October 5, 2003, Updated September 19, 2012

The line between self-criticism and Israel-bashing is a narrow one.”Aim for peace now. Protest. Own up to your sinfulness. Stop being an oppressor and allow those you’ve hurt to go free.”

We would despise these words, particularly if they were spoken by a national leader, if they appeared on the front page of today’s paper. Yet this criticism of Israel appears in 92 percent of American homes. Those with Bibles. We read them, albeit in more dramatic language on Yom Kippur, in every synagogue. The harsh words of Isaiah sit at the heart of the process of self-examination which culminates on Yom Kippur.

Herein lies the paradox of peoplehood. We are continually struggling for our existence, yet we need to be constantly alert for lapses in morality. What a nuisance. How much easier it would be to suspend morality and do whatever works best.

But 2,700 years after Isaiah, sensitivity to whether or not we see ourselves as a moral people remains integral to our self-definition.

When is it fair even praiseworthy to cry out for national morality, and when does such a call feel like an evil stab in the back? The last few weeks have brought us several examples to consider.

First, a troubling article by former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg appeared in newspapers around the world. I didn’t pay much attention to it until friends visiting France, where a child was being named in memory of their murdered son, made me aware of its impact there.An Internet search revealed how gleefully it had been reprinted in the anti-Israel press a sure blow against Israel in our public relations war.

Burg is concerned foremost with morality. Immoral behavior, he contends, will reduce Israel to a “strange and ugly” Jewish state. He explains away suicide bombing as a reaction to Israel’s callousness toward Palestinian children.

“They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation because their own lives are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated.”

We have to assume particularly at this season of judging favorably that Burg was indeed expressing his own moral outrage at roadblocks and uneven conditions. Unhappily, he ignores their connection to Palestinian violence, and, more to the point, to the Palestinians’ rejection of his proposals as presented by prime minister Ehud Barak.

Watch for the m-word. “We could kill 1,000 ringleaders and engineers a day and nothing would be solved because the leaders come up from below from the wells of hatred and anger, from the ‘infrastructures’ of injustice and moral corruption.

“If all this were inevitable, divinely ordained and immutable, I would be silent. But things could be different, and so crying out is a moral imperative.”

Burg must have been delighted by last week’s pilots’ protest “to redirect Israel’s moral compass” by refusing to fly our airplanes to kill the ringleaders and engineers who send forth murderers.

The group of protesters is tiny 27 initial signers, of whom only nine are on active duty. They are a tiny fringe group out of thousands of Israeli pilots. Why were we in such an uproar?

We idealize our pilots. We all know how hard it is to be accepted for pilots training and how much harder to stay in. Our pilots are gutsy and talented and devoted enough to commit seven years to the military. Only a month ago, we were cheering the jets piloted by children of Holocaust survivors as they flew over Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The pilots’ platform was indeed used against us abroad, but our anger had more to do with the way they attempted to undermine our internal moral stand.

Most of us would agree that while the Jewish army needs to be disciplined, our soldiers should never feel they’re “just carrying out orders.” We accept the right of soldiers to be courtmartialed and go to jail rather than carry out a military duty they consider immoral. If hundreds of soldiers were doing so, we’d be alarmed and the military would be forced to re-evaluate its policies.

But the vast majority of us soldiers and civilians feel the army uses maximum restraint; so much so that several recent operations were compromised. We hate the roadblocks but understand that they are for keeping terrorists out and not a strategy for humiliation.

The targeted hits, though far from perfect, seem like the most efficient and, yes, the most moral way we’ve discovered so far of destroying terrorists.

Every Israeli knows that after the mass murder terror attacks angry voices call for the leveling of whole villages. These remain minority voices and our military is never transformed into a national vehicle of revenge.

Pilots in particular should know better. They’re allowed a certain amount of discretion in what and when to bomb when they see new information from the air. Missions are often aborted at the last minute when civilians are present.

The October Atlantic Monthly features a cover story about the dark art of interrogation, mostly in relation to the war on terror. Included is an interview with the former chief interrogator of our Shin Bet. Israeli investigators are described as highly skillful in extracting information from terrorists, but the article also reveals that Israel is the source of the moral legislation that ensures harsh treatment does not “become commonplace, not just a tool for extracting vital, life-saving information, but a routine tool of oppression.”

This perfectly illustrates the necessary duality of remaining a moral nation at a time of war. So what about the protest article and letter?

Though well intended, both were counterproductive. Because every newspaper identifies Burg as the former speaker of the Knesset not just a disgruntled citizen readers mistakenly assume his is a widespread feeling in Israel.

Likewise, “if our own pilots are protesting,” outsiders including the enemy might assume there’s a widespread military rebellion on hand. Both would be interpreted as victories for Israel’s enemies, encouraged by perceived weakness, and fuel future violence.

The line between self-criticism and Israel-bashing is a narrow one, and in times of national danger we have to be scrupulous in not erring on the bashing side and abetting the enemy.

Indeed, there are dangers in being Isaiah wannabes.

(Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post)

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Jason Harris

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