Why We Are Overreacting
In the eleventh hour of the recent Swedish media scandal, in which suspicions (not allegations) of IDF trafficking in Palestinian organs were published by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, a good friend of mine emailed from her home in Stockholm to see what I thought of the whole mess. Her perspective—which boiled down to why are the Israelis overreacting?—was predictable, though one remark stuck out to me in particular: “I believe any army being [sic] capable of pretty much anything. Nothing surprises me.”
This single statement, through misunderstanding, fans the flames of many IDF-related feuds between Israeli Jews and the global “liberal establishment.” It is no secret that Israeli media is often more critical of the IDF and Israeli government than foreign outlets, so why do cases like the Swedish body-snatchers story devolve into full-scale international incidents? In this most recent case, Israelis were not angered by the grotesque conspiracy-theory of a bereaved Palestinian family. The prevailing outrage was that anyone, especially a modern European readership, would believe such monstrous garbage. Who would print such things? The motivation must be racial prejudice and political slander. Or, perhaps, it was simple gullibility?
The answer, probably, was a little of all three. Still, why are we so surprised? In the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanimo, the global perception of powerful militaries is decidedly negative. In places where citizens enjoy little or no contact with the armed forces, soldiers are often intuitively perceived as killing machines, automatons capable of any atrocity. Why do we Israelis take it so personally when our soldiers are treated with the same generalized suspicion?
The answer, and the fact which foreign liberals must come to realize, is that we cannot separate our nation from its army. While some countries have professional armies in which soldiers are self-selecting, the Israeli military drafts everyone. In Israel, ‘soldier’ is not an identity, it is a life-stage, like high-school. Our soldiers are our friends, our brothers, our parents and ourselves. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Americans were furious that their leaders could have encouraged such barbarism, but they did not feel personally implicated. Here in Israel, where the military remains a vestigial bastion of collectivism, we can not make the mental leap which turns the army into an impersonal tool of the government. If an Israeli soldier commits a war crime, it is our own son who has strayed from the path of righteousness. For many Israelis, the IDF is understood as a sort of a moral lens which reflects the society at large.
This unique sensitivity creates enormous tension abroad. Our hair-trigger accusations of anti-Semitism, and the double-standard by which only Israelis are allowed to question the IDF’s moral compass, project self-righteousness and promote the misperception that Israelis give carte blanche to an army that is answerable to no one. As citizens and soldiers ourselves, we support the business of holding our military to the highest moral standard, we just don’t want anybody else sticking their nose in it.
In the case of the Aftonbladet article, the editor should have vetted the story before it was published, and moreover, should have considered its effect on anti-Semitic activities within Sweden. A healthy dose of critical thinking would have helped, since the organ-stealing angle was clearly influenced by old-school Semitiphobic propaganda, but I believe that this was more a case of bad journalism coupled with bad damage-control than any sweeping indicator of Swedish bigotry. Foreign media outlets should have very convincing evidence before printing rumors of IDF malfeasance, since Israelis take these stories very seriously. Still, not every charge deserves a counter-strike. Maybe its time we learned to take the accusations, both reasonable and ridiculous, a little less personally.