Iconfess to being a longtime admirer of Moshe (“Bogie”) Yaalon, who “took a leave” from politics last week after being replaced as defense minister by new coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman.

Yaalon has always struck me as the Israeli version of Cincinnatus, the Roman general who twice came out of retirement to lead Roman forces to victory and then renounced his dictatorial powers and returned to his private estate as soon as victory was achieved. In short, Yaalon is the rare Israeli politician capable of separating his personal interests from those of the nation, and putting the latter first.

That last quality, even more than his intimate knowledge of the IDF, makes Yaalon’s replacement by Lieberman a potential national disaster. No one has ever suspected the wily Lieberman of acting only out of disinterested motives.

Israeli parents must know that their children will never be sent to fight only to burnish the personal credentials of the prime minister or defense minister. The memory of more than 20 soldiers killed on the final day of fighting in the Second Lebanon War, with a cease-fire already set to go into effect, so that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could claim some sort of military achievement, still burns. With Yaalon there were no such worries.

Most political commentators are now marveling at the way Netanyahu managed to shore up his narrow coalition by bringing in Yisrael Beiteinu’s six MKs and destroy opposition leader Isaac Herzog, with whom he had been negotiating a unity government, in the process. But not every political victory is worth the price. Netanyahu’s tactical triumph only points to the greatest defect of Israel’s political system: Much, if not most, of the prime minister’s energy is devoted to coalition politics.


I do not always agree with him. He did not recognize the enormous damage done by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan’s Holocaust Day speech implying some sort of comparison between Nazi Germany and modern-day Israel. (Golan is also an admirable figure in many respects.) And Bogie’s speech to IDF officers encouraging them to continue to speak the truth as they see it could have been read as undermining the principle of civilian control of the IDF. Netanyahu was right to call him on the carpet.

I do not always agree with him. He did not recognize the enormous damage done by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan’s Holocaust Day speech implying some sort of comparison between Nazi Germany and modern-day Israel. (Golan is also an admirable figure in many respects.) And Bogie’s speech to IDF officers encouraging them to continue to speak the truth as they see it could have been read as undermining the principle of civilian control of the IDF. Netanyahu was right to call him on the carpet.

The senior brass’s fears cannot be dismissed out of hand, but they are overblown. The rather small protests on Azaria’s behalf owed as much to the chief of staff’s haste in proclaiming Azaria’s guilt prior to an investigation and trial (and the sight of him being led away from the scene in handcuffs), as to an assumption of his innocence. Israelis who send their sons into combat where they must make split-second decisions want them to be given the benefit of the doubt in the field and to know that mitigating, if not exculpatory, circumstances, such as watching a friend being stabbed, will be taken into account when punishment is meted out.

Nor was Azaria’s action a unique, contemporary phenomenon. It paled in comparison to the 1984 Bus 300 affair in which senior Shin Bet officers killed two captured bus hijackers, on orders of the head of the Shin Bet, and then tried to frame the commander of the rescue mission, General Yitzchak Mordechai. All the Shin Bet officers involved received presidential pardons.

Overwhelmingly, Israelis support the extraordinary steps taken to minimize the deaths of Palestinian civilians — the robot phone calls, “knocks on the roof,” and leafleting warning them in advance of combat operations.

But they are concerned that the over-legalization of the IDF might cause troops to fatally hesitate out of fear of violating so-called customary international law, which is never applied against any nation other than Israel. “International law,” they believe, should not allow terrorists an advantage in asymmetric wars in which the terrorists wear no identifying uniforms and store munitions and fight within civilian areas.

Nor would they agree with a 2006 speech by Golan in which he argued that IDF soldiers must risk their lives to save Palestinian civilians. Memories remain fresh of the 13 IDF reservists — husbands and fathers — killed in a booby-trapped building in Jenin in 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield. Every other army in the world would have destroyed the building by bulldozer or artillery after issuing a warning to civilians to flee. The futility of risking Jewish lives to gain the admiration of the world has been demonstrated again and again.

Nations have the right to value the lives of their citizens, including soldiers fighting a defensive war, over the lives of enemy civilians. That is what America did when it dropped the atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 200,000. President Truman thereby saved the lives of up to a million American GIs that would have been lost in a land invasion of Japan (not to mention as many Japanese civilians).

