OSWIECIM, Poland — With just weeks to go before he retires, Israel’s military chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, came to Auschwitz last week to deliver a moral sermon to the troops back home.
“Never again — never victims and never murderers,” Ya’alon said, standing alongside a swath of barbed wire and addressing a small group of reporters and guests. “It’s very important to me that officers who come here take with them a heavy moral load.”
Ya’alon’s two-day trip to Poland, his first ever, was formally described as a personal odyssey to the country where much of his family perished during World War II.
Inescapably, however, the trip became a commentary on his stormy tenure as army chief and on his even stormier departure.
Ya’alon’s three-year term coincided with the heaviest fighting of the Palestinian intifada. He is widely credited with retooling the army for the shift from conventional warfare to the urban fighting of the 21st century. Critics, however, have charged with increasing frequency that the new mode of warfare has taken a toll on the treasured Israeli military code of ethics, the doctrine known as Purity of Arms.
The criticism reached a peak last fall, when a rash of incidents came to light within days of one another in mid-November. In one, an officer was caught on video “confirming the kill” of a 13-year-old Gaza girl by firing into her dead body. In another, soldiers were photographed posing around the severed head of a suicide bomber, a cigarette propped in the lips. In a third, perhaps most disturbing to Israelis, a Palestinian man was forced to play his violin for soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint, ostensibly to prove that it was not booby-trapped.
Responses in the defense establishment were split between those who called for an urgent review and those who dismissed the critics as sentimental. Ya’alon’s designated successor as chief of staff, Dan Halutz, a major general, is widely seen as a leader of the stand-firm school. An air force pilot, he was once quoted as saying that when he drops a bomb, he feels nothing but a “slight bump.” In a Ha’aretz interview in August 2002, he appeared to dismiss the very premise of the traditional ethics code, calling it “a fundamentally invalid concept.”
Ya’alon’s remarks at Auschwitz seemed to be aimed squarely at the Halutz school. “We are an army that is asked to kill and, it should be noted, we kill because we must,” Ya’alon said, “but we need to be able to bridge the gap, to understand the tension, between victim and murderer.”
The drama of Ya’alon’s visit was heightened by its timing. He is due to step down in early June after completing a three-year term and being denied a fourth year. Ya’alon is the first chief of staff in Israel’s history to be denied an extension.
The refusal came in a midnight message in late February from the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, who was Ya’alon’s predecessor as chief of staff. The clash between the two is believed to be a mixture of personal and philosophical matters; Ya’alon had clashed repeatedly with Mofaz and Sharon on the easing of restrictions on Palestinians, which Ya’alon favored. Mofaz and Sharon were believed to be eager to bring in Halutz, who is close to both of them, as Ya’alon’s successor.
Ya’alon, a kibbutznik who continues to hand over his monthly paycheck to his Negev kibbutz, was left fuming. In March he told a Knesset committee that his service was “terminated unjustly.” Later that week he insinuated publicly that Mofaz was damaging the army in pursuit of a personal grudge. During Independence Day celebrations this month, he refused the customary seat next to the defense minister.
Some commentators have compared his behavior unfavorably with that of the outgoing Shin Bet security service director, Avi Dichter, who also was refused an extension. However, Dichter left quietly.
Ya’alon has made his disgust with political backstabbing well known. In early May, while speaking to a group of soldiers, he joked that he still wears the high red boots of a paratrooper in and around his office because of all the snakes that surround him.
He came to Poland in those same boots, but seemed at ease. He personally invited a cast of military figures and civilians who lost their sons in uniform to join him on the trip. As he walked the aisle of the air force plane he greeted each one. Among the guests were Yohanan Peltz, an octogenarian in a tweed cap who fought with the British Army’s Jewish Brigade in World War II and later led Israel’s first officers’ training school; a leather-faced retired colonel, Pinhas “Alush” Noy, who received the military’s highest honor in 1956 for storming the police compound in Qalqilya and single-handedly killing nine enemy combatants, and Dror Dagan, a first class sergeant who is a medic in an elite commando unit. He was shot in the face and neck in 2004 while tending to the wife of a wanted terrorist. The bullets, fired by the husband, left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Unlike most Israelis visiting Auschwitz, Ya’alon and his entourage took time to visit other parts of Poland, including the Okopova Street Cemetery and the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw. They also were present for an evening of songs and discussion in Krakow.
Ya’alon said the trip was cathartic. In his childhood home near Haifa, he told the Forward, the Holocaust was a source of shame. “I grew up with two stories in my house,” he said. “One was talked about and the other wasn’t.” His father, a veteran of the Jewish Brigade, regaled his son with war stories. His mother, a native of Galicia who lost her parents and family in the war and hid in the forests before making her way to Palestine in 1947, never mentioned her experiences. “Heaven forbid she should spoil the Zionist youth with terrible tales of what happened on European soil,” he said.
In Ya’alon’s closing remarks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, he kept his head up when he said: “I, Moshe Ya’alon, the commander of the Israel Defense Force and grandson of Moshe and Shayna Zilber, who were killed in the Holocaust… stand here today in an IDF uniform and salute them. I guarantee them, in the name of the IDF, that Jewish blood will never flow freely again.” He snapped a salute that had been welling up inside him for 37 years.