Some of the best moments in life are the ones you do not expect. I stumbled into one of these moments on our recent trip to Israel. We were walking through the Israel Holocaust Museum, Yad v’Shem, when I noticed that a number of visitors were new Israeli soldiers. I remembered hearing that a visit to the museum was part of their training but could not recall the reason.
The logic of it seemed odd. Israelis grow up learning about the Holocaust. They study the subject in school. They are reminded of it every year on Yom Hashoah when sirens sound across the country and every Israeli stops for a moment to remember the victims of the Nazi terror. Their great grandparents offer first hand knowledge of the nightmare or their parents and grandparents relate what they have heard about it. The Holocaust is so interwoven into the fabric of Israeli life that it is almost impossible to miss its all pervasive presence.
So why does the Israeli army require its new soldiers to take a tour of Yad v’Shem as part of their training?
I turned to a soldier during a rest stop and asked that question. She said that the military wanted every soldier to know what helped the Nazi’s make their systematic eradication of the Jews acceptable to the non- Jewish community, and that was dehumanization. She said the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, wanted them to see how the Nazi’s used this tool step by step, to lull Europeans into believing that Jews were less than human and therefore deserving of extermination. In fact, she said, that was the thinking behind the museum’s sequencing of the exhibits.
This made sense, but why did the military want these new recruits in particular to learn this? She said the IDF knew that one day, these soldiers might have to engage in door to door combat, and the officers wanted to make sure that the soldiers never allowed themselves to dehumanize their enemies. I had never thought of that as part of Yad v’Shem’s role, but it reminded me of what makes the State of Israel so special.
Combat has a way of twisting ethics. Watching buddies die revives the primal instinct of revenge. But an Israeli soldier cannot be like any soldier. An Israeli soldier carries a 3,500 year old tradition of respect for life in his or her ammunition belt. That fact adds to the moral burden he or she must carry.
An Israeli soldier must learn the difference between being “human” and being “humane.” It is human for a fighter to act on instinct. It is human for a fighter to shoot and ask questions of morality later. Conversely it is humane when a fighter is able to hold his or her instincts in check precisely when his or her survival is on the line. This is part of the reason new Israeli soldiers must tour Yad v’Shem before beginning their tours of duty. An Israeli soldier must be conditioned to be as humane as possible, especially when it is hard to be so. An Israeli soldier must answer to a higher standard. It’s something to be very proud of.