“I like official Israeli philosophy,” says Asa Kasher. “I come from the country’s founding generation. The story of establishing the country is on my shoulders too. My work is to give the country a face from an official standpoint, to examine how the state that belongs to the Jewish nation can be fulfilled in the most proper way, in such a way that the people who work with me and listen to me will have no clue as to my political views. I tell a soldier with left-wing views who refuses to protect the settlements that such a thing is out of the question in a democracy. I also tell a religious soldier who refuses to take part in disengagement that such a thing is out of the question in a democracy. I’d be in terrible trouble if I expressed myself in a way that allowed one of them to say that he knew my opinion on the issue.”
In all of his positions as Israel’s supreme moral authority, in committees and papers and essays, in the writing of ethical codes and pre-legislation recommendations, Professor Asa Kasher keeps up an unbreakable official front. Nobody knows what his politics are. There are dilemmas on the scales all the time: a kidnapped soldier versus the price of his release; a firefighter who was killed during the fire on Mount Carmel versus a fallen Israel Defense Forces soldier; a terminal patient versus a patient awaiting an organ transplant. Israeli society, sensitive and complex as it is, gives rise to hundreds of impossible, heartbreaking questions of ethics. When a decision is required, Asa Kasher is the one they ask.
Kasher, an Israel Prize laureate in philosophy, is considered the foremost philosopher in Israel and a supreme professional authority in the field of ethics. Some say that he is the most respected moral authority of our generation. Besides his work in academia as a world-renowned expert in linguistics, he was the chairman of several important public committees and serves on several others. He also became known as the conscience of the security establishment after he wrote the IDF’s code of ethics. His writings about medical ethics, media and science are considered milestones. Yet despite all his frenetic public activity, he hardly appears in the media.
“We could not keep doing that”
Kasher also served on the Shamgar Committee regarding negotiating a ransom for kidnapped soldiers. The committee members — retired judge Meir Shamgar, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yaron and Professor Kasher — examined the issue for about two years, and at the beginning of this year they submitted their conclusions to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The report, which was submitted after the release of Gilad Shalit, contained recommendations from that transaction and was classified “top secret.” The press published tiny bits of information about the conclusions, including a recommendation that only a few security prisoners be released in exchange for a kidnapped soldier and that a tough stance be adopted in any future negotiations.
Kasher cannot talk about the details of the report. Nevertheless, he says, “The price of sending terrorists back is not a matter of national honor but rather a question of security and justice. When we look at the list of those who were released in the Shalit deal, where they were released to and the restrictions that were imposed upon them, no danger to security has been created. Yes, justice was compromised, but there was no alternative. After all, we will not leave a soldier in that kind of situation merely to protect justice.
“The families of the victims of the murderers who were released should have been treated with kid gloves. They should have been told before the fact, and not by the media. The authorities should have given them psychological therapy and a listening, sensitive ear.”
Q. Since the Jibril deal, Israel has been paying increasingly high ransoms for kidnapped soldiers. Is this bankruptcy?
“The very fact that the Shamgar Committee was appointed is a statement that we could not keep doing that.”
Q. In the context of preventing kidnappings, the “Hannibal order” — preventing a kidnapping even at the price of harming a soldier — has been discussed quite a bit.
“There is a common error, as though an order existed to shoot a soldier who had been kidnapped, deliberately, because ‘a dead soldier is better than a kidnapped soldier.’ The Hannibal order says that when there is an attempt to kidnap a soldier, it must be prevented by an order to open fire in order to get the soldier back home safe and sound. The kidnappers, not the soldier, are fired upon, even if the soldier’s life is put in some danger. If the soldier is in certain danger — for example, firing an artillery shell at the kidnappers’ car — it’s not allowed. I’m glad that the twisted idea of this procedure that exists in the soldiers’ minds never actually happened. The order has been invoked several times already, and there has never been a case in which any soldiers killed another soldier in order to prevent him from being kidnapped.
