Struggling Over Israel’s Soul

TIME: 17:30 – 18:30, Tuesday 31st January 2017

VENUE: Committee Room 19, House of Commons, Houses of Parliament, London, SW1A 0AA

SPEAKER: Major General Elazar Stern MK

CHAIR: Tom Wilson, Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society

HOST: Jack Lopresti MP

Tom Wilson: Okay, well hello everybody and welcome to this Henry Jackson Society event. I should start by thanking our host MP Jack Lopresti, who unfortunately can’t be with us this evening, but we are joined by MK Elazar Stern, from the Israeli Knesset. He is part of the Yesh Atid party and is also on the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, and is the chair of the lobby for Holocaust survivors, so thank you for that work. Elazar Stern is going to speak for about ten-fifteen minutes and then we will go through to Q&A. Thank you.

Elazar Stern MK: Okay, so first of all thank you for having me here, and all of you for coming here. I would prefer to begin maybe with a relatively short introduction, because I really have more interest to know what you are interested in, and then I will take questions, short questions with longer answers.

So, as mentioned, my name is Elazar Stern. I was born in Tel Aviv. 34 years ago we took caravans from Sinai and we built a new settlement, a new community in the Galilee. Now we are more than 500 families large in the Galilee, in the lower Galilee. I was born to parents who are holocaust survivors; my mother went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, my father saw Mauthausen-Gusen. I served in the IDF for 34 years – most of the time in the combat field as a paratrooper. I finished my assignment as a commander of the combat unit, and I am most proud of being the commander of the officer training school, of which there is only one for all the divisions put together. Then I was a Chief of Education, and I ended up becoming the head of the Human Resources of the IDF.

When I am talking about the IDF I want you to understand that the IDF, the role that it plays within the Israeli Society – there is no other thing that compares in the Western world. Even Ben Gurion defined it as a melting point, it is because of our opportunity to take people from all over. And because unfortunately, we have a draft, maybe every Israeli has to serve, and once they have served their time – it is between two to three years – it really makes society into a melting pot. However, I would take the opportunity to add to Ben Gurion’s term that we are a melting pot, but with a low temperature. Because we want to create something in common between people, but we don’t want everyone to lose his culture, his parents culture or his individuality. People are coming from the edge of the world, this is only an advantage of enriching our society, and an advantage for every culture that people come to Israel.

When I am asked why I stay in the army, I say that I tried to leave the army a few times but I was always called back. I was also a high school teacher, and later on I was during the Knesset, but I chose, voluntarily of course, the biggest organisation for the Holocaust survivors, and as well I also represent the Ethiopian National Project, again voluntarily. When I have been asked why I stayed in the army for so long, because I didn’t look at myself as a career officer, the main reason is because I so much value the rule that the IDF can play in Israeli society.

At this time I was the almost the only one of my friends who wore Tzitzit and a Yarmulke, and I saw the importance of Israeli society to preserve Jewish identity. And when I was asked this morning in Oxford: ‘what can you say about the way that you were educated by your parents’ so if I want to summarise I would say that my parents raised me and educated us around two main principles.

The first one is to ensure that the Jewish people will have a strong state and that they can protect themselves, and cannot rely on other nations to help. Of course, we must develop relationships, but we cannot rely on them, only on our own shoulders. If you want to define it – to ensure that ‘never again.’ This principle was brought from Auschwitz, and my mum kept it.

The other principle, was brought from the same place, was again never, but never make differentiation between people. It doesn’t matter their religion, colour, sexuality, their nation, because we saw what happened when people make such differentiations between people.

And around these two main principles, not only was I educated, I have tried to educate others: my cadets, my soldiers, and even now every time that I am invited to all the levels of offices in the IDF I try. When I am asked okay, so you have to decide, which one of these two principles is stronger than the other. So my answer is, first you tell me, who do you love more – your father or your mother. The same question applies here. I am proud that we are a start-up nation and are both a democracy and a Jewish State. Too often, unfortunately, I am asked what is Israel first and foremost: Jewish or a democracy? So I have the same answer: they are both at the same level, because it is again the same two principles that my mother taught us, and one is not stronger than the other. We don’t ask ourselves in the IDF, we know our values and these are at the top even before human rights and purity of our weapons.

