Corporal Shachar Berrin's commander in the Israeli army sentenced him to a week in prison. His brother emailed me to let me know so I wouldn't be surprised when the story eventually broke in the news. Shachar's offense, as handwritten on a disciplinary form, was participating "in a political meeting, while in uniform, in the presence of the media."
That's partly true: He was in uniform, and TV cameras were recording. But it wasn't a political meeting. And judging from circumstances, the real reasons for his quick trial and sentence were the presence of right-wing activists and what he said about serving in the West Bank in daily interaction with Palestinians. "When soldiers, when we, are conditioned and persuaded on a daily basis to subjugate and humiliate people... I think that seeps in," he said, "and I think that when the soldiers go home, when they go inside Israel... they bring that back with them."
But yes, he was in uniform and knew he was on camera. So the case of Cpl. Berrin doesn't only shine klieg lights on the apparently endless Israeli occupation of the West Bank. It also raises messy questions about how separate the military and politics should be, or can be, in an already shaky democracy.
Shachar was born in Israel to American parents, spent his early years abroad, and returned to Israel with his family when he was 11. I'm more comfortable with his first name because—full disclosure—I know his family. I've shared a Sabbath meal or two with his mother and his brother. He went to the same Orthodox high school in Jerusalem as my son did.
Afterward he was drafted, and assigned to a unit trained for search and rescue work in wartime. In the normal condition of quasi-peace, the unit was most recently assigned to routine security along the Jordan River in the West Bank.
Two weeks ago, he had a weekend off and went home to Jerusalem. He'd heard that a foreign television team was filming a debate in town-hall style, in English, and went straight there, still in uniform. The program, The New Arab Debates, is usually filmed in other Middle Eastern countries. Veteran British journalist Tim Sebastian moderates; the Norwegian government pays the bills; the German network Deutsche Welle broadcasts it. This time Uri Zaki of Israel's leftwing Meretz party and settlement advocate Dani Dayan spoke for and against the proposition, "The occupation is destroying Israel." Dayan cited a U.N. report, based on polling data, that rated Israel as the 11th happiest country in the world.
That's what made Shachar feel he had to speak. When a mike was passed to the audience, he stood and said, "I propose that what makes a country good isn't whether a country is happy or not; it's the ethics and morality of a country," and went on to talk about what occupation duty does to soldiers and gave examples he'd witnessed. (Watch the show here; go to 42:55 to hear Shachar.)
Dayan went into talk-show rage mode. "I think the guy is lying," he said, as he shouted down Sebastian. Someone there reported the incident to the army. The fact that Shachar was wearing a skullcap as well as a uniform may have amplified that anonymous person's anger: The right assumes that Orthodox Jews are all on their side, and the local media, comfortable with cliches, usually protects that assumption. Shachar created cognitive dissonance, which can produce fury.
The next morning, Shachar got a text message ordering him to return to his base, where he was quickly tried. He didn't contest the charge, despite the factual error about a "political meeting." The army's standing orders do bar a soldier from speaking publicly about political matters without permission. He'd violated the law on moral grounds and respected it by accepting his punishment.
Shachar's assertions about the moral costs of occupation are an obvious but extremely uncomfortable truth—not just for committed rightists, but also for Israelis who'd prefer to forget about the occupation and Palestinians.
But should people in uniform be publicly involved in political debate? They are citizens, but also part of a body that has great power and that should be entirely subject to the civilian government. Imagine many uniformed officers at a party convention: You immediately feel that the relation between government and army is tilting dangerously in the wrong direction.
Shachar isn't a general, though. He wasn't at a convention. He was arguing a moral rather than political point, to the extent that the two can be separated. Actually, separating strategic issues from politics is equally hard—and top officers talk to reporters about those matters, on and off the record, all the time.
To further complicate matters, Facebook has erased the once-clear line between private speech and talking "in the presence of the media." The media is now everyone.
Last summer Shachar's brother sent a letter to an army ombudsman about a soldier who'd posted a photo showing him with a friend holding a box of bullets labelled, "A gift for Ramadan." One bullet sat on top, with the name "Haniyeh"—meaning Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas regime in Gaza—written on it. The ombudsman replied that the matter had been passed on to the proper authorities. The picture is still there. It would have been reasonable to conclude that the army isn't quick to restrict public political statements by soldiers. It seems that what Shachar said, not just the public venue, is what upset someone influential. It can't be that Facebook is less public; Facebook is Israeli politicians' favorite means of broadcasting their words.
And there's another problem: What happens inside the military is an essential issue in civilian politics, especially in a country always at least a bit at war. We who are not in uniform need to know more than grand policy; we need gritty details.
For most of Israel's history, reservists provided that information. The army had a small core of full-time soldiers. But most men in Israel served in the reserves into their 50s, each year spending a month or more in uniform and subject to emergency call-ups. When they saw how the army managed things, they could compare it to how other organizations are managed, and when they saw Arab kids, they sometimes thought of their own children. Then they took off their uniforms and were civilians again.
Reservists set off the political upheaval after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that drove Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan from power. They knew the full cost of Meir and Dayan's complacency and hubris before the war. In 1978, 300 reserve officers and soldiers signed a letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin demanding that he agree to give up land to reach peace with Egypt. That letter gave birth to the Peace Now movement. Political scientist Yagil Levy argues that when the first Palestinian uprising erupted in 1987, Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Shomron insisted that the solution was political, not military, in part to reduce dissatisfaction among reservists. That stance paved the way, Levy writes, to the Oslo Accords.
But since the 1990s, the role of the reserves has shrunk. Fewer Israelis do reserve duty; they serve fewer days and are discharged at an earlier age. They're less needed: A growing population provides more draftees for full-time service, while a more technological army depends less on brute numbers.
Fewer citizen-soldiers mean that fewer citizens know first- or second-hand what soldiers are doing. I'm not wishing reserve duty on anyone. But the change has made it possible for more Israelis to treat the occupation as if it were in another universe.
I don't have a new set of rules to propose on how the public can know more about what happens in Militaryland without further politicizing the army. I do know that we Israelis need to hear about what occupation duty means.
Cpl. Shachar Berrin told us. The army's hasty response brought him Israeli media coverage. Ironically, the people who wanted him punished for standing and speaking ensured that he was better heard. Perhaps we should thank them as well as him.