Tough Love: Israel And Its Army

Haim Watzman

Big news: public trust in the Israel Defense Forces dropped a full three percentage points in the last year. Now only 71 percent of Israelis (all Israelis, including non-Jews) trust their army, as opposed to 74 percent last year. The figures come from the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Democracy Index. I would guess that the generals are not exactly quaking in their boots. But given the damning criticism of the army included in the Winograd Report (available in Hebrew here) on the Second Lebanon War, issued earlier this year, it’s rather surprising that the IDF remains so popular. Or is it?

In fact, the army remains far more popular than every other public institution in the country. Only 35 percent trust the Supreme Court (a drop of 12 points), only 17 percent the prime minister, only 37 percent the media.

Does this mean that Israel is a modern Prussia, taking glory in the macho military values embodied in its armed forces? Not exactly. Israelis are hardly alone in admiring their fighting men. In fact, armies tend to be wildly popular institutions in most countries. I recall an essay by Jorge Luis Borges (I can’t find the specific reference right now) in which he explained the central place of the army in the society of Argentina and the admiration in which it was held-despite that army’s penchant for staging coups d’etat and pushing those who don’t admire it out of airplanes.

In Israel, an embattled country where the army is omnipresent and most citizens (still) serve or at least know many who serve, the army is not only seen as the shield of its populace-it’s also the place where most people grow up. We have a tendency to be nostalgic about the institutions in which we make the intense friendships of youth, where we experience self-discovery, face challenges, and first fall in love. Just look at homecoming weekend at any American university and imagine it in uniform.

So Israelis’ admiration of their army is only weakly connected to the army’s success or failure. The fact that it failed to take out Hezbollah in Lebanon two summers ago is not what most people here think of when a pollster asks them if they trust the army. They think about their son or daughter’s swearing-in ceremony or their buddies in the reserves.

Nevertheless, a society that trusts its army twice as much as its most popular state institution is in danger-especially a society that feels as chronically insecure as Israeli society does. Such a situation means that people are liable to look to the army to solve problems that other institutions don’t seem able to deal with. In the 1980s, when surging hyperinflation and Palestinian terrorism frightened many Israelis (even though the level of violence then was much lower than what we’ve experienced in this decade). Time and again I heard people talk seriously about a military coup as the only way to extricate the country from its impasse. I haven’t heard such talk recently, but it will come if people’s faith in their civilian institutions remains perilously low at the same time that the external threat remains high.

The IDF is, in fact, a good army all in all, and the great majority of its soldiers and officers are honorable, intelligent, talented-and committed to democracy. But, as the old Hebrew adage has it, kabdahu ve-hashdahu. Respect it-and suspect it. Don’t love it to death.

7 thoughts on “Tough Love: Israel And Its Army”

  1. I collected a set of three contrasting treatments of “Bