The Spirit of the IDF

By Tzvi Hauser

The Israeli army’s new code of ethics is a milestone in the dejudaization of Israel.

After nearly fifty years’ experience in waging war, fighting terror, and all manner of possible military confrontation, it was decided recently that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) needed a code of ethics. Without question, the formulation of such a code for an institution that plays so crucial a role in the life of the nation is a watershed in the process of defining the identity of Israeli society. The unique circumstances of Israel’s existence have produced a reality in which the metaphor of “a nation in arms” is a true description of daily life—and not merely during national emergencies. There is probably no other country in the Western world in which the army experience plays such a critical role. Thus a code designed for both regular and reserve units touches intimately upon the lives of the majority of the population.

The IDF code of ethics, entitled Spirit of the IDF, is designed to be the credo of Israelis bound together within the framework of military service. A misformulation of the IDF’s values system in such a code could therefore produce disharmony between the society’s scale of values and that of the army, a confounding of moral principles and moral dissonance; or it could produce a code that would be essentially moribund—an irrelevant document that reflects neither the ideal nor the real. But the worst possibility is that the code will have a profound effect on the self-image of the Israeli military and its purpose, thereby doing untold damage to values of Israeli society as a whole.
The manner in which the IDF chose to compose its code of ethics is questionable at best. It is doubtful whether the size and composition of the committee selected to compose the code was appropriate to the importance of the task at hand. But even greater doubt hovers over the results of its handiwork: For the committee’s final product, adopted formally as the code of ethics of the Israeli military two years ago, is without a trace of either Jewish or Zionist content. At best, this omission turns Spirit of the IDF into a mass of directives that have all too much “IDF” in them and not enough “spirit”; but it has a much more profound meaning as well: The omission of anything particularly Jewish in the armed forces of the Jewish state turns this document into a trophy for Post-Zionist ideology, and a milestone in its attempts to take root in the heart of the Israeli collective mindset.
On December 26, 1994, the IDF distributed a code of ethics to all its units. The cover letter proclaimed that the code “constitutes the position of the army leadership regarding the spirit of the IDF, as well as the principles and basic guidelines that will serve as its beacon, guiding it in the full spectrum of its activities.”
The idea of providing the IDF with a code of ethics originated with Maj.-Gen. Ilan Biran, who was impressed with the U.S. army’s code of ethics. The concept was then adopted by then Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, who ordered that a committee be established to draft the code. The decision to compose a code of ethics and turn its military intuition into an explicit, written and clearly defined collective awareness was based on two goals, as delineated by the top command:
“I. Creation of a moral foundation for the soldiers’ behavior, as an alternative to the existential and coercive foundation which had previously guided the military’s actions.” This may be interpreted as an abandonment of traditional catchphrases of the Israeli military, such as the biblically based injunction to “Kill the one who is coming to kill you,” and others from Zionist phraseology such as “Belief in the justice of the cause” and “It is good to die for our country.” The new motto can be summed up in a different biblical verse: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Among other things, this shift seems to be an attempt to maintain the attractiveness of the military among that sector of the population serving despite its increasing alienation from the coercive military system.
“II. Minimization of incidents in which troops act in contravention of accepted IDF norms.” In cases where an order may infringe upon a soldier’s belief system, an ethical code would make it difficult for soldiers to act according to their conscience, thereby reducing the incidence of disobedience by further delegitimizing it. One may assume that the IDF’s top officers surmised that in the years to come the army would face arduous tasks that would ignite moral polemics and disrupt the motivation to serve; this reinforced the need to define and hone the ethical norms of military operations.
The committee was chaired by Asa Kasher, a professor at Tel Aviv University, with the participation of the head of the IDF Personnel Division, the Chief Education Officer and the IDF Judge Advocate-General. After a year of deliberations, a final text was then approved by the General Staff, which also gave it its name, Spirit of the IDF. This constituted the first attempt ever made to take the existing but abstract set of concepts which underlay the operations of the defense forces and concretize them in a detailed and explicit fashion.
Of the four members officially appointed to the drafting committee, Kasher was the only one who represented academia, thereby providing a scholarly seal of approval for the code. All three of the others served on the committee in the line of their duty as career officers and as representatives of the defense establishment. It is not at all clear why, in the drafting of this crucial document, additional civilians were not involved, nor why the IDF did not see fit to deepen the academic part of the team, especially with additional specialists in philosophy and ethics. Nor did the defense establishment include individuals from other branches of the humanities or other cultural leaders. Considering that the topic under consideration touches the vast majority of the Israeli population, one could easily have understood appointing a broad forum; in what is supposed to be a virtual Magna Carta of the Israel Defense Forces, it would have been appropriate to seek the active participation, or at least the input, of a greater number of active and retired military personnel, philosophers, cultural figures, authors and others who, as a body, could truly have laid claim to being representative of all of Israeli society.
It should be noted that at least three rough drafts of the document were prepared. These were presented to various divisions within the IDF at different levels of command, but there was no parallel advisement process on the civilian side. Kasher himself said that he showed the drafts to some of his colleagues, but their criticisms and reactions were not brought before any forum superior to the four-man committee. The clear implication of all this is that one extremely limited body had the sole prerogative to determine the content and form of the code.
With regard to discussions within the military, the three drafts were all shown to the General Staff, which was the only group that could impose its view on the committee of four. As far as is known, however, the contribution of the members of the General Staff consisted primarily of simplifying and sharpening the more cumbersome language. With regard to more substantive aspects, the main concern of the General Staff was the military aspects of the code, and not necessarily the “civilian” facets. And to a certain degree, it is only natural that the IDF’s top-ranking officers, constantly dealing with matters of life and death and supervising a colossal military bureaucracy, did not regard the formulation of a code of ethics as a mission of highest priority. To them, the code was just another batch of directives subject to their approval.
In addition to the fact that the IDF chose only one individual from outside the military to participate in the composition of the code, the selection of Kasher to be that particular individual must itself raise eyebrows. Although Kasher is considered to be among the leading ethicists in Israel, his public standing springs first and foremost from numerous controversial declarations which plant him firmly on the extreme political left.
For example, Kasher is on record as favoring the effective suspension of the Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to all Jews wishing to immigrate; the returning to Israel of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees who have been living in Arab states for decades; as well as Arab political autonomy for large parts of pre-1967 Israel:
I would limit the automatic right to receive Israeli citizenship to Jewish refugees who are oppressed in their countries of origin for being Jews. Regarding other Jews seeking to settle in Israel, their requests should be considered in the same way as any other request for citizenship. Other countries proceed in this manner....
It is possible, in my opinion, to return [Arab] refugees to live in Jaffa in place of the [Jewish] garages and workshops that have opened up there. These are now a nuisance. They could be moved without causing any injustice. In their place, we could put in Palestinian refugees....
The Galilee will represent [for my grandchildren or great-grandchildren] the same dilemma as the West Bank does for us today. In order to preserve the Jewish majority in Israel and its democratic regime, there may be a need to give the Galilee a separate status, for example as an “autonomous region” that would be federated with Israel. I would not automatically dismiss such an option.…1

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