When we read the Haggadah at Passover every year, we read that in every generation each one of us has to see himself as if he was brought out from Egypt. I add that in every generation, every Israeli soldier or officer must look at himself as if he was brought out from Auschwitz. And once we look at ourselves as if we walked out, I think this is the message, the main reason that we are such a high ranking army in the world, and why we have the values that we do, that everyone is born equal.

I am not saying that we don’t face, from time to time, a problem. We do face problems. But I think that we shouldn’t be ashamed, we should we proud, of how these mistakes happen and how we handle them. And I really think that in the current circumstances, in the Middle East, when we are the only democracy there, and are facing combat fields of the type that is not conventional, as unfortunately our enemies prefer to take the battle to the neighbourhood, this is real a problem for us. From time to time there is an innocent casualty even among the Palestinians, but unfortunately they put us in a dilemma. Who do we want to defend more – our future families or their future families? Of course we would prefer that there are no casualties on either side but once we are put in that position, and once we have no alternative, I cannot tell you that the situation is clear. I cannot say that all our dilemmas have been solved and we are satisfied with everything; we would prefer not to be in those dilemmas in the first place. But once we are put in that position, I am proud to be in the first line of defence, and to ensure the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the Middle East, and also to try to do the best to preserve our values, values that, it has become more and more clear, our neighbours do not share with us.

Tom Wilson: Thank you, thank you for that introduction. We have to leave the room at ten to seven, so I am sure you will all be able to keep your questions short so we can get in as many as possible. Can we have a show of hands please…

Elazar Stern MK: With your permission please, we are here from Yesh Atid party. Before we take questions I want to tell you, in two sentences, what is the Yesh Atid party about, and why I am in it.

You can see I wear a kippah, and I wear tzitzit as well, and I was expected to be part of a religious party. But I don’t think that this is the right way. For most of my life I was in a very polarised society; the Israeli society is very polarised, and I think that being unified is much more important. It is not enough to preserve Jewish identity within the religious people. I do believe that, as the Rambam says, the right way is the golden best, which is in the middle. And being in the middle is better, as you can only be there if you are ready to make a compromise. And a compromise is still, for me, and not only for me, the golden best. And when I am talking about making important compromises, this is on everything. This is a compromise not only on the issue of the Palestinians and the two state solution, but also on Israeli society, an issue which unfortunately splits Israeli society. But in Yesh Atid, we sit together, the religious and the non-religious. Each one of us has his own opinion on things such as Shabbat, but together we can create the golden way. And this is the reason for me to sit in the political life in Yesh Atid, together with the religious, the non-religious, the right wing and the left wing.

Tom Wilson: Could we have a show of hands, and could you also state your name and any organisation you are affiliated with. The gentleman here.

Audience Member: Iran is a major problem that we face. How do you think we are going to deal in the end with Iran, with it have to be military or are there other ways to diffuse this problem?

Elazar Stern MK: You know, I am not in the party of the Prime Minister. I do think we have achieved some achievements, and maybe the pressure that was on Obama as President of the United States, maybe it was this pressure that means we will have to act alone here. An agreement is the worst thing that can happen to us. As I told you, I am ready to compliment Benjamin Netanyahu for bringing pressure and for bringing to the world the awareness of the importance of the Iran challenge. And now, the agreement achieved at least postponing a few years. So I don’t think that the right way is constantly to mourn. People say no-one has got anything from it, not we, not the Iranians, not the Americans, not the Western World. I don’t like people who say we got nothing from it, because first of all we got time. And I hope, as with everything, that the time will also make something. For example even with the Iranian people, as their internet progresses etc, and I don’t want to make comparisons but when you earn time with the ultra-orthodox society and try to integrate them into Israeli society, the time helps. I hope that the Iranian people also will be more open, through the internet. Their problem has not been solved, and we have to use all of our intelligence capability to watch them carefully and to then decide if the new President can improve the agreement. To hear him say he wants to cancel the deal is bad, and I am not sure this is in our interests. Thank you.

Tom Wilson: Great, another question. This gentleman here.

