A colonel's conscience

The career and resignation of Israel's Col. Eli Geva echo not only the wartime controversy in his nation today but the courage and conscience so conspicuous throughout Jewish tradition.

Colonel Geva was commanding a brigade poised outside Beirut. Reports say he took the extraordinary step of relinquishing his post when he was faced with the possibility of being ordered to attack the city. He thought the risks to Israeli soldiers and Lebanese civilians were too high.

This is the same Eli Geva who was the young commander of a troop unit fighting the Syrians on the Golan Heights in 1973. At that time he told a reporter how on Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - the soldiers asked a religious man to recite the psalms whenever there was a lull in the battle: ''Psalms of praise to God, psalms asking for His help. Many of us are not religious, but even those who were not were reciting the psalms along with him. And of course the 91st Psalm. That one he said real loud.''

Now it is hard not to think of the psalmist David, the first great King of Israel. He had the bravery and military skill to conquer the Philistines. But he also had the forbearance to refrain from killing King Saul when he had it in his power to do so. Such episodes and qualities have resonated down the centuries, emulated in small and large ways not only by Jews but by so many others touched by the Scriptures.

Courage and conscience can lead different people to different decisions. Colonel Geva did not hold back from supporting his country's invasion of Lebanon. His brigade captured Tyre. The line he has now drawn reportedly fits in with some Israeli opinion. At least it dramatizes the vigorous debate - another Jewish tradition - that can take place in Israel. It reinforces, as if that were necessary, the importance of preserving Israel in peace and freedom, which depend on the peace and freedom of those around it. It calls to the Israelis to use their freedom to arrive at policies for achieving that purpose in keeping with their best traditions.

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