The Azaria verdict: A reminder of why Israel is worth fighting for

Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade
Gay Pride Parade, June 8, 2012, in Gan Meir park, Tel Aviv. Photo: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

When the verdict on Elor Azaria started coming in on Wednesday, I had a feeling I didn’t recognize at first because it’s become so rare in me: national pride. I was proud that in my country, a panel of army judges convicted this soldier of executing a gravely wounded Palestinian prisoner who had stabbed a soldier in Hebron – convicted him despite awesome pressure from the political powers that be, from the vicious right-wing street, from Azaria’s loudly outspoken family, and from the public at large, two thirds of whom, according to a reputable poll, believed Azaria had been justified in killing the Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, last March.

In fact, this pride in Israel that was engendered by the verdict – one that demolished every ridiculous argument raised in Azaria’s defense – led me to think of other things about Israel that make me proud:

The justice system. It’s independent (though not, by definition, the military justice system), which takes some doing in the present political climate. It may even end up bringing Netanyahu down for corruption;

The military-intelligence brass. It’s consistently more sober and liberal than the politicians and public, which is rare for a military-intelligence brass in any country. If it wasn’t for them, Netanyahu and his henchman of the time, Ehud Barak, would have bombed Iran early in this decade;

IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot. He was the country’s leading voice of reason and decency throughout the recent “lone wolf intifada,” and is now a marked man for bucking the tide on Azaria. He’s easily Israel’s best leader.

The education system, especially the universities. It’s absolutely chock full of liberals and leftists.

On occasion, the media. One occasion was certainly the reporting of the Azaria verdict. On Channel 2, which dominates TV news, all the journalists – especially superhawk military affairs correspondent Roni Daniel – took a very simple line: Justice has been done.

Good guys vs. bad guys

What am I saying? First I’ll explain what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that all this good stuff balances out the bad stuff, because it doesn’t. Israel is still dominated by the likes of Netanyahu, the Likud, the even further right-wing parties, the settlers and the right-wing “street,” such as the classically fascist mob that massed outside the military court in Tel Aviv, baying for Eisenkot’s blood (and, fittingly, waving Trump banners). The bad guys set the direction for this country, and have for nearly all of the last generation.

I’m not saying, either, that the court system, the military-intelligence brass, Eisenkot, the education system and the media are good enough – far, far from it. The court system has allowed the occupation to thrive; the military-intelligence establishment, led now by Eisenkot, enforce it, and are also full partners with the government in the periodic attacks on Lebanon and Syria; the public schools in general are a key player in the nationalistic indoctrination of the country’s youth; and the popular media are indispensable in continually gearing the country up for war.

And even in the Azaria verdict – you can’t avoid asking whether he would have been arrested, indicted and convicted if his shooting of Sharif hadn’t been caught on video by a Palestinian worker for B’Tselem, and if that video hadn’t gone viral. Further, the case against him was so strong – he killed Sharif 11 minutes after the latter had been shot several times and was laid out on the ground, all but motionless; commanders and officers at the scene testified against him. Would Azaria have been convicted if the evidence wasn’t stacked so overwhelmingly against him?

So, no, the verdict is not cause for a parade, and the court system, Eisenkot, the universities and the rest do not cancel out the occupation, the wars of aggression, the systematic discrimination against Israeli Arabs and persecution of African refugees, and the general spirit of belligerent Jewish triumphalism that dominates the country.

The decent minority

What I’m saying, though, is that these institutions and the military chief do, at least, stand in opposition to the reigning national spirit. And there are millions of Israelis who stand with them.

We are clearly the minority in this country. And the majority, for its part, keeps gaining political power, especially as the parliamentary “opposition,” led by Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog, cozies up to public opinion. Also, we of the minority are not anywhere near militant enough. The absence of any spontaneous demonstration in support of the Azaria verdict, in support of Eisenkot and in opposition to the rabid right is no accident; we’re afraid of being attacked by the Brown Shirt types who ran wild in Tel Aviv.

So Israel’s glass is not half full and half empty; it’s mainly empty. But not completely. There is still a substantial minority of the population, along with powerful institutions that, while badly lacking what it takes to change the country’s direction, is still a legitimate source of pride. There is a substantial part of Israel that is decent. The political leadership and most of the public are headed down the slope of ultra-nationalism, but a big part of the Israeli body politic really is not going for it. The Azaria verdict was a reminder that they exist, too.

We who want to change this country’s direction must never forget the existence of this decent Israel. It’s what makes the country’s steady, steep moral decline a tragedy – if there was nothing good about this place, the fact that it’s going to hell wouldn’t be such a great loss. But there is something good about Israel – and that’s what makes it worth fighting for. The Azaria verdict is a reminder that there is something here worth saving.


Further reading:

Azaria verdict – Haaretz 

Public opinion on Azaria – Peace Index

Netanyahu corruption case – Haaretz


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Larry Derfner

I was born in New York in 1951, grew up mainly in Los Angeles, began my career in journalism in 1981, and moved to Israel in 1985. I live in Modi’in with my wife Philippa and sons Alon and Gilad.

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