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The problem with Israel's heroism addiction

The flip side of Israel’s need for heroes created in uniform, weapon in hand, is the urge to preserve the ideals associated with them and to shield them from criticism — the ramifications of which have become disturbingly clear in the case of Elor Azaria.

A soldier from the Nahal Infantry Brigade at the end of a training exercise in the Negev, Israel, February 16, 2015. (Evan Lang & Adi James Brown, IDF Spokesperson's Unit/CC 2.0)

A soldier from the Nahal Infantry Brigade at the end of a training exercise in the Negev, Israel, February 16, 2015. (Evan Lang & Adi James Brown, IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/CC 2.0)

“A nation without heroes is a house without doors.” So says the grotesque, dictatorial general in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch,” after affording equal posthumous honors to several army officers who die in quick succession, no matter whether they were killed in a tragic accident or as a result of their own depraved activities.

The idea that national heroes form a structural part of any state has suffused Israel since its founding. The narrative of the pre-state years and the country’s early decades — at least the version most Israelis tell themselves — is essentially a sequence of military battles whose (Jewish/Israeli) participants are almost uniformly considered heroes, and the term “Gibor Yisrael” (“hero of Israel”), which is mostly reserved for military men, is an intrinsic part of the national lexicon. (It’s worth pointing out that the word “gibor” comes from the same root as “gever,” man, giving heroism a fixed undercurrent of masculinity.)

Narratives feed into national memory, which itself informs national identity. In Israel, then, members of pre-state militias and army generals are memorialized via countless street names and monuments throughout the country, while also collectively forming the image in which Israel has molded itself. 

It goes without saying that the concept of national heroes is not in of itself troublesome, as much as that canon in most Western countries remains dominated by white, straight, cis males. The key is context, and in Israel the context is problematic — not just because heroism is so readily associated with men’s military exploits, but also because that definition of it is so tightly bound up with Israel’s sense of the best version of itself. The uniform dictates the worth of the person inside it, not the other way around, and in this regard Israel’s relationship with its army takes on the character of religious devotion.

The notion of active military duty as the ultimate patriotic ideal is serviced by Israel’s politics, media, judicial system and academy. But as I wrote on this site a year ago, the idea that an army, which is an inherently violent institution, should form the template for norms of good character and moral standing is deeply problematic. Although there is such a thing as a just war, violence and warfare are not in of themselves heroic, and participation in either should not be considered the pinnacle of civic duty, as it so often is in Israel.

Moreover, this tethering of heroism to military exploits does more than just afford violence a respect it doesn’t deserve. It also means that a man’s military service gets rolled out as an a priori sign of good character when questions over his personal behavior arise.

Ofek Buchris passes a young military policewoman as he leaves the Jaffa Military Court, September 29, 2016. (Flash90)

Ofek Buchris passes a young military policewoman as he leaves the Jaffa Military Court, September 29, 2016. (Flash90)

Thus, for example, was the term “Gibor Yisrael” deployed when the first sexual assault allegations surrounding then-senior IDF officer Ofek Buchris surfaced in March 2015. Buchris, who was suspected of rape, sodomy and other sexual offenses, initially enjoyed the backing of numerous IDF officers and soldiers who referred to him as a “hero” and the “embodiment of the IDF’s moral code.” A Facebook page calling to support “Ofek Buchris, hero of Israel” has nearly 10,000 followers, and remains active — even after Buchris has admitted to some sexual offenses following his initial blanket denials (the charge of rape was dropped as part of a plea bargain, and Buchris will not receive a jail sentence).

Rehavam Ze’evi, a former IDF officer and veteran of the 1948 war, has also benefited from his status as a son of the nation, albeit posthumously. Ze’evi, who was assassinated by Palestinians in 2001, was a virulently anti-Arab racist who founded an ultra-nationalist political party in the late 1980s that called for the total expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But this did not bar him from entering the official national memory as a hero of Israel, with streets named after him and a law passed that ensured millions of shekels would be spent on preserving his memory.

And Ze’evi’s good name continues to be protected by his formal legacy: an annual Knesset memorial event in his honor went ahead last November, despite the revelation a few months earlier of a string of historical rape and sexual assault allegations against him, broadcast on an investigative TV show in Israel. Many lawmakers stayed away, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged people to focus on Re’evi’s “great love for the land of Israel,” while President Reuven Rivlin cited his “achievements in defending the country.”

