Saturday, March 21, 2009

T-Shirts Tell The Tale

There has been a lot of talk lately about how the Israeli army (and society) has lost its moral compass. The brutality of the Gaza war (and the 2006 Lebanon II war) have brought this to the fore. To see the latest testimony of Israeli soldiers about the lack of moral restraints and ethical reflection - the contemptuous meanness that has crept into the Israeli army - read the soldiers own testimonies as published in Haaretz.

Tons has been written already about these revelations, and there is a not a lot I can add. Two articles stand out however, and are worth a read.

Patrick Martin's piece in the Globe, aptly titled "A Farewell to the Purity of Arms."(And BTW see also my own previous blog entries on Purity of Arms, from October 2008.) Martin ends his article with an observation by Rabbi Dow Marmur (formerly of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto)

Irving Greenberg said it's incumbent on us Jews to exercise power with a memory of powerlessness, otherwise the history of Judaism will be invalidated.

That is something these soldiers should be told. But, instead, we are sending these young people into wars they can't win; putting enormous pressure on them to finish the job. It's no wonder they shoot to kill everyone.

It's up to Jewish leadership to guard against this.

Yes indeed!

The other interesting piece is Bernard Avishai's piece "Child Abuse", in which he writes:

Let me get this straight. We take 18 and 19-year-olds, young people who are little more than children themselves, and at a time of life when showing the utmost cool is a kind of sexual ante; a time when ideas about the world are largely received wisdoms; when bodies are at their utmost strength but so is the fear of death ... when the people from whom wisdoms are received are parents or mentors loved to the utmost; when minds are just intimidated enough about life's scrum to feel utmost gratitude for family and commonwealth--when the desire to prove one's loyalty is at its most intense.

Then we take these youth ... and tell them that the Arabs, deep down, will never want a Jewish state in the neighborhood; that, in any case, the land is sacred, and giving ground is an utmost sin of Jewish law, as is showing mercy to those who would kill you; that ... terrorism can come in any form, male and female, young and old ...

We tell them, moreover, that the [Arab] civilians ... encouraged the terrorism they must now root out, ... that these Arabs are secretly all waiting and hoping for Iran, the new Amalek, to incinerate Tel-Aviv;... that the strategic goal is to reestablish deterrence, which means scaring the shit out of Arabs, so that they will finally accept the fact that, as former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon put it, they are a "defeated" people ...

Presumably, some European state prosecutor will now want to take our children to the world court. But I wonder: if the court had a social worker, would she not just be threatening to take them away from their parents?
As if to prove his point, I stumbled across these photos in an article in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz. They are of printed T-shirts that soldiers in Israeli army units make for themselves. This is a a long standing tradition in the Israeli army. A way of bonding with your army buddies and showing off to the people back home. I have a unit T-shirt from when I served in the Israeli army. The difference is that these crop logos of are just plan vicious, whereas they used to be merely macho - or, in the case of my unit, humorous.

The sad thing to remember when viewing these army T-shirts, is that Israel has a "peoples army". There is a universal draft, and most young people serve, and are therfore saturated to the culture that produces these shirts. The state of war, the universal military service, the day to day conflict with the Arabs, has been going on for 60 years. It has intensified in the past 40 years (since the occupations of 1967) and then stepped up a notch in the last 20 years (since the first intifada). The results are seen in the stories revealed by soldiers' interviews in Haaretz.

Dow Marmur, in his comments in the Globe, asks: "The important thing to determine is: Were these isolated incidents or widespread behaviour?"

Sadly, I think the T-shirt logos show that the moral rot is deep. Maybe these kids will grow out of it. Or, more probably, they will grow up to be the senior officers, policy makers and educators of tomorrow.

* * *

On the right, a T-Shirt showing a mosque being dynamited, produced for the Sapper's Unit of Battalion 13 of the Golani Brigade. The text reads, "Only God Forgives."

On the left, showing a child in the cross-hairs, a shirt produced for graduates of a Snipers Course. The text reads, "The Smaller, The More Difficult."

Above, a shirt produced for soldiers of the Givati Brigade at the end of 2008. The text reads, "Every Arab Mother Knows That The Fate Of Her Son Is In My Hands" (This text had previously been banned from a T-shirt in another infantry unit.)

On the right, showing a pregnant Arab woman with her belly in the cross-hairs, a T-shirt produced for soldiers in the Sniper Platoon of the Shaked Battalion of the Golani Brigade. The text reads "Sniper Platoon, One Shot Two Kills."

On the left, showing a Samurai, a T-Shirt produced for the soldiers of the Haruv Battalion of the Kfir Brigade. The text reads, "We will not rest until we have confirmed the kill." (A reference to the illegal but common practice of shooting dead, dying, or sometimes just wounded, enemy in the head at close range, to make sure they are dead.)

Above are logos ordered for T-shirts.

On the top, for soldiers from Battalion 13 of the Golani Brigade. The text reads, "Haniyeh, Full cock up the barrel. End of Operation Cast Lead" (Haniyeh is the Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza.)

On the bottom right, for the "Carmon Team" graduates of a reconnaissance snipers' course. The text reads, "You (male) need to run faster. To run faster before you are finished. And later they (female) cry, and later they cry."

On the bottom left, for infantry snipers. The text requires no translation.

* * *
When I lived in Israel, it was not rare (but not common either) to hear people talk like this. But no one (outside of the Kahanists) would have put it in writing and certainly not on a T-Shirt. And certainly not on an army sanctioned T-shirt.

The Haaretz article about the T-shirts did point out that when one of the soldiers went to pick up his T-Shirt at the custom T-Shirt store, he realized that the employee who handed him his shirt was an Israeli Arab. "I felt bad for him," he said.

Maybe, where there is shame there is hope.


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