There’s a uniquely Israeli character to the furor that’s erupted over the so-called shooting soldier — the army medic arrested March 24 after being caught on video shooting a wounded, immobilized Palestinian terrorist in Hebron.
The lines seem clear-cut. The military, traditionally Israel’s most admired institution, insists on enforcing its much-touted ethical code. The public is responding with outrage, believing — by wide margins, polls show — that the generals are protecting Israel’s enemies and punishing its defenders.
On one level, it’s a story that’s recurring all over the West, as citizens vent fury at leaders who can’t seem to protect them from one crisis after another. Still, in an important sense, this Israeli crisis is something different: an expression of a certain exceptionalism that’s shared by Israel and America and that sets them apart from other democracies. And not in a good way.
In fact, the shooting-soldier uproar — a wave of public support for a soldier awaiting court-martial for homicide — is a sort of Israeli parallel to the Donald Trump phenomenon. Both are eruptions of rage at elites that have spent decades promising solutions to problems that just keep getting worse. Solutions that never made any sense and are now blowing up in their faces.
The American version is mostly familiar, but bears repeating. It begins with a post-World War II economic boom that roared through three decades, fueled by technological advances and American might, spread evenly across society by smart regulation, progressive taxes (averaging 80% on top incomes) and strong unions.
The Arab oil crisis of 1973 ended the three-decade postwar boom abruptly. But change was coming anyway. Globalization — the combined impact of jet travel, satellite communications, container shipping and computerization — was making it cheaper to produce goods overseas and to ship them here rather than pay Americans good wages.
Political leaders responded with mostly bipartisan plans for restoring growth and prosperity: tax cuts, deregulation and de-unionization. Growth returned, but prosperity wasn’t shared. Politicians responded to public disappointment with more deregulation and more tax cuts, producing more disappointment.
It was a pure snake-oil solution, as honest politicians occasionally admitted, like Ronald Reagan budget director David Stockman in his infamously frank 1981 Atlantic Monthly interview. And it served an ulterior motive: Tax cuts and deregulation enriched the rich, whatever their impact on everyone else. Salesmen kept touting it, larded with gobs of cultural resentment. And voters kept buying it.
Economic bubbles came and went, alternating with ever-sharper downturns and growing public impatience. Voter impatience naturally leads to political extremism, which deters compromise. The inevitable result is gridlock. What the public saw was politicians doing nothing.
It all exploded in the 2008 economic crisis. Since then, public rage has soared, yielding more gridlock and, in turn, more public rage. And now, here we are.
Israel’s current crisis is quite different, yet strikingly similar. Israeli voters’ core complaint is physical, not just economic, security. Yet the cycle of snake-oil solutions, disappointment, anger and bigger doses of snake oil is the same.
As in America, political leaders in Israel promise to solve the voters’ problems with solutions that are supposed to make things better but keep making things worse. For years they’ve told Israelis that given Arab hostility, they’ll be safer if they hold on to the West Bank than if they withdraw and put a border between themselves and the Palestinians.
If Palestinians are unhappy with the arrangement, so the logic goes, maintaining Israeli control allows the military to keep a tight lid on unrest — until such time as the Palestinians learn to accept the justice of Israel’s presence. Put differently, the response to your neighbor’s anger and dislike is not to fence off your yard, but to sit on the neighbor’s neck until the neighbor learns to like you. The fact that things get worse instead of better only proves you haven’t pushed hard enough.
The crisis that erupted in Hebron on March 24 has been building since 2009, when Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister. He brought a deep, long-standing skepticism toward previous governments’ diplomatic efforts, and a strong belief in displays of force. Tensions soon emerged with the military, which was questioning the effectiveness of purely military solutions. Disputes came first over Iran, then over the Palestinians.
Barbs flew back and forth. Military retirees, reflecting the views of the active command, questioned government policies repeatedly. Cabinet ministers questioned the military command’s resolve, particularly as repeated Gaza incursions ended in stalemates. When random Palestinian stabbing attacks erupted in the West Bank last October and the army had no solution, hotheads and militant rabbis piled on.
On February 17, the military chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, touched off a minor furor with a remark to high school seniors that soldiers shouldn’t “empty their ammunition clips” into Palestinian teenagers “armed with scissors.” In polls just weeks earlier he’d been Israel’s most admired leader. Now he became a punching bag.
On March 12, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef weighed in, declaring in a homily that soldiers had a religious obligation to kill attackers rather than let them survive, and that they “shouldn’t fear the Supreme Court or chief of staff.” Twelve days later, a soldier fired a shot into the head of a Palestinian attacker who lay wounded on a Hebron street.
A court-martial will decide whether the soldier’s actions are indeed culpable, but much of the country has chosen sides. The military — including even the soldier’s battalion commander, a graduate of the militant Mercaz HaRav yeshiva — says that from the available evidence, it looks like an open-and-shut case of unnecessary force, perhaps homicide. The public told respected pollster Mina Tzemach by a 2-to-1 margin that the soldier did nothing wrong.
There’s additional evidence on each side. Although the Israeli press is barred from publishing the soldier’s name and image, they’re all over the web on Facebook and other pages supporting him. On his own page, the youngster, Elor Azarya, 19, from the gritty Jewish-Arab town of Ramleh, has expressed admiration for the racist ideas of Rabbi Meir Kahane. He was videotaped being congratulated by Kahane’s chief disciple, Baruch Marzel, after the shooting. It’s no coincidence that the first formal statement of support for him came from La Familia, a gang of racist soccer hooligans identified with the rowdy Betar Jerusalem team.
On the other side, Eisenkot has been reduced in public opinion in just weeks from a larger-than-life hero to an Arab-loving coward. Anger toward the military command has reached such heights that the defense minister, Likud stalwart and outspoken rightist Moshe Ya’alon, himself a onetime chief of staff, has been expressing alarm about public resentment undermining national security.
Also lining up with the generals, though more hesitantly, is their own favorite punching bag, Netanyahu. He and his top lieutenants are in a tight spot. They’re looking more and more like the beleaguered Republican establishment every day.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).