The long-range threat to the army, in the eyes of Golan and the old Ashkenazi elite, comes from rise of national-religious officers. Long dominant in the junior officer corps, they are now ascending to senior ranks. Yaalon was upset, for instance, by Colonel Oded Winter’s “commander’s note” to Givati Brigade troops about to enter Gaza in 2014: “‘Shema Yisrael... G-d of Israel, please make successful the path we take as we prepare to fight for Your nation Israel against an enemy that blasphemes Your Name.”

True, the IDF should not be used to socialize soldiers into religious observance any more than it was once used to socialize them into some kind of secular Israeli identity. But reminding soldiers that they are fighting not just for the State of Israel but also for the defense of the historic Jewish People has proven a powerful motivational tool. Ultimately, Israel cannot survive if its citizens do not believe in the importance of the collective existence of the Jewish People.


Not long ago, I found myself seated at a chasunah with Alan (Eliyahu David) Hayman, with whom I have been vaguely acquainted for years without ever speaking at length. That is not to say I knew nothing about him. And what I knew was enough to make clear that he is a derhoibener Yid. He always radiates simchah. That would itself be remarkable. But how much more so knowing that he and his wife lost their only child in the Sbarro pizza shop suicide bombing nearly 15 years ago. Their daughter, Shoshana Yehudit Greenbaum, a beloved elementary school morah, was expecting her first child when she was murdered.

Our conversation at the wedding centered on the decision to make aliyah. Alan and his wife had long talked of aliyah. But after suffering such a tragedy, his desire to move to Eretz Yisrael waned considerably. His wife, however, continued to dream of one day living in Israel.

Then one Shabbos, Rabbi Gershon Bess, Alan’s rav in Los Angeles, gave a derashah at Shalosh Seudos. Alan came home and told his wife to start packing. What had Rabbi Bess said that made such an impression?

He quoted a gemara in Pesachim (119b). The Gemara relates that in the future, Hashem will make a feast for all the great tzaddikim. At the end of the meal, the kos shel brachah will be offered to Avraham Avinu. But Avraham will declare himself unworthy on account of having fathered Yishmael. Yitzchak Avinu will likewise declare himself unfit to lead the blessings because of Eisav, and Yaakov will demur because he married two sisters. Moshe Rabbeinu too will feel compelled to reject the kibbud because he did not merit to enter Eretz Yisrael, either in life or death.

That last line pierced Alan’s heart. “Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest human being who ever lived, considered himself unworthy of being honored because he never lived in Eretz Yisrael,” he thought to himself. “I have the ability to do what Moshe Rabbeinu pleaded to do, and yet I’m spurning the opportunity.”

Another 30 or more men were likely present at that Shalosh Seudos. They all heard the same gemara quoted. But only one (I’m speculating) heard it speaking directly to him and made a life-changing decision based on its words.

That’s how it always is. Many people experience the same thing, but only one is changed by that experience. The others will barely remember it a few days later. The entire world knew of the miracles surrounding Hashem’s taking Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt, but only one fully grasped the implications and came to convert.

“V’yishma Yisro — Yisro heard [of the splitting of the Sea and the war with Amalek] (Rashi)].” But, the Zohar asks, the whole world heard of those events. The difference, however, was that “Yisro heard and was humbled and drew close to fear Hashem.” Rabbi Zev Leff likes to tell the story of the time he was lecturing in South Africa. His subject that day was tzniyus, and he mentioned certain types of clothing that he considered inappropriate. After the talk, he received a note from a woman. She assured him that she knew that he was addressing her directly and apologized profusely for her hastily assembled attire. She assured Rabbi Leff that she would never again wear such clothes.

Rabbi Leff had not noticed her at all. But he found himself astounded at a neshamah so pure that she heard words of mussar to a large audience as a personal rebuke. I too was astounded at the chasunah to hear a fellow Jew relate with such sincerity and simplicity how the unvarnished words of aggadeta had so pierced his heart that he left the supportive community in which he and his wife had grown to full religious observance to make aliyah. It’s yet another reminder of how many extraordinary Jews there are who pose as ordinary but are anything but.