Audience Member: I know you talk is of a more parochial nature, surrounding the question of Israel’s soul, yet we are seeing these endless struggles within the Knesset. This seems to be going on all the time, what is happening with the Israeli political parties.

Elazar Stern MK: First of all, I don’t know if the question was about myself, or about our system, but I will try to answer both. Israeli society, fortunately or unfortunately, is very diverse. You ask why we don’t behave like in America having only two parties and then maybe it would be easier to erase dissident voices such as of the Arabs, or from the Ultra Orthodox? Maybe if we created Israel now from the first day we could do this, we could tell the Arabs to go to the Left party. But we can enjoy our system in allowing multiple opinions. If we tried to do this, to put all the Arabs in one party just because they are Arabs, even though one is communist and one is democratic, this could never work. It is not enough to just be in the same political party because of your culture; culture may be the same but opinions may be different. If we unify them I don’t think this would be to the benefit of anyone.

Now let’s go to my personal story. I used to be in Hatnuah, with Tzipi Livni, and I only refused to be with Yesh Atid because in that time, year ago, I did not know what exactly did they stand for? During this time Yair Lapid [chairmain of Yesh Atid] offered me to join and to become a minister but I refused at that time. What happened later? I heard about Rabbi Umsalem from Shas party, talking about the issue of conversion. And I think that the issue of the conversion is a strategic issue to our society.

You know that assimilation is not only a problem here, or in the United States or in the diaspora. But thank god, we enjoy a huge immigration movement from the former Soviet Union. What can we do from this immigration, that saved us from all the aspects – military, culture, science, you name it – many of them, even those that felt Jewish, and when they came to Israel and said okay I am ready to lay down my life to defend the Jewish State and the Jewish people, we told them, no you are not Jewish. So what if your father is Jewish, it is not enough – we need your mother to be Jewish. And then they would ask us, okay so what is the way to become Jewish. And we would say you must convert. But the only way that we present it to them to convert, it is almost impossible. It is not enough to sacrifice your life for the existence of the Jewish people – you have to be religious. And then they reply, all of my friends – not all of them, but the majority of them – in the same unit – they are not religious, they do not care about Shabbat in the same way that you do, yet they are Jewish.

And now, to be clear, we have 140 non Jewish registered marriages – they are Druids, Christians – everyday. And we have a new 14 babies that are not registered as Jews every day. Why? Because the parents are not Jewish, and if they want a brit milah for their child they are refused. It is like a suicidal society of the meaning of the Jewish state. And this was the reason that Rabbi Unsalem convinced me to become a parliament member, but by that time Yesh Atid had already closed their list. So someone offered me to join Tzipi Livni, and she called me and tried to convince me that if we did not have a two state solution we could not be a Jewish state. And I told her, Tzipi, I agree, but this is not the reason that can convince me to become a politician. I agree about the two state solution but in addition I think that if we cannot fix the relationship between being a Jewish state and being a democracy, or the relationship between the state and religion, we will not survive in the middle of the Middle East as a Jewish state. So you be busy with the two state solution – and I support you on that – but I will deal with issues of religion and the state.

And before the last election Tzipi Livni decided she would go more to the left, to the Labour party. I told her, it is not my way. I consider myself middle, and middle right, not to the left. So if you want to judge me for changing parties, this is not the right question. Ask me if I have changed my values, my principles. You know, we used to say that the party is your home. No, my home is in the Galilee, this is the only home that I have. I don’t have a home in the political field – I am very proud to be in Yesh Atid and I think that this party fits my principles and beliefs, and I don’t think that I will have to change again. But I am not ashamed to have changed in the past. But to be honest, I enjoyed the status in Israeli society better as a major general of the army than as a politician.

Tom Wilson: The gentleman at the very back.

Audience Member: Thank you very much for coming, you are very brave. The last time I met an Israeli general in London was General Rockefeller, he was running the West Bank at the time, and he had to go back in a hurry because he was afraid he was going to be arrested as a war criminal. My question to you is, a quick question, is about the Dahiya doctrine, which most Western armies believe is in contravention of the Geneva Convention. And secondly, during Operation Protective Edge, you said in the Knesset, you spoke about Palestinians fighting among civilians and children, and you said ‘we should turn off the electricity to Gaza, even if it means turning off dialysis machines for children.’ Now, that is not what a warrior says, and it is in contravention of the rules of law. Are you proud of the fact that you are prepared to turn off electricity to children on dialysis?

