The week between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron tends to be emotionally charged as Israelis set aside time to grapple with the lessons of the past and the memories of those who were cut down before their time. This year has been no exception. Speaking at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Tel Yitzhak last week, IDF deputy chief of staff Yair Golan caused a maelstrom when he likened some of the trends taking place in Israel today with those of Germany in the 1930s.
“If there is something that frightens me,” he said, “it is identifying horrifying processes that occurred in Europe…and finding evidence of their existence here in our midst, today, in 2016.” The ensuing media firestorm grew so large that, by comparison, reports of mounting tensions along the Gaza border felt like second page news.
Holocaust memory is a sensitive and often politicized subject in Israel. One could construct a pretty articulate dissertation that analyzed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated references to the Holocaust when discussing Iran throughout his political career (including this year). On the opposite pole of Holocaust discourse, President Reuven Rivlin’s apology to Holocaust survivors on behalf of the state for not providing them with enough care and services was a compelling moment in its own right. But whether by design or default, Golan’s statements made headlines, and in the process raised an interesting point about the relationship between the Holocaust and the IDF.
The IDF was founded on May 26, 1948, just days after Israel declared its independence. Forged by fire against an enemy that promised to finish what Hitler had started, half of the Jewish fighting forces in the War of Independence were Holocaust survivors, many of whom had arrived by boat to Haifa port in 1948 only to be conscripted and marched to the frontlines. As a result of this founding legacy, almost no institution in Israel boasts such a demonstrative embodiment of the “Never Again” spirit. Israeli military flyovers above Auschwitz have become legendary amongst IDF veterans. Even during the national Yom HaShoah ceremony held at Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem), IDF soldiers more often than not assist survivors as they light torches for each of the six million. As former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi reflected during his 2008 visit to the Warsaw ghetto, “The State of Israel and the IDF are the answer to the Holocaust, and they will ensure that such an event does not take place in the future.” It should come as no surprise that the IDF has consistently received high levels of public trust throughout the decades. After all, the IDF has long been perceived as more than just a civilian army, rather as the force that stands between the Israeli public and a second Holocaust.
This has been a resilient narrative over the last 68 years. However the IDF’s relationship with the Holocaust goes well beyond rhetoric. The IDF Code of Ethics, which declares all human beings as equals, “regardless of race, creed, nationality, gender, status or role” contains meaningful post-Holocaust language that prioritizes morality. Not only does it state that soldiers must “preserve human dignity” at all costs, but the Code of Ethics also includes a clause that demands soldiers “disavow manifestly illegal orders” – a sharp contrast to those Nazi soldiers and bureaucrats who chose to blindly obey. While some may find it difficult to believe, the IDF speedily and soberly serves justice upon those within its own ranks who violate these principles. The Holocaust is seen in the IDF not merely as a cautionary tale for what happens when Jewish power is absent, but as the ultimate example of what happens when power is abused.
All of this is to say that the IDF’s identity is deeply connected with the memory of the Holocaust, and is therefore guided by a powerful moral compass. In this context, that a high-ranking IDF commander would refer to the Holocaust when discussing worrisome trends in Israeli society is not quite as shocking as it seems at first glance. Perhaps Golan was speaking on behalf of a larger institutional frustration with the status quo? From a military perspective, biannual operations into Gaza (yes, that means Israel and Hamas are due for another round of violence) and the continued monitoring of the West Bank yield no strategic victories or paradigmatic shifts. But more consequentially, preserving the status quo damages Israeli democracy and challenges the IDF’s ability to retain its moral authority. Golan was not suggesting moral equivalence between Israeli and Nazi Germany, but issuing a warning about the wider lessons that must be absorbed from the Holocaust and the necessity of maintaining moral vigilance when employing military force.
Golan is one of many outspoken military officials who have challenged the Israeli government’s positions of late. Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot’s swift condemnation of the shooting of a neutralized Palestinian terrorist in Hebron on March 24 was lambasted by several right-wing MKs, including Jewish Home party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. And last November, IDF Intelligence Chief Herzi Halevi challenged Netanyahu’s claim that Palestinian violence was due to increased incitement, arguing that despair and frustration with the status quo were more prominent drivers.
Are we witnessing a new chapter in the history of the IDF’s relationship with the state? Would a more vocal military leadership balance out the incendiary rhetoric of some politicians on the Israeli right? Or is the meddling of military elites in political affairs a breach of Israeli democracy? The answers to these questions cannot be answered immediately. There is a long history of IDF interference in social and political issues over the years, so the current tension between Israel’s political and military leaders is not unprecedented.
However, Golan’s statements should serve as a reminder that while the IDF may not hold a monopoly over the memory of the Holocaust, it remains an influential voice within Israeli public discourse whose warnings should be taken seriously by politician and citizen alike. If one is to properly understand the IDF’s ethos and moral code, understanding the IDF’s relationship to the Holocaust is a necessary place to start.