In the throes of these past days of intense polarization here in Israel, I want to share something that surprisingly crosses the political spectrum; few celebrated the verdict of Elor Azaria.
If so, what’s the partisan debate? Where do the right and left disagree?
Many on the right make their disdain very clear, and are loudly and vocally supportive of Elor. This manifests itself in coming out against the military, the IDF legal system, and the IDF rules of engagement. It manifests itself in calls to give him a light sentence or to pardon him completely.
The left shares the difficulty and pain with the right, but it manifests itself in very different ways. We on the left saw the verdict and too were saddened. Saddened, but conflicted. On one hand we see a soldier who abused his power. A soldier who extrajudicially executed a man, albeit an assailant, who was no threat to him. A soldier who was suspected of wrongdoing, was put on trial for his actions, and was found guilty.
But it’s more complicated than just that. We also see his actions in the larger context; we see the insane situation we sent him in. There’s something in him that we see in all of our kids, nieces, and nephews that we send to serve in the West Bank. What have we gotten them into? What have we sent them to do?
Essentially, the right and the left both understand the sadness and difficulty of the situation. The point of dissent, though, between the two sides of the aisle is that the right tries to justify the situation we put in him, thus justifying his actions, whereas the left questions the underlying assumption that we should keep sending our kids to the West Bank at all. Not to say to pull out tomorrow, but to work towards that goal.
The right is trying to protect him by delegitimizing the organization that tried and sentenced him: the IDF. The left is trying to protect future kids by delegitimizing, and trying to abolish, the system and situation we put them in: the occupation.
Protecting any future soldiers means we must stop sending our kids to be the soldiers ruling over millions of civilians.
Terms and phrases like “moral degradation” or “corruption from the occupation” are often thrown around, but these terms always remind me of a famous experiment done in Stanford University.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was an experiment in which 24 psychologically stable volunteers were split into two groups, 12 guards and 12 prisoners, and were put in a prison for what was supposed to last between seven to fourteen days. The prisoners were always locked up, but the guards worked in shifts of three.
By day two, already, the prisoners barricaded a door with their beds in revolt and the guards started attacking the prisoners with fire extinguishers.
The experiment was forced to end after only six days due to severe escalation from both sides including measures the guards took such as taking away “mattress privileges” or not allowing the prisoners to empty the bucket they used as a toilet in their cell. Five of the prisoners had to be removed from the experiment for fear of permanent damage and the researchers concluded that a third of the guards displayed “genuine sadistic tendencies”.
What happened in that university experiment is not perfectly comparable to the occupation since the IDF enacts many measures to preempt and deter soldiers from abusing their power. This abuse of power that the Stanford experiment showed us comes so quickly and naturally when put in certain situations. One of the major measures the IDF has to stave off abuses of power is the IDF Code of Ethics and enforcing those ethics in its military legal system. If the Stanford Prison Experiment had a mechanism, like the IDF tribunals, in which abuses of power were punished, things wouldn’t have escalated as they did, and it all would have looked very different.
But the right is trying to delegitimize the very mechanism the IDF has in place to protect us from those conditions. They’re trying to delegitimize one of the most important mechanisms that is keeping the occupation from devolving into a chaotic situation like we saw in the experiment; a situation in which powerful guards have free reign over people they must govern and rule. Is that where we want to send our kids? Is that considered protecting them?
We’re trying to protect our soldiers and our kids; not just tomorrow or next year, but also in ten and twenty years. The only way to protect our kids, short term, is to strengthen and respect its governing military legal system. But that’s not enough. The only long term solution is a full and complete end to the occupation, and that it the only way to protect any future Elor Azarias.