Elazar Stern MK: First of all I am very proud to serve in the army during all the operations, although I was not there at that time. Second, I am very proud that we succeeded in avoiding a huge damage in human life on our side, and reduced the loss of human life on the Palestinian side, on the Hamas side. Then, I don’t remember that we shut down for a long time electricity in Gaza, I want you to say, if you can give me evidence I will appreciate it. I think that Gaza can enjoy even now much less breaks in the supply of electricity if they would take all the cement that we allow to deliver there and not prevent it being used for their infrastructure. I am going to take you from today to wartimes. If they really would share the same values that you and I, that I hope, would share together, why do they use most of their materials that we allow them to take through the border every day, to build electricity stations and hospitals, why do they instead use these materials to build new attack tunnels. Every day, I appreciate ourselves, that even though we are aware that some of these materials go through our borders and are not being used for the right reason, we still allow them through. Why? Because we respect their lives, and their kids’ lives, much more than they respect their lives and their kids’ lives.

And now, please, it looks to me as if you aware of the situation, and of the Geneva Convention and the Western armies. Please, with your permission, if you can give me another army, when you have intelligence information that a terror attack or a rocket is going to be launched from one roof in Gaza, and we see it on our system, but we have a system of knocking on the roof. First we send a rocket that will not explode, as a warning, because we are not sure if there are people in the building. And we give them time to leave the building. And often they leave, they leave with the terrorists, who are planning to launch an attack on our Jewish civilian neighbourhoods. If you can give me an example of another army in the world, the American army, the British army in Afghanistan, and find me an example of one that behaves in this way, then I will surrender to your argument.

And then I will ask you, about the BDS here, what is the criteria to boycott a nation? What is the measure? How do you decide that Israel should be boycotted and not Somalia, Syria, Hamas, you name it. Why do you refer to Israel in a different way, in a non-academic way.

I can tell you why. It is because, and I hope this is the reason, because the Western world expects from us a much much better standard of behaviour, not compared to the Hamas, but compared to the Western world. And I am very proud to be there and to try and fulfil this expectation. But unfortunately, from time to time, we haven’t succeed to fulfil these expectations 100%.

Same Audience Member in reply: So to answer your question, you mention BDS, yet you yourself have boycotted Israeli firms. You boycotted fox because they used Bar Rafaeli as a model.

Elazar Stern MK: Please, I do not think the audience knows what you are talking about, please explain to them.

Same Audience Member in reply: Yes, she did not serve in the IDF and you didn’t like it.

Elazar Stern MK: not only did she not serve in the IDF, she cheated us. She got married for a couple of days, a couple of hours. I do not think that it a problem if you are going to invite her to London. But, with Bar Rafaeli, if you want to build a platform for her here, and to give her a microphone, then that is your right. But please don’t ask me to build a stage or to give a microphone to someone whose behaviour and values goes against my values. I don’t want to compare, but you can compare. I don’t think any organisation in the world should build a stage for someone who is going to talk against him. I am just saying that I am not going to buy the product, and I think that is my right. This is also a measure which you don’t have in the BDS.

I didn’t say that it is wrong to use the weapons of boycott, I can’t argue with that. I can ask you, if you use it, what are the criteria. And the only one thing I can answer you, is that it is antisemitism. Only that reason. [Applause]. Otherwise, why only Israel is treated this way. And I understand if you can give me this criteria, but you cannot, I know.

Tom Wilson: Okay, thank you. Can we take a couple of questions now, because we only have ten minutes left. I think there was a question here from Alan, and then also from this lady.

Audience Member: Clearly Obama was not the best for Israel. With Trump, how much do you consider him to be asset to Israel, and how much is he a liability?

Elazar Stern MK: We only have ten minutes left? [Laughter]

Tom Wilson: And also a question from this lady at the same time, as we don’t have much time left.

Audience Member: So my question is, what are the steps that Lebanon can take to have peace with Israel?