Buchris and Ze’evi typify one kind of whitewashing that the hero status engenders, wherein any discussion of a person’s characteristics and behaviors defers to their military legacy. But there’s another type of whitewashing that occurs in Israel, which serves to redeem actions on the field of battle, rather than off it.

This is a far more sensitive affair, because it goes to the heart of how Israel’s heroes are created — on the frontline, in uniform, weapon in hand. It also speaks more directly to the need for heroes, the need to preserve the ideals we associate with them, and the need to shield both those things from criticism. After all, where do we turn to for conviction and inspiration if our icons turn out to be false idols, and moreover as a result of the very acts we lionize them for?

Supporters of Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron, show their support outside HaKirya military court in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Supporters of Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron, show their support outside HaKirya military court in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Just how horrendously wrong this approach can go has been grimly illustrated by the affair involving Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier who executed a wounded and disarmed Palestinian attacker in Hebron last March, and was caught on video doing so. Despite the swift condemnation of the IDF’s top brass, a number of high profile right-wing Israeli politicians were of the opinion that he had done the right thing and should never have been arrested, and an alarmingly broad coalition of lawmakers called for clemency in the wake of Azaria’s manslaughter conviction last week.

Yet the most disturbing reaction of all came from the Israeli public: people overwhelmingly supported Azaria’s actions, and several sections of society consider him a national hero who has been let down by the upper echelons of the army (right-wing protesters outside Azaria’s verdict hearing chanted about IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot going the same way as Yitzhak Rabin).

The Hebron shooting came during the intense period of violence that characterized late 2015 and early 2016 in Israel-Palestine, when Israeli newspapers were filled with glowing profiles of soldiers and police officers who had shot dead a Palestinian attacker (alleged or actual). Fresh national heroes were being minted on a daily basis, elevated to the pantheon by virtue of pulling the trigger and hitting the target.

Azaria, too, would likely have enjoyed a similar fate had he not been caught on camera, and had he not come from a low-income Mizrahi background, the significance of which my colleague Edo Konrad unpacked here. Despite the verdict of the court, however, for the people Azaria remains a patriotic hero, a “Gibor Yisrael.”

But Azaria himself is not the problem. He is a symptom of a much broader ailment in Israeli society: that its army, despite ethnic cleansing and occupation, despite atrocities and daily brutal repression, continues to hold the monopoly over who is and isn’t considered a national hero. When these are the doors Israel has built its house around, it is difficult to counter Netanyahu’s assertion that Israel will “forever live by the sword.”

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    1. Ben

      The ethos described by Roth may be gradually breaking down:

      Israeli Army Suffering Heavy Losses on the Front of Quality
      An ongoing erosion of the combat ethos among recruits from higher socioeconomic backgrounds is having worrying effects on the army’s quality of command.
      The worrisome data was presented to the General Staff almost a year ago, but the conclusion has not previously been made public: The Israel Defense Forces is facing a crisis of quality in its field units and, even more troubling, among its junior officer corps, because it is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit combat soldiers from certain parts of the population….
      read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.764806

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        People were saying the same things before the Six-Day War…that the kibbutz ethos was dying (which was true) and “quality Israelis” (i.e. Ashkenazim from “good” MAPAI families) were not interested in Zionism but were called the “Espresso generation” because all they supposedly wanted to do was hang out in Tel Aviv cafes’s. In spite of this, the IDF won significant victories both in 1967 and 1973. Don’t pay attention to articles like this in Ha’aretz which is increasingly distancing itself from Zionism and which really doesn’t understand what averge, real Israelis think.

        Reply to Comment
      • AJew

        “Israeli Army Suffering Heavy Losses on the Front of Quality”

        Wishful thinking by Benny and his ilk.

        Our strength lies not so much in the quality of our soldiers although we are certainly not inferior compared to other armies. Our strength lies in the fact that all of us know that the first ever major war that we would lose, would be our last war. So we have no choice but to win, even if some of us have to die in order to win.

