Bar-Ilan Alumnus Yaakov Katz: How Judaism has Created the World’s most Moral Army

It’s an often-repeated axiom by supporters of the Jewish State that the Israel Defense Forces is the world’s most moral army, acting with extreme ethical care in highly difficult conditions on a rapidly changing modern battlefield. Journalist, best-selling author and Bar-Ilan University alumnus Yaakov Katz not only concurs, he has seen it all, first-hand.


Katz is the military correspondent and defense analyst for The Jerusalem Post and the Israel correspondent for the international military magazine Jane’s Defense Weekly. Katz has been embedded with the IDF on multiple occasions and has covered all of the country’s biggest operations in the last ten years – Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza Disengagement. He also did his own four years of army service.


Through much of this, Katz was also a student at Bar-Ilan where he completed a law degree in 2007. He never practiced or took the bar, though. While working on his degree, the then newly married immigrant from Chicago landed a part time job at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, ostensibly “to pay the bills.” He quickly discovered, however, that he not only liked writing, he was good at it. He began moving up the journalistic ladder, including a long stint at USA Today, until he eventually wound up at The Jerusalem Post. He is also a regular conference speaker and provides military analysis for international media outlets, including the BBC and Al-Jazeera.


Katz believes that the sensitivity displayed by the IDF in the moral dilemmas it faces on a daily basis is a clear outgrowth of Jewish ethical teachings, which require treating even enemy combatants with compassion and humanity. He gives an example from an assignment that saw him accompanying IDF troops on a 2:00 a.m. raid in an Arab village.


“We were working on intelligence to capture a terror suspect,” he says. “We went to a particular house and started banging on the doors. The whole family got up – parents, children, grandparents. We found the person we were supposed to arrest. He was just a kid, only 18.”


Katz continues: “The soldiers took him out to the jeep and handcuffed him. His mother followed and started yelling. Now, the commander could have just ignored her and driven away. But he didn’t. He stopped, took the suspect over to his mother and let the two embrace one last time. The woman then said to the soldier, ‘thank you.’ This really stood out for me. It’s so different than the way the Israeli army is perceived by the world, which thinks soldiers just come in the middle of the night and rip up homes.”


Katz is currently in Boston on sabbatical for a year after winning a prestigious Nieman Fellowship for journalistic excellence at Harvard University. One of only 24 journalists from around the world (and the only Israeli), he is researching the use of censorship in the digital age to determine whether it is relevant and consistent with democratic values and if it can be applied differently, especially in coverage of Israel and the Middle East.


Here he turns his lens inward towards the Israeli censor, which he says is still operating as if there was no Internet. The censor, he says, absurdly prevents Israeli journalists from covering sensitive topics – such as the recent “Prisoner X” story – even after their counterparts overseas have already broken the story and it’s available for all to read.


Katz has some suggestions. “First, the censor and news outlets in Israel have to come to an agreement that there are certain topics you either don’t write about or you submit them to the censor. These would includ Israel’s purported nuclear program or troop deployments during war, which could be a direct threat to security.”


But other issues, he continues, “for example, if Israel is selling a billion dollars in arms to an Asian country – needn't to go to the censor at all. Israelis should know who their country is doing business with, after all!” If such guidelines are created carefully, they will be able to cover future scenarios not yet anticipated.


Katz had his own run-ins with the Israeli censor while writing the book, “Israel vs. Iran – The Shadow War.” It was published in 2011 in English and Hebrew and became a best seller in the latter. The book describes how Israel has kept the Iranian nuclear program at bay through a combination of covert activities including assassinations and cyber warfare. The book was also the first to provide details of the bombing of a nuclear reactor in Syria. Katz said that, due to censorship issues in Israel, he was forced to rely primarily on U.S. sources for that chapter.


Katz, 33, made aliyah with his family when he was 15. He says he’s enjoying his year in Boston, but is looking forward to coming home at the end of the summer and getting back to work. “There’s nothing like reporting,” he confides.


And in Israel, there is never a shortage of topics for this enterprising Bar-Ilan graduate to bring the public’s attention…censor or not.