Elazar Stern MK: Lebanon? Just to declare. Just to try to negotiate. I think there is no problem with Lebanon – there is no dispute about the borers, nothing. You know, we hope, we pray. When I grew up as a kid we used to say that Lebanon would be the second state to have peace with us? Why the second? Because she didn’t have, in that time, the courage to be the first. Unfortunately, something happened there and the Palestinians moved there, and later on with Hezbollah. But we wish to have peace with Lebanon, and we have no demand from them except for them to accept Israel. As a soldier, I can tell you, I have been there, Lebanon is a very beautiful country. Unfortunately, the Israelis are not their only problem or their main problem, they suffer much more from domestic issues and Hezbollah.

Same Audience Member, in reply: No-one realises the good that Israel does in Lebanon, and all the lives they saved by pushing back in the 80s.

Elazar Stern MK: No-one realises because no one wants to know in the West. But I can tell you that even last week it was written in the Israeli media that a girl, seven years old, or eight years old, was released from an Israeli hospital after 8 months of treatment. You have in every minute that we are sitting here, hundreds of Syrians receiving treatment in Israeli hospitals, at the same level that Israelis receive. Maybe the world doesn’t want to know what we are doing to help the Christians, and even what we are doing to help the Muslims.

Tom Wilson: Did you want to say anything more on Trump?

Elazar Stern: About Trump? [Laughter]

Tom Wilson: Yes.

Elazar Stern: How can we predict? Can we predict after the first ten days?

Audience member: [calling out] No, but we can guess.

Elazar Stern: After the first ten days, he is going to come here (to the UK) or not?

Audience Members: Yes, Yes, For sure.

Elazar Stern: Okay, okay. I am not sure, but I see what is going in the media against his visit here, so I hope that it will be good for us. You know, first of all I respect the American system, you know, they voted him in and now they have to enjoy or to suffer. It is their choice, it is up to them, really. I don’t want to enjoy a discrimination, I don’t think Israel wants discrimination among peoples, I don’t think that the most important issue even is the issue of the U.S. embassy moving to Jerusalem or not, why not the Great Britain embassy instead? Maybe this will create a lower level of noise. I am not thinking this is going to happen with the U.S. embassy anyway, but it is not the most important thing for us.

Tom Wilson: one more very quick question I think. Here:

Audience Member: What is your feeling about the reform movement, the recognition of [inaudible] Israel and access to the Western wall?

Elazar Stern: I don’t know, why there is a question. There is no doubt that the reform movement, the conservative movement deserves recognition. It is terrible, for us – I grew up in the Orthodox society, and I can tell you, not the biggest mistake but one of the biggest mistakes, was that we celebrated the fact that the assimilation rate was less in Orthodox communities than it was in reform communities. But, you know, we lose our brothers. It must be a common challenge. It is not reform, conservative, secular, religious – we are one people, we must be one nation.

So of course they deserve full recognition, of Israel, and, if you ask what is the issue about the Western wall, you know the biggest concession was made when the reform and the conservatives when they agreed to have part of a place to work in the Southern Western Wall to work. And I can tell you, that, not one of the ultra-orthodox politicians, have ever considered this like a holy place, or like a synagogue. And when the reform and the conservatives agreed to this compromise, which was led by orthodox people, it has now become an issue to fight over! I don’t want to say we are brazen because it is very clear. I think that the way that the current Israeli government refer to the reform-conservative movement is a disaster, and will be a destruction and a reduction of the Israeli people. We know, as you know, that it is not a big deal to be Jewish nowadays. So why do we have to contribute to a trend of this reduction in Israel and the diaspora. So maybe you may think I am a hero to tell this opinion here or in the United States, but please you are more than welcome to the Knesset or to Israel, today, or two years ago, and you will find that I have held this opinion for many years. And I can tell you that I cannot be in a party of Yesh Atid and not have the same opinion, as I told you before, it is the golden best. Even though I am Orthodox, I can have this opinion that I choose this may, and my friend can choose a different way. But the most important thing for all of us is that every Jew will be proud to say I am Jewish.

Tom Wilson: Thank you so much. [Applause]

Elazar Stern: Thank you again for being here, Todah.


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