The Soft Bigotry of Lofty Expectations

Aaron A. Wildavsky, Washington University in St. Louis

“The IDF is the most moral military in the world.”


So goes a common pro-Israel mantra. British Colonel Richard Kemp popularized it in a viral Prager University video, arguing that “the Israel Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zones than any other army in the history of warfare.” Israel advocates in the U.S. and Europe frequently cite Kemp’s claim.


Whether or not the IDF is actually the most moral military in the world, the assertion itself is problematic. The IDF’s respectability should not rest upon the comparative claim that it conducts military operations more ethically than do other nations.


The grounds upon which one can describe a military as “more moral” than another are difficult to codify, as morality cannot easily be quantified. Nonetheless, to use an extreme example, there are obvious distinctions between the American and the Syrian armed forces. Unlike its Syrian counterpart, the US Air Force does not gas its own citizens. In the event that American soldiers commit war crimes, such as raping civilians or abusing prisoners of war, they are systematically court-martialed, despite imperfections in the process. There are thus fair grounds to state that certain militaries are more moral than others.


It is obvious to any impartial observer that the IDF has more in common with the US Army than it does with its Syrian counterpart. All Israeli soldiers must commit to a code of ethics that states, “Every human being is of value,” and pledge to “not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war.” More uniquely, the code obligates soldiers to “carry out their duties at all times…within the framework of their authority, while prepared to bear responsibility for their conduct.” No Israeli soldier can defend committing an immoral act by claiming to have been simply following orders. The IDF’s conduct during the Gaza conflicts of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014 further demonstrate its tendency toward just warfare. Through its use of phone calls, “roof knocking,” and leaflet dropping to warn civilians of impending bombings, the Israeli Army undoubtedly saved innocent lives.


But none of these actions necessarily makes the IDF the most moral military in the world. What is missing from most commentaries in support of this affirmation is an objective comparison with the many other militaries that operate in an honorable fashion. What grounds exist to support the claim that, for example, the French, South Korean, or Estonian armies would not have shown similar regard for human dignity had they been in Israel’s shoes during any of the Gaza conflicts?


That said, it is entirely possible that IDF is in fact more moral than any other military. I greatly admire the IDF and may well serve in its ranks someday. In writing this article, I simply hope to question a form of praise which not only may be excessive, but also feeds hatred of the Jewish state.


Zionists should not defend the IDF’s conduct on the grounds that it does a uniquely good job of respecting its adversaries’ humanity. Instead, we should justify it on a nationalist basis. The IDF is just because it defends its citizens, while meeting the moral standards the West expects of its militaries.


The former line of argument provides fodder for a subtle, irrational mistrust of Jewish power. For some critics of Israel, any moral misjudgment committed by an Israeli soldier makes the entire IDF barbaric. By claiming that the IDF is above committing such mistakes, Israel’s supporters unwittingly perpetuate the uniquely high standards that some outside observers set for the Jewish state. If and when the Israeli military fails to meet those standards, its global standing is bound to suffer.


Instead of calling the IDF “the most moral military in the world,” friends of Israel should call it what it is: the armed force of a liberal democracy, which operates in accordance with its state’s core principles. The military of the Jewish state conducts warfare at least as honorably as those of other liberal democracies, and far better than those of illiberal states. If the world views the IDF as just another Western military, perhaps then it can view Israel as just another Western nation-state. For Zionists, that should be enough.