At an IDF base one might still find written on a wall somewhere the old slogan “the army builds the people.” Although most soldiers don’t think much of it,  the slogan seems to express a kind of political culture that finds a correlation between the nature of the army and the character of the people, between the army’s decisions and Israeli society’s moral code. This interpretation is a bit unnerving, for surely in a healthy democracy the army is not responsible for the state’s moral decisions but solely for its national security. However, in Israel, the roles have become blurred, and naturally so. Even though in most cases the IDF stays out of the politicians’ way and serves to execute the people’s decisions via their government representatives, this social burden is part of the IDF’s existence as “the people’s army.” The ongoing campaign against the appointment of Major General Yair Golan as the next chief of staff manifest’s this issue and further raises the question of what the role of the IDF and its commanders is in the Israeli society.

The attacks on Golan began a week ago when an organization for bereaved parents sent out a letter to Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman in which they explained that they oppose the appointment of Major General Golan as the next IDF chief of staff due to a series of “outrageous” insults. This refers to, among other things, a speech he delivered at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony while deputy chief of general staff in May 2016, when he hinted that he could see similarities between Germany in the 1930s and Israel today. “The Holocaust must lead us to think about our own public life, and even more, it must lead all those who can, and not only those who want, to bear public responsibility. Because if there is something that frightens me in the memory of the Holocaust, it is the identification of horrifying processes that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany in particular, then 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and finding evidence for them here in our midst in 2016.”

These campaigns have been accompanied by the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu who jumped on the bandwagon, joining the crusade against Golan and saying his statements “hurt the israeli society” and that “in order to ensure the existence of the State of Israel, the IDF must educate its commanders and soldiers to strive for victory; the value of victory must be paramount for the commanders in the army.”

As a result of these recent developments the IDF posted on its Twitter account the following announcement:  “One of the four candidates for the post of chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, has served in the IDF for 38 years in all sectors of combat and his contribution to Israel’s security is great.” Furthermore, “any unfounded attempt to cast doubt on the good name of a commander in the IDF and his operational contribution is not worthy.” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman also came to Golan’s defense, writing that “Major General Yair Golan is an excellent officer and courageous commander who dedicated his life to the security of the State of Israel. The recent slander campaign against him is inappropriate and will have no effect on the appointment of the chief of staff.”

Defending Golan is a worthy and necessary decision made by the IDF. The slander against him defames him all while ignoring his deep patriotism and  contributions to Israel. The problem with the campaign against Golan is not the critique itself, which should be welcome in a democracy, but that the critique is directed in the wrong direction. The judgment against him is about the nature of his moral opinion (seemingly left-wing) and therefore for the right he is unworthy. But today, it already seems that Golan has a very slim chance of becoming the next chief of staff. Despite his patriotism and public courage, Golan’s decision to deliver his famous “Holocaust speech” was probably the wrong one.

Like Major General Yair Golan, we should all be afraid of the dangerous trends of racism seen today in the Israeli society. We should also take pride in an officer who chooses to expose his society’s moral injustices while willing to absorb in silence the people’s backlash for doing so. But we should also be asking ourselves if it is the role of those in uniform to lead the civil discourse.

There is a connection between uniforms and values. The aforementioned slogan “the army builds the people” shows this is so. The training process for IDF officers instills in them a moral order that makes sure to produce loyal emissaries of the state whose values ​​are both Jewish and democratic. The officer is not a sword for hire, but a moral personality who represents Israel. However, one must clearly distinguish between the responsibility of an officer to ethically employ military force, and their responsibility towards civil society. We should all ponder a situation where another commander with the same prestige but a different outlook from Golan’s , decides to criticize the people for weaknesses he seems to find in Israel, ones that he sees as dangerous for the Zionist enterprise. We do not want to resemble regimes where the army becomes the guardian of democracy, or worse, where the army feels that it has moral superiority and therefore should run the country.

Many former Israeli military leaders have gone on to make valuable contributions as heads of government, cabinet ministers, activists, and scholars, and retired officers can and should continue to offer their expertise and experience. But currently serving officers, especially those in contention for the position of chief of staff, occupy a more unclear position as far as their role in domestic politics is concerned.

When a commander preaches for the purity of arms, he is acting as expected and in accordance with the “Spirit of the IDF” paper which serves as a moral guide for the soldiers. On the other hand, when a commander publicly criticizes political trends, they seem to cross a line. Although Golan is contributing to the war against racism and tyranny, his words carry a social price from the IDF and draws the army into the eye of a public controversy. In Israel the IDF is a strategic and precious asset, not yet tainted with social judgment while still holding its place as the last sacred institution in a world of distrust and cynicism towards leadership. For this reason, the Supreme Court, whose job is moral decision making, has had to pay the price for passing judgments. But the army is not in charge of these matters.

Golan seems to take part of the above mentioned political culture which believes that “the army builds the people,” which finds a connection between the moral nature of the army and the character of its civil society. Under this conception the army’s commanders should have a say when worrisome developments are happening in their society. The IDF is such a central part of what Israel is that disconnecting civil life from life in military service is almost impossible. Even so, the army should not be the builder of its people, but their protector, the ones who guard their nation’s security while ensuring the purity of arms. The burden of ensuring a moral code is hard enough when it comes to the field of combat. This is where the commanders should put their effort while leaving civil society to the people and their democratic institutions.