Two Jewish Nations

The latest acts in the long running saga of Elor Azaria emphasize the deep divisions among Israeli Jews.

There are also sharpening gaps between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora. Especially prominent are those separating us from the large Jewish community in the United States.

The Azaria problem is closer to home, but it’s not without overseas Jews signing on to one or the other side in our verbal warfare.

Azaria is the young man, who when stationed with his IDF unit in Hebron, shot and killed an inert Palestinian who had been severely injured after attacking soldiers with a knife.

The military court of appeals has now confirmed the verdict and sentence of the court martial. The judges went beyond a simple statement. The reading of their decision went on for two and one-half hours in assessing the evidence weighed by the lower court, emphasizing the lack of reliability in Azaria’s testimony, and his guilt in violating the IDF norms in behalf of human rights, and his taking of a life without necessity.

The division of Israeli society became apparent immediately after the court’s decision.  Azaria’s mother collapsed on the court. Other family members and supporters outside the building demonstrated their rejection of the court’s authority. TV showed one middle aged woman hugging Azaria, and proclaiming that he was the son of us all. The Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, and other government ministers affirmed their intention to work for the soldier’s pardon. Commentators noted that surveys showed 70 percent of the country’s Jewish population supporting  Azaria, feeling that the terrorist got what he deserved.

Politicians and commentators to the left of Likud seem just as united in admiring the decision of the appellate court, with some of them noting that a minority of the judges felt the sentence (18 months) too lenient, and expressing the view that Azaria should have been tried for the crime of murder rather than the lesser crime of killing.

Azaria’s original lawyers had urged the soldier to admit his error and plead for mercy. When the family signed on to a well-known fire brand intent on appealing, the original lawyers resigned from the case.

After his case was rejected by the Military Court of Appeals, the present lawyer sought to bargain with the head of the military but met a rejection. Then he drafted Azaria’s explanation of his action, something less than an admission of guilt, apology, and request for mercy. The commander of the IDF had said that he will consider a lightening of the sentence if Azaria complies with what is required. That seems to require that Azaria admits fault, an idea which he and his family have so far rejected.

A number of commentators have lamented the stubbornness of Azaria, his family, and his current lawyer. Several have said that an early admission of guilt, explained by the tensions in Hebron, could have reduced Azaria’s process to an internal disciplinary hearing, an official reprimand, with little or no jail time. Somewhere in the mix is Azaria’s earlier affiliation with Kahanist sentiments toward Arabs, and his statement, immediately after the shooting, that the Arab deserved to die on account of attacking soldiers.

The professor of philosophy who authored the IDF’s code of conduct has been outspoken in defense of the court’s reasoning, which has also gained support in the upper reaches of the military. The professor has criticized the lightness of the sentence. He noted that Azaria’s military function as a medic should have led him to treat the severely wounded Palestinian rather than shoot him in the head. He also argued that any pardon, or even a lightening of the sentence. will weaken the code of ethics that distinguishes the IDF from militias that are ravishing populations elsewhere in the Middle East.

Few if any have said that Israeli soldiers are free of violations. The philosopher noted that the code of ethics stands against behavior in the field, which is likely to be imperfect. Azaria’s fate was affected by his action in the presence of officers, other soldiers, and observers armed with cell phone cameras. When questioned by the court martial, the testimony of Azaria’s officers and colleagues confirmed his action as being unnecessary, and beyond the norms that the IDF trains its soldiers to observe.

Currently, Azaria is scheduled to enter a military prison later this week and spend at least a month there before the IDF Commander will consider his appeal for clemency. The kid is asking to delay his imprisonment until the Commander decides on his appeal. We’ll see if the IDF Commander can accept as sufficient what Azaria’s has so far prepared for him. Somewhere in the procedures is the possibility of appealing to the President for pardon or clemency.

Azaria, his family, and his lawyer think they are holding some cards, even after two levels of Court Martial have decided that he lied, and violated one of the IDF’s principle norms.

Politics will be somewhere.  The police have issued a statement indicating that the Prime Minister is suspected of bribery and other criminal acts. Some expect a heightening of his support for Azaria, in hopes that it’ll put him on a political wave that buys some more time.

Skeptics can wonder how much the PM’s support will help when the clouds around him are getting darker by the day.

Optimists see this storm as another temporary occurrence, inevitable in the animosity that surrounds Israel, daily efforts of individual Arabs to kill Jews, and the blatant incitement by Muslim religious and political figures. Hopefully, it will blow over, along with the brouhaha involving the embassy guard’s killing of an attacker and bystander in Jordan, and the commotion over metal detectors on the Temple Mount.

It’s no surprise, given the history, that Jews are chronic worriers. Somewhere near the top of the current list are worries about the sharp division within the country’s Jewish community, and its elites. Disraeli’s notion of Two Nations, crafted for the upper and lower classes of mid-19th century Britain deserves consideration.

Jews also argue.

How much we should worry about these recent events is among the things we’ll be arguing.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post