        Try and digest this simple fact, Benny. Or don’t. It matters not. But nevertheless, that is our secret. Actually, it isn’t even a secret. It should be obvious to anyone who has their wits in tact.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          The slanderous premise here is, of course, as always, coming from you to me, that I wish for Israel’s military defeat by an outside army and to be overrun and destroyed. Or that I wish for Israel’s defeat in any sense. Of course I don’t. You have to maintain that false belief of yours as a defense mechanism, in order to protect yourself from any outside “corruption” by “evil leftists” of your “pure” justifications for the occupation. But that’s the point. Israel at this point and for some time now actually faces no great armies from anywhere, has total military hegemony. The whole tank battle thing with the Syrians and the Egyptians or Jordanians is a thing of the past. You use your tanks now to pulverize Gaza. Hezbollah you can pound into submission at will with your air force. None of these are existential threats and your generals say this. Ariel Sharon is an anachronism.

          And—here’s the main point—most of Israel’s army’s actual efforts are devoted to the occupation, to suppressing a civilian population. THIS in my opinion is a large part of why the men from stronger backgrounds increasingly do not want to serve in combat. Whether consciously or not, they do not see it as heroic or truly in the defense of the country, to the same extent as in the past, to serve in the IDF now. They know that unlike in the glorious past Israel today faces no truly existential threats. The heroism is gone and a bad aftertaste is left by the occupation. They do not want to lay down their life for the occupation. Cynicism is like rust eating away at the army and its valorous ethos.

          The female soldiers (like the two Tamars) are more free to express this since they are not as inhibited by the fear of looking unmanly, and they are less invested in the military’s psychological rewards, etc., and see more clearly.

          All of this is relative, of course. Israel is still a hyper-militaristic, army-worshiping society, for entirely understandable past reasons, but the whole thing is going increasingly sour. The IDF’s manpower directorate is not speculating about espresso sippers, it is reporting data. Israel still has a universal draft so this is all buffered by that, but if you go to a volunteer army this trend will I think accelerate markedly. You will always get the best and brightest for your special forces because they get to bask in heroism and career advancement perks no matter if it’s occupation-related or not, but the regular army is affected by all this.

          Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            “Israel at this point and for some time now actually faces no great armies from anywhere”

            An insane little man who jumped out from the 100th floor of a sky-scraper was heard muttering similar sentiments as he passed near the window of the 50th floor. He was heard muttering to himself: “so far so good”.

            You might want us to be such an insane little man Benny, but we, most of us, are not willing.

            Mull on the army of Iran. And hey, didn’t you guys claim that even Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah, defeated us in the last war? The least you can try to be is be consistent with your claims. Is that too much to ask, Benny?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “You guys claimed…” Actually, no. Whoever “you guys” are. I believe the prevalent observations out there were not that Hezbollah defeated Israel, it was that Israel not defeating Hezbollah was a ‘moral’ or propaganda victory for the latter.

            Back to Amos Harel’s report. (Harel, by the way, is an excellent, very experienced and very knowledgeable and well connected military reporter who is by no means “leftist.”) None of the threats Israel now faces are existential–listen to your own generals. And there is an ongoing erosion of the combat ethos among recruits from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. I think it is at least in part because the young men know what they really do in the territories. Gideon Levy just reported on this. (And let’s face it, Levy is hated less for what he says than that he says it out loud and in English. He’s a one man Breaking the Silence.)

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            “not that Hezbollah defeated Israel, it was that Israel not defeating Hezbollah was a ‘moral’ or propaganda victory for the latter.”

            Even with that interpretation, which is not the favorite interpretation of most Arab and pro Arab propagandists, the fact remains that according to you guys (and now you can’t wiggle out of it because YOU said it yourself), we did not even defeat Hezbollah who are only the proxies of Iran’s army. So how can you make the claim that you made? Here, I’ll quote you again:

            “Israel at this point and for some time now actually faces no great armies from anywhere”

            So according to you, Benny, we could not even defeat Iran’s proxies but Iran’s army is no threat to us? Are the Iranians just joking when their frenzied crowds frequently chant “death to Israel”?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Oh please. Doesn’t look like your young people though see Iranian tanks coming over the horizon anytime soon. They see IDF soldiers in their prime invading defenseless sleeping houses at 3AM to pull 11 and 13 year olds out of bed to give them intimidating “talks” about not protesting if they know what’s good for them. Heroes of Israel. Israel’s finest.

