Flight School

Israel’s protesting pilots expose its divided vision of democracy.

It would be hard to plan a more perfect challenge to a democracy than the one handed Israel in late September by 27 fighter and helicopter pilots. In an open letter, they expressed anguish over the scores of Palestinian civilians (including many children) killed or maimed as a byproduct of “targeted” attacks on senior members of Hamas and other terror groups—especially in densely populated Gaza, which Israeli ground troops are generally reluctant to enter. The pilots announced they would fly such missions no more. “These acts,” the letter said, “are illegal and immoral and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation that corrupts all of Israeli society.” The men, most veteran reservists, nine still on active duty, are members of a high military caste—one is a brigadier general who took part in the celebrated attack against Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981.

Denunciation of the pilots’ letter has been swift and sharp, most prominently by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who, in an unusually passionate report to the Knesset, accused them of “sanctimoniousness and arrogance,” demoralizing to comrades-in-arms who struggle to protect Israeli citizens from “murderous attack.” The pilots would grant immunity to “lawless terrorists,” and their letter hands “a propaganda weapon to Israel’s enemies.” He noted that the air force takes precautions to minimize civilian casualties, for example, by not dropping huge bombs that will certainly get their man but are more likely to inflict civilian losses, while terrorists kill civilians deliberately.

Some prominent writers have spoken up for the pilots, and their letter has provoked arguments on talk shows and campuses, but for the most part, the pilots have been condemned even by people who, unlike Mofaz, are openly identified with Israel’s peace camp—like former state president and air force chief Ezer Weizman. However honorable their intentions, the pilots pose a danger to Israeli democracy, a “cancer,” Weizman said. Their orders derive from a government that was democratically elected—by a recent landslide, in fact. Can military officers, individually or as a group, selectively refuse orders from a civilian authority or second-guess the operational tactics of superior officers? Isn’t the letter’s reference to the “corrupting” influence of the occupation proof that the pilots are indeed politically motivated—like the 500 or so reservists who have refused various duties in the territories during the past two years? Three pilots, bending to these arguments, have recanted. Two more have joined while several have been suspended from service.

What has been missing from this debate, broad and tortured as it has been, is a clearer grasp of why democracies exist, as distinct from how they work. Every Israeli knows that democracy provides for a clash of ideas in which majorities carry the day. But Israelis tend not to see how reverence for the individual—entailing “unalienable rights” that do not depend on majorities to be justified—underlies the clash of ideas itself, engendering the democratic processes (elections, constitutions, judiciaries, etc.) that enable us to clash away. The pilots are implying, even if they are not quite saying so directly, that individual life and liberty—that of Palestinian civilians, that of soldiers with democratic consciences—supersede appeals to Zionist solidarity. This—to complete the irony—is not the majority view.

Zionist pioneers were educated in European social democratic movements, but well over 70 percent of Israeli Jews today either live in Orthodox communities or have roots in authoritarian political cultures—North Africa, the former Soviet Union—where Jews were scorned. About 250,000 live in settlements beyond the Green Line, Israel’s internationally recognized border since 1949, indifferent to the unalienable rights of Arabs. Even before the intifada began, polls conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that, where democratic standards clashed with “Jewish law,” only 54 percent would protect democracy. Today, some 56 percent of Israelis—again, IDI polls—agree with the statement, “A few strong leaders would do more good than all the discussions and laws.” Nearly a quarter of Israel’s Jewish population refuses to say that democracy is the “best form of government.”

Even many Israeli liberals, who otherwise support, say, the Supreme Court’s efforts to strengthen individual rights in law, see democracy as instrumental to the nation’s business, a kind of operating system installed to modernize backward immigrants or allow for freedom of the press or elite succession or to ensure a “Jewish majority” in the land—the most advanced system, perhaps the most “moral,” but its full version a luxury for a discontented, embattled startup like Israel. For most, paying homage to the bourgeois self means moving to America.

All this explains not only why the pilots have taken such withering flak, but why there has been little public opposition, for example, to the education minister’s decision to ban the pilots from speaking at public schools or the national University Students Union’s call for a boycott of the 200 professors who’ve supported them. The pilots’ case assumes something like the full version of democracy, which makes the sanctity of individual life the organizing principle of the state. They are raising, perhaps inadvertently, disquieting questions about the way the Jewish state is currently organized: not only the open-ended occupation, but other institutions that privilege Jews over other citizens—the preferential disposition of public land, for example.

A democracy, granted, has the right to expect citizens to take up arms in its defense. What distinguishes terrorists is their indifference to personal life (and Israel has suffered 104 suicide bombings so far). Democracies make terrible calculations at times. Some utilitarian reckoning—tens of deaths as against the imminent loss of hundreds—may be unavoidable. Israeli soldiers may be reasonably ordered to confront armed members of terrorist organizations, as in Operation Defensive Shield (the May 2002 Israeli action in the territories), or even pre-emptively kill “ticking bombs,” people caught on their way to Israeli cities with explosive devices. If I could have pre-emptively rid the world of the person who, in 1974, placed a bomb on a TWA jet out of Athens, blowing up my cousins, would I not have?

The point is, improving the world by simply ridding it of bad people is not something a democratic people thinks plausible. Revealingly, the defense ministry has ordered a heightened alert after every Israeli assassination, as if to admit that bombs start ticking more menacingly after a raid than before. But the challenge is not merely pragmatic. The pilots are implying that to kill innocent civilians for tactical purposes—whether to liberate one’s people from occupation, or equally vague, to undermine “terrorist infrastructure”—is to betray a totalitarian mindset. The same may be attributed to a soldier who, quoting holy scripture, refuses to evacuate Jewish colonies in occupied Palestine. Democrats do not believe that books are sacred but that the right to interpret books is sacred.

Just after Israel’s War of Independence, Natan Alterman, the laureate of the Zionist revolution, wrote a scathing poem (“Al Zot”) condemning soldiers who shot indiscriminately at Arab civilians in a town that had come under Israel’s control. (“For whoever takes up arms … mumbling reluctantly: ‘necessity’ and ‘revenge,’ slips into the province of war criminals.”) When David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister and defense minister, read the poem, he did not condemn it in the Knesset. He ordered it be recited the next day at every inspection in every army camp.