“There is a distortion of thought that says that while the state must pay a high price for a kidnapped soldier, Israeli society is willing to accept a dead soldier. This is a scandalous and false idea. Would you be willing to take responsibility for a soldier that you killed? I heard this twisted interpretation for the first time in 1995. I raised an outcry, and I tell you that the damage that the state would suffer from a soldier’s death is greater than the damage that it would suffer from negotiating for his release. Don’t help the country by killing a soldier. It would be better for him to be captured by the enemy than killed by you.
“During Operation Cast Lead, I heard commanding officers say, ‘None of our men will be kidnapped.’ That doesn’t just mean be careful. It means kill yourself rather than let it happen. That’s absolutely horrible.”
Q. We all grew up on the idea of “It’s good to die for your country” [words uttered by Joseph Trumpeldor after being mortally wounded during the battle of Tel Hai in 1920].
“We need to fight against that slogan. A soldier must grow up with the idea that it’s bad to die. Sometimes a soldier has to take a risk, and sometimes, when people take risks, they die. Trumpeldor had been wounded at Tel Hai and was lying on a stretcher. When the physician came to him and asked how he was doing, he quoted a Latin saying: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ [It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country]. He asked immediately afterward to be evacuated to Kfar Giladi for medical treatment. He did not want to die, and he was not glad to die. He was not like the martyrs executed during Roman times, who recited a blessing over the opportunity they had received to die for the sanctification of God’s name.
“The physician who wrote down his memories of Trumpeldor translated his words to the Hebrew phrase that we know today. Except that it’s not good — it’s bad. And it’s not sweet — it’s bitter. There is no such thing as the value of sacrifice. There is value in sticking to the task. If we must, we’ll take a risk. And we’re also allowed to tell others to take a risk. But we do not sanctify death.
“Frightening civilians? Not in the IDF.”
Q. Can the IDF code of ethics undergo changes?
“The code is stable. The more abstract the values are, the less they change. The doctrines can change because we are in new situations all the time. The doctrine of combating terror, which I dealt with together with Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who was the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, includes a new situation in which terrorists live among civilians. We must free ourselves from the attitude that regards others’ lives with fear and trembling while holding the lives of our own combat soldiers in complete contempt. International law wants to impose a position on us whereby soldiers are a consumable resource and that the lives of enemy civilians must be protected more than the lives of our own combat troops. Bandages are a consumable resource. Water is a consumable resource. Human beings are not.
“If we warned the terrorists’ neighbors to leave the area, in Arabic, in any way — flyers, telephone calls, television broadcasts, a warning noise — and they stay anyway — why are they staying? Because they choose to be human shields for terrorists. I do not want to kill a human being only because he is a human shield, if he is not a threat to me. But should a soldier of mine risk himself for him? Is the blood of a human shield any redder than the blood of my soldier? A soldier has no choice other than to be in Gaza, in that alleyway. But to be sent inside — why? In the battle in Jenin, in the middle of Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF knew that the refugee camp was booby-trapped. But they still insisted on not bombing from the air in order to keep from harming civilians, and they suffered terrible losses. That was a mistake. They should have made an effort to get the civilian population out of the terrorist environment, and then there would have been no need to send in the infantry.”
Q. What about the “neighbor procedure” that the High Court of Justice outlawed?
“If I know that a wanted terrorist is holed up inside a house, I have two options. I can demolish the entire house, causing more damage and more losses, or I can use a relative of the terrorist who will ask him to give himself up, knowing that the terrorist will not shoot his own relative. I need the neighbor not in order to gain a victory, but in order to minimize the damage to soldiers and also to the other side, so that the terrorist’s neighbors, and even the terrorist himself, will not be harmed.
“The High Court’s sweeping prohibition against using the neighbor procedure is a mistake. It should have been permitted in amended form — for example, using the village mukhtar (religious authority), and by consent.”
Q. Is the IDF more ethical today than in the past?
“The IDF is the only army in the world whose code of ethics states that a human being’s life should be valued simply because he is a human being. There is no other army in the world that would accept such an idea, and among us it passed without anybody batting an eyelash. We are improving all the time. An incident such as what happened on Bus 300 could not happen today. Today’s Shin Bet would not go within 10 miles of such a thing.
“On the other hand, army politics have only gotten worse. What does it mean, ‘running’ for the position of chief of staff? In a professional organization, nobody runs for a position. A tradition of transition from the army to politics has been created, and norms from the political world have trickled into the army.”
