“Israel is the most moral army in the world” is a quote that I grew up hearing. It’s not simply a platitude but it was a fact and it had depth. I had such respect and love for Israel and the IDF it drove me to the country and drove me to enlistment.
Growing up and getting a more nuanced understanding, I learned never to use such grand statements like “the most ____ thing ever”. Israel being a morally upstanding army in and of itself; no need for comparisons. After all, since when have Jews used any moral barometer except for their own?
I’ve also come to realize that the statement “Israel being a moral army” isn’t simply a fact that should be taken for granted. It’s a high standard attained and fought for with much difficulty, and therefore we are proud of our moral army. Our morality doesn’t develop naturally or inherent in our nation, it’s something attained. As the Israeli saying goes; “עם בונה צבא בונה עם” or “The nation builds the army builds the nation”. The army and it’s values aren’t God-given but nation-built.
How does one maintain one’s (or one’s army’s) morality? Let’s look into our national story for some ideas.
The first thought that comes to mind is the Jews and the Prophets. Jews repeatedly fell into immorality manifested through idolatry, inappropriate sexual acts, or overall wickedness. God’s reaction to this was always similar; send a prophet or a messenger to tell the Jews, or other nation (Nineveh in Jonah), to repent and come back to God or/and his ways. Sometimes the nation repents and is saved, and sometimes the nation doesn’t heed the messenger and gets punished.
In Hosea, Hosea repeats a message from God: “swearing and lying and killing and stealing and committing adultery! They break all bounds and blood touches blood” (Hosea 4:2). Two chapters later Hosea says “Come and let us return unto The Lord; for He hath torn, and He will heal us. He has smitten us, and He will bandage us” (Ibid 6:1). The Jews have reached a moral low, and a messenger was sent by God to come and make us repent.
In Exodus, when Moses was sent by God to be his messenger to Pharaoh he was not only sent out of Pharaoh’s house, but Pharaoh made their work harder (Exodus 5:7) and they were even assailed by The Israelites; the very people they were trying to save. The said to him “Let God look at you and judge. You have made out aroma abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servant, putting a sword in their hands to kill us” (Ibid 5:21).
In the book of Jonah, Jonah was sent by God to tell Nineveh that they have 40 days to repent for “their wickedness has risen before me” (Jonah 1:2). After a long story of failed flight, he arrived at Nineveh to say “in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed” (Ibid 3:4) and throughout the entire ranks of Nineveh, from the king to the plebeians, sackcloth was donned (Ibid 3:5-6), full repentance was done (Ibid 3:8), and they were saved (Ibid 3:10).
People and nations repeatedly wax and wane on the scale of morality and righteousness, and criticism from within one’s ranks (Hosea), from outside one’s ranks (Jonah), or somewhere in between (Moses) is absolutely essential to maintaining our morality. Criticism or self-criticism (חשבון הנפש) has always been an essential part of our national growth and mechanism of righting ourselves both as a nation and as individuals.
What would have happened had these messengers simply been questioned? Moses was from the Pharaoh’s house! How was he to be trusted?! Yes he came prepared with signs of proof, but the signs were for Pharaoh. Regardless, Moses clearly struggles with the fear of being questioned by both pharaoh and The Israelites in chapters 3 and 4.
What about Nineveh? Did they say “you’re not from us?” or “you’re not being genuine! Look how much you tried running!” or “you were funded by an outside source!”. No. They listened to the rebuke, took his rebuke to heart, and within days they reversed the decree.
“Don’t shoot the messenger” is another platitude widely used, but is it internalized in the current events we’re facing? Yes, I’m talking about Breaking the Silence.
Shooting the messenger isn’t just something in modern day, but also found in our history books done by King David himself. A messenger came and told him that Saul and Jonathan were dead and David killed the messenger who delivered the news (Samuel 2 1:15).
We can talk about how genuine Breaking the Silence is. We can talk about whether they’re part of Us or Them. We can talk about where their money is coming from. But that’s all dealing with the messenger. Breaking the Silence isn’t important, it’s the message they deliver. It’s the thousands of testimonies that they deliver to us. Do we say they’re not genuine thus dismissing their testimonies? Do we say they’re not part of Us so we don’t have to listen to them?
The message of Nineveh was “you’re evil” and the call to action was “repent”. Breaking the Silence’s message is testimonies from our soldiers, and their call to action is, to quote their mission statement, “to stimulate public debate”. If we ever say that as a nation we are against stimulated public debate, then we’re in a place where we can’t be saved. Once we can’t accept criticism, and just shoot the messenger delivering a message we don’t want to hear, then there’s no way to fight for and maintain our moral nation and moral army.