injury to insult, I’ve also developed a large blister on the ball of my left foot, so I can only walk on its outside edge as well.

I grit my teeth and hobble south like a cowboy with rickets.

Read moreOf Feet and the Man — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

The Soldiers’ Testimonies–Another View

Haim Watzman

Have Israeli soldiers’ values—and the moral choices they make in combat—changed? Do the soldiers’ testimonies from the Rabin pre-military academy show that the IDF and its soldiers have adopted values different from those of earlier decades and earlier wars?

I’m not convinced. They might, and the charges made in the testimonies certainly need to be thoroughly investigated (impartially, not by the brigade commander, who says he spoke to the soldiers involved and denied that the incidents took place). But I’m dubious about jumping to conclusions, as I think Gershom did in his post yesterday.

Gershom argues that Israel’s strategy in the Gaza war—which involved the use of intense fire power in densely-populated civilian areas, so as to ensure a minimum of Israeli casualties—gave soldiers the message that human life on the other side was of no value. Rules of engagement were eased up and soldiers were given the message that they should have few hesitations about killing ostensible non-combatants.

It’s certainly possible that the grand strategy made an impact on the actions of individual soldiers. But we don’t, at present, have any empirical evidence of that.

Read moreThe Soldiers’ Testimonies–Another View

Dueling Ethicists in Gaza

Haim Watzman

What was most surprising about the conference on Battle Ethics in the Cast Lead Operation held on Sunday by the Ethics Center at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem was how much agreement there was among speakers with ostensibly different points of view. Everyone from noted liberal Mordechai Kremnitzer to the IDF’s favorite ethicist Asa Kasher dissented from the simplistic extremes and sought to balance the conflicting demands of defense and respect for human life.

As Daniel Statman noted at the beginning of the conference, there’s no need for a discussion of Israel’s battlefield ethics if one’s position is either that either fighting in general or Israel’s fighting in particular is absolutely and utterly criminal. Or if you think that in war Israel can do whatever it pleases, without any constraints, in order to win.

That these two extreme positions play a prominent role both in Israel’s internal debate and in the international polemic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not, thankfully, deterred the philosophers, journalists, and legal scholars who spoke at the conference from thinking through the issues.

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Who Am I to Say (Occasional Advice – For Soldiers)

Haim Watzman

Gershom gets requests for advice from seekers of Jewish identity, I get them from soldiers. I’ve edited the letter slightly to make it clearer and to avoid giving away the writer’s identity.-hw

Dear Sojo,

You have said something to the effect that soldiers do not have the right to refuse orders to go to war even if they disagree with the war. Morality happens at the trigger level.

soldier-doing-paperworkNow what if the military system is designed so that no one person is pulling that trigger?

I ask this because I have oversight for the pay records of servicemen who sometimes deploy to GITMO, assigned to guard servicemen who may or may not have been waterboarding detainees. If I believe that waterboarding is illegal, do I have a moral responsibility to do something contrary to military orders and the good order and discipline of the unit?

My aunt, uncle, and cousin ended up at Treblinka, sent from Warsaw. That entire system of death was designed so that no one would normally feel any onus of responsibility.

I want to avoid ever being a part of system that is similar to what happened at Treblinka.

Confused personnel officer

Read moreWho Am I to Say (Occasional Advice – For Soldiers)

War Ethics In A War Zone

When I told my soldier son last weekend that I was preparing to lead a book club discussion on Michael Walzer‘s book Just and Unjust Wars, he shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?” he asked. “When you are protecting your country you do whatever you need to do to protect it.”

That may sound cynical and uncaring, but it accurately reflects the feeling of many soldiers who consider themselves to be moral, thinking, and caring human beings. From their perspective, they have a job to do: most immediately, to protect themselves and their buddies; beyond that to protect their families and country. They possess very little information about the big picture and, in action, must make split-second decisions with life-and-death implications based on their limited knowledge. Therefore, their default position must be to trust the decisions made by their commanders and superior officers.

Read moreWar Ethics In A War Zone