Q. Would Richard Goldstone agree with you that we have a moral army?
“Goldstone retracted. The Goldstone of after the report is completely different than the Goldstone of the report. The former suffered from sources that were not honest or credible, easily adopted misleading and false reports, including ones from Israeli organizations, and did not give Israel equal time to respond. He began writing the report with pre-conceived assumptions about the manner in which Israel behaves. In the end, he had to admit that the IDF never had a policy of frightening civilians just to frighten them. That’s what the other side does. We are very careful about that.”
“We’re in no danger of assimilation”
It is impossible not to talk about the current burning issue of the infiltrators. “We are responsible for anyone who is here, even if he entered illegally,” Kasher says firmly. “Except for voting, we need to give them all rights and services. There should be no difference between them and me. Yes, I have to bear that burden, to make sure that no pockets of unemployment, disease or lack of education are created. There is no other way. And that’s without even mentioning that the children born here are Israelis in every way.
“I can understand that problems have been created in specific places, so they have to be distributed. At the beginning of the 1970s, when I lived in Germany as a foreign worker, a researcher, my work permit bore a stamp restricting my place of residence to certain quarters, and I was forbidden to live in others. As a Jew, I was very upset. Only afterward, I discovered that the goal was to prevent a concentration of foreigners in a single place. There is a lot of social logic to that.
“I want everyone who is here to be able to apply for status as a permanent resident. Another half-million people will be here? Let them. It doesn’t upset me. In the end, they can bring in cultural wealth, not danger. We are no longer persecuted Jews in exile. We are a massive, dominant, hegemonic majority. There’s no danger of our assimilating with them, but rather of them assimilating with us, if they want to. We’ll receive a lot of cultural benefit in exchange.”
Q. A lot of people in south Tel Aviv wouldn’t agree with you.
“I was invited to lecture at a college in south Tel Aviv. I arrived a half hour early and walked around the area of the Central Bus Station. I discovered an enormous amount of variety, fascinating, very nice, that didn’t look threatening to me. Food and styles of dress from all over the world. People go on safari in Nigeria to see things like this. Here we have something extremely interesting, and we’re recoiling from it in disgust. If Jews were to be treated that way, we would protest, and with good reason. This is about the dignity of human beings. Not human beings who are like me or close to me, but human beings as human beings. Taking skin color into account is such a miserable thing to do.
“If we are sending some of them back to their countries of origin, for example the people from South Sudan, it should be as part of an enormous operation of return, with joy and flag-waving, not like a deportation. No police troops should be sent after them.
“We should have realized that we established a state here that is an economic lure compared with the African continent. For so many years, we have gotten used to lamenting our fate as a poor country that depends on German reparation payments. We never realized that we’ve turned into an economic attraction.”
Q. So should we let the infiltrators keep coming?
“No. We have to establish a border that looks like the border between Mexico and the United States. There they have army patrols, unmanned aerial vehicles, other methods. But those who are here already should be accepted completely. It’s out of the question that we should say that others won’t come here. We can’t speak that way, not as a democratic state and not as a Jewish state.”
Q. What do you think of haredim serving in the army?
“When it comes to haredim serving in the army, like with the infiltrators, we know how to deal with problems on a pinpoint basis and have difficulty making historic moves. Haredi society is at a historic turning point. If there are 6,000 haredim in colleges and 1,000 haredim in the army, that’s a sign that they’re backing down. One step at a time, but in the right direction. Don’t get in the way of it happening. The person in charge of the law department at Ono Academic College is a Ger Hasid, with the socks and all. Men and women are going to college, to the army, to national service. We must understand how difficult it is for them. A forceful solution will only push them backward.
“We have to reward those who integrate into Israeli society, give affirmative action to soldiers who are serving. Even though the Finance Ministry won’t like it, justice and equality obligate us to give a married haredi soldier a full salary. Equality doesn’t mean being identical in every way. We need to take the haredi lifestyle into account.
“At the same time, it would be worthwhile to deal with various kinds of draft evaders. For example, the leniency shown to athletes and singers is outrageous.”