            Oh, and of course the swimming pools and libraries in Ariel hide special hidden anti-Persian heat seeking missiles. Top secret. Gotta have Ariel. Cuz the Iranians are coming! What a farce.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            “Oh please. Doesn’t look like your young people though see Iranian tanks coming over the horizon anytime soon”

            Thank you oh great phoobah for your smug reassurance that the Ayatolahs are just joking about their intentions with regards to Israel. And that the virtual daily chants by whipped up mobs who shout “death to Israel”, are nothing but group therapy.

            Thank you Benny for your reassurance. We will be sure to listen to you. We will unilaterally disarm and withdraw just to gain the respect of “peace loving”, “well wishing” folks like you towards us. Coz there is nothing to fear but fear itself, right Benny-leh? Or some such crap… ?

            You are a bit like the insane little man muttering to himself near the 50th floor, eh Benny-leh? ?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Levy: What Israeli Soldiers Never Tell Their Mothers
            There is virtually no combat service in the IDF that doesn’t entail soldiers carrying out despicable missions like the one described below.
            “…Their mothers won’t ask what they did, and they won’t tell them. That’s how it always is. Their parents are proud of them: they’re combat soldiers… The village was deep in sleep… And the order was given: Attack! … The soldiers wanted Tariq. And also Maliq…woke them with shouts. The wanted men woke up in a panic. The soldiers ordered them to get up. Then they grabbed their arms, pushed them into two separate rooms and locked them in. Other soldiers broke into the house, whose inhabitants had all woken up in the meantime…The soldiers warned the two wanted men not to dare participate in any more demonstrations. “Next time, we’ll shoot you or arrest you,” they told Maliq. He remained locked up for about 40 minutes, until the force left. On their way out, the soldiers threw stun grenades into the yards of the homes they passed – the icing on the cake. All of this happened about 10 days ago in Kafr Qaddum. All of it happens every night throughout the West Bank. The two wanted men were aged 11 and 13. Tariq’s voice hasn’t broken yet, and Maliq has a bashful smile…. .The Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit wasn’t ashamed to say, “Soldiers spoke with youths who had taken part in the regular demonstrations in Qaddum.” That’s what IDF soldiers do: hold intimidating nighttime talks with children. That’s what they enlisted for. That’s what they’re proud of. Kafr Qaddum, it’s worth noting, is a place that merits respect. It has been fighting for about five years now, with courage and determination, for the reopening of its access road – which was blocked because of the settlement of Kedumim. The settlement had grown right up to the edge of the road, leading to its closure.
            read more: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.765005

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Yes, Benny, Haaretz is my bible. Not my own experience.

            Thank you very much and have a nice day.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            AJew, please tell us about your own experience in the army in the territories.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            My own experience is my own affair. But it sure isn’t the cartoonish experience which your favorite publications feed us as a daily diet.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Interesting. You’re opting for a strategy of denial that Levy is reporting things that actually happen? You’re denying these things happen, and as often as Levy says? You’re saying he’s lying? He’s fabricating? You’re saying Haaretz is fabricating things? Really? And in which case +972 Magazine would also have to be lying, making stuff up wholesale? Really?
            The ethos described by Roth is gradually breaking down because this is also the main role of the army today and it is not heroic and the young men and women know it:
            How the state builds a road for West Bank settlers
            Israeli authorities continue to uproot Palestinian-owned olive trees in order to build a road for nearby settlers.

            (And by asserting this I am actually paying respect to the basic instincts and better natures of the young Israeli men and women.)

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Nope, you misinterpreted what I said.

            I have said this before but either you forgot or you chose to overlook it so here it is again:

            What I am saying is that mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs by everyone who is in the army is not the norm.

            Having said that, we are still in a state of war with the Palestinian Arabs. The Arabs carry out regular indiscriminate attacks against both our civilians and army personnel. And the Arabs observe no rules. They attack anyone, anytime and do whatever they can to hurt or maim, men, women, children, young or old. This has been going on for 100 years now. So, why are you surprised if some of our people are hot-heads too? Some of us, some of the time, or even regularly go overboard. Especially when stones and molotov coctails are being thrown.

            Do we all have skeletons in the closet to hide? Are there things that we don’t tell our mothers that we should be ashamed of, figuratively speaking (some of our mothers are no longer amongst the living)? No, definitely not! For starters, not every soldier is in daily contact with the Palestinian Arabs. Also, not every soldier is a hot-head. Many soldiers are mature men with families of their own who serve in the miluim (reservists). So statements like the one below are utter nonsense:

            “Levy: What Israeli Soldiers Never Tell Their Mothers
            There is virtually no combat service in the IDF that doesn’t entail soldiers carrying out despicable missions like the one described below.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Ah, the few bad apples dodge. Even the “some of us, some of the time, or even regularly” dodge. In fact, as Yehuda Shaul reports, it is not just “hotheads going overboard” even “regularly,” it is the organized, day in day out, enacted official doctrine of the IDF. This practice Levy describes is ordered and meticulously carried out from the top down. Every day. With military efficiency and discipline. As official strategy. And you know it. Or, you know, perhaps you really truly don’t know it. It occurs to me that perhaps you really truly don’t know it. Which all the more drives home the point that the Israeli public either has no real idea what is being done in their name or they don’t want to know.

            Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence

            It’s worth the hour and 38 minutes. For the take home message watch minutes 21:00-25:00. Israel tells itself and others it’s playing defense but it’s really playing offense. It always says it’s on the way out but it’s really always on the way in. Defense is a very small part of it. And it’s not mainly offense against terrorism. It’s offense in the service of Israel’s absolute military control over Palestinians. Before 21:00 he describes BtS’s purpose: to show Israelis: “This is what we in the military really do in your name.” From 25:00 on he describes what he means by “offense.” He describes for example how the idea of “prevention” expands to include every offensive (in both meanings of the term) action you can think of. And the idea of “separation” and how it becomes ruthlessly limitless. And on and on. It will open your eyes to the hollowness of every argument justifying the occupation.

            You’re deep in denial.

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            Dodge, Benny-leh? I do not dodge anything. I know what I know through first hand knowledge. Unlike you who is addicted to a daily diet of food fed to you by vilifiers.

            Now let me see how consistent are you. What do you say about Palestinian Arabs? Are they all terrorists? I am sure you say no to that, right, Benny-leh? Presumably because you think that unlike Israeli Jews, who are all evil, according to you and your ilk, most Palestinian Arabs are decent human beings, only a tinsy winsy minority are terrorists, right Benny-leh?

            Compare and contrast your beliefs about us and them. What is one to think of people like you? I won’t bore you with MY answer. You know my answer already. I’ll let sane people judge for themselves what is self evident!

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Hmmm…that mysterious “first hand knowledge.” But you can’t say what it is. The thing is, for too many Israelis the territories are a few kilometers away but might as well be ten thousand kilometers away. They know little of what really goes on and want to know less.

            But I never said all Israeli Jews are terrorists. Or that all Israeli Jews are evil. Or that all Israeli Jews actively participate in sustaining the IDF doctrine Yehuda describes. A lot passively wink at it I think. But some of them do not. Yehuda for one doesn’t. Note that I already paid homage to the basic good instincts and better natures of young Israeli men and women—let’s not lose track of main thread here, shall we?

            The thing is, Yehuda Shaul has been a soldier in the territories and has listened to hundreds if not thousands of soldiers who served in the territories. I guess you have not done either of these things. Several times in the presentation he says: “The thing is, if you really listen to soldiers who serve in the military, in the IDF….” From what basis of authority do YOU speak, AJew, that outweighs the authority from which Yehuda speaks? Seriously, why would someone from the outside believe you versus Yehuda? Tell us. Why?

            Reply to Comment
          • AJew

            No answer to my question, eh Benny? Ok, I get it, you don’t want to talk about what Arabs do. You only want to exaggerate bad old bogey Israel who is at war with the Arabs and who have not exactly behaved decently with the people of Israel since before the birth of our country as well as afterwards.

            And you are changing your allegations too. One minute you quote a passage about everyone in the army doing bad things, the next minute you say that not all Israelis are aware. Well guess what, Benny, just about everyone in Israel serves many years in the army and we know what we know. So you are arguing with the wrong person. If I were you, I would stop digging a hole for myself and I would quit while being behind. Or you can just call me a liar and keep refusing to answer my question about whether you think that all Arabs are terrorists.

            Reply to Comment

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