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Israel Hamas WarOpinionIsrael

Israel’s moral decay has left me with a profound sense of anxiety

Before the war, I believed Israelis could steer their country to a better path but the absence of any prospect of change has eroded my faith.
Shahar Burla
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Head with cracks through the brain

Illustration: TJI

Published: 14 May 2024

Last updated: 13 May 2024

Wars often reveal both the noble and the darker aspects of individuals and nations. The October 7 war was a war of "no choice," prompting remarkable reaction and mobilisation among Israelis after a devastating tragedy. Following a year of political turmoil over the judicial overhaul, tens of thousands of reservists abandoned their comfortable lives to participate in the war.

Supporters and opponents of the overhaul alike united in the effort to retrieve hostages and destroy Hamas. In civil society, huge numbers of volunteers engaged in diverse activities such as aiding survivors, caring for hostages’ families, hosting refugees from the south and north, and supplying soldiers and the displaced with food.

Furthermore, a team of volunteer psychologists and social workers was dispatched within Israel and equipment arrived from across the globe. World Jewry contributed by delivering much-needed equipment, offering financial assistance, and pressuring their governments to support Israel and facilitate the return of hostages. Additionally, local initiatives such as the 'Golda Project' emerged in Australia to support Israelis (and the Jewish Diaspora) during their time of hardship.

The stories emerging from October 7 were deeply inspiring. For instance, the story of  Inbal Lieberman, 25-year old woman who saved an entire kibbutz from harm by leading a group of residents to kill more than two dozen advancing terrorists

Similarly, the story of nine-year-old Michael and six-year-old Amalia, who endured a harrowing 14 hours hiding in a closet after witnessing the murder of their mother and the shooting of their father, underscored the resilience of a generation growing up in Israel. Their courage, coupled with the support received from volunteers, filled many, including myself, with pride.

Amidst all the positive, there are deeply concerning signs. Foremost among these is the stark military failure of the IDF and the government on October 7 and beyond. This stemmed from failures in intelligence and strategic vision that led to inadequate preparation for the war, which itself followed an inadequate government response to the civic crisis.

Discourse around the hostages morphed into a cynical debate, relegating the state's duty to its citizens to the sidelines.

While the operational and civil issues may be addressed, the moral decay we witnessed since October 7, from the highest levels of leadership down to some soldiers and citizens, presents a more challenging and perilous problem.

The most obvious illustration of this moral decay is evident in the discourse surrounding the hostages, which, under Netanyahu's leadership, deviated from the traditional Israeli and Jewish ethos of prioritising the “redemption of captives”.  Instead, it morphed into a cynical political debate, relegating moral considerations and the state's duty to its citizens to the sidelines.

This shift was apparent from the outset of the conflict, when President Biden met with the families of the hostages before Netanyahu did. This mindset was continued by government officials and supporters who engaged in verbal assaults against these families, which tragically escalated to physical violence.

Another stark manifestation of this moral decay was the failure of accountability following October 7, with the Netanyahu and the government refusing to take responsibility. While military and security leaders accepted liability, Netanyahu and his government shirked any blame for the military failures and the subsequent mishandling of civil services. Netanyahu's public condemnation of the military during the war, coupled with his reluctance to engage with Israeli media, has exacerbated this evasion, undermining a fundamental tenet of democracy.

The war has also highlighted a critical concern over the quality of Israeli politicians.  In particular, the standard of behaviour set by ministers, who should set an example for citizens, has been poor. This is evident in their use of disrespectful language, lack of regard for each other, and insufficient suitability and qualifications for their positions.

The behaviour of Netanyahu and his ministers is marked by an inability to differentiate between right and wrong.

Netanyahu himself has complained that Israel’s public image suffers because he is surrounded by people ‘who can’t put two words together’ in English. Most notably, this is reflected in a “loss of shame”. We see a prime minister preoccupied with renovating his private pool during wartime, ministers travelling and partying, aware that hostages are trapped in Hamas tunnels but unconcerned with the moral disconnect.

All these behaviours are marked by an inability to differentiate between right and wrong, permissible and forbidden. This mindset has permeated and transformed the Israeli ethos from one of mutual support, constructive criticism, personal integrity, innovation, and learning to one that runs counter to these values, posing a significant risk to the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Experiencing the horrors of October 7 was a shocking experience. Witnessing the moral decay that followed was equally shocking and frightening. Before the war, I believed that Israeli people could steer their country away from its misguided path. However, the absence of any prospect of change, and the persistence of moral decay, have left me with a profound sense of anxiety for the fate of the country I love so dearly.

The situation is daunting and precarious. As members of the Diaspora, we also hold a responsibility and ability to change this course. It starts with a resolute call upon the Israeli government to restore the Jewish and Israeli ethos of “redemption of captives” leaving no stone unturned and reuniting the hostages with their families.

About the author

Shahar Burla

Dr Shahar Burla is a Sydney-based researcher, lecturer and Contributing Editor of TJI. Shahar holds a Master’s degree in political science from Hebrew University and a PhD in political science from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of Political Imagination in the Diaspora: The Construction of a Pro-Israeli Narrative (2013) and co-editor of Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Cultural and Political Relationship (2015).

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