by Eetta Prince-Gibson
We see our soldiers as our sons. In Israel, it is part of our collective ethos. We don’t see soldiers as robot-like lines of buzz cuts and uniforms, but as the beautiful children that we have collectively given birth to and cared for.
But Elor Azaria is not my son, and his family is not my family.
Last month, Azaria was convicted of manslaughter for killing Abd Fatah al-Sharif in the West Bank on March 23, 2016. With knives, Al-Sharif and his co-perpetrator, Ramzi al-Kasrawi, attacked a group of soldiers on patrol in the West Bank city of Hebron. Responding quickly, the soldiers shot and killed al-Kasrawi and critically wounded al-Sharif. Azaria, a company medic, arrived on the scene about six minutes after the first shooting and tended to a fellow soldier, who had been lightly wounded. Five minutes later, Azaria walked up to al-Sharif and summarily shot him in the head, killing him instantly.
On Tuesday, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and demoted to the rank of private. The highly-publicized, contentious trial has been a source of dissension in Israeli society for over a year. The conviction, which was worded in the most scathing terms, and the sentence, which was significantly lighter than the prosecution asked for, were supposed to put an end to the controversy. Instead, they have shown that Israel is divided into feuding families that increasingly have little to do with each other and want to have even less.
Our children serve in the same army, but they are not brothers. I know that once my children, our children, are conscripted into the army, they also became well-trained and well-armed soldiers, taught to shoot and kill. I could make some peace with that awful reality because I believe that they were also trained to obey internationally recognized rules of engagement and conduct, accept the basic laws of humanity, use good judgment and endanger their own and others’ lives only when truly necessary.
But Elor Azaria’s family thinks that he is a hero because he shot and killed a Palestinian terrorist who was already down. They have made it clear that they believe that vengeance is our right as Jews. Azaria entered the courtroom with an in-your-face smile, mugging for the cameras, acting more like a superstar than a soldier convicted of manslaughter. His mother was wearing blue and white nail polish, the letters on each nail spelling out “mother’s hero.”
Even so, I might have summoned up the compassion that parents feels for their son. I know that serving in the tense angry city of Hebron, pulled by the fanatical settlers and pushed by angry, hateful Palestinians, will corrupt a young man’s or a young woman’s sense of right and wrong. The occupation creates circumstances that can destroy the moral fiber of society and its individuals. It makes a mockery of Rabbi Judah Hanassi’s call, “In a place where there is no mensch—be a mensch.” [Ethics of the Fathers, 2:5]. The occupation creates untenable, immoral situations, but I hope that, at least more often than not, our children-soldiers will be careful and even, at least sometimes, compassionate.
But Azaria didn’t even try. He has a long history of racist comments and opinions. And when his company commander, Major Tom Neeman asked him what he had done, Azaria said: “This terrorist was alive, and he needs to die.” Throughout the highly-politicized and highly televised trial, Azaria never once expressed any remorse.
The Azaria’s and I aren’t part of the same extended family, either. Populist right-wing politicians have adopted Azaria to garner cheap votes. A few former army high-rankers, now looking for public careers, declared that “the sentence for a terrorist is death.” As the judges read out his verdict last month, mobs of his supporters jeered outside the courthouse, screaming epitaphs and threats at the Chief of Staff, the army that put him on trial and the judges that convicted him.
My family thinks that the 18-month sentence may be too light, but at least it sends a message. Their family, lead by government ministers, thinks he shouldn’t have been sentenced at all. Education Minister Naftali Bennet has said that he should be pardoned and warned: “Elor was sent to protect Israelis at the height of a wave of Palestinian terror attacks. He cannot go to jail or we will all pay the price.” Also calling for a pardon, Culture Minister Miri Regev said that “Elor should not sit a single day in prison beyond the time he has already served.”
The real familial divides in Israeli society are not between Palestinians and Israelis; left-wingers and right-wingers; pragmatists and dreamers; or religious and secular. The divides that matter are between those who strive to hold on to their sense of what is right and moral, no matter how abused, hurt or enraged they feel, and those who embrace hatred and revenge; between those who mourn the loss of any life and those who are so busy vilifying the “other” that they’ve lost any semblance of compassion; between those who know that “truth” is often complex and contradictory and those who believe that the truth of the street is absolute.
Thus, to accept Elor Azaria as my metaphorical son would be to betray my own son and daughter. Accepting Azaria and what he and his family represent would be tantamount to telling my children that I no longer believe in the values that my husband and I strived to inculcate. Worse, it would be telling them that their year of volunteer service before they were conscripted, and the years they spent in the army and reserve duty have been a waste, that this country is not worth defending because it doesn’t even try to be just and moral anymore.
But I don’t believe that. With all its faults, even as the occupation enters its 50th year, there is much to defend and be proud of here—including the military establishment that sent Azaria to trial, and the justice system that convicted and sentenced him.
After the sentencing, Elor’s parents, hugging and kissing their child, led the crowd in a rousing rendition of Hatikva—“The Hope”—Israel’s national anthem. But this isn’t what I hope for—not for my children, not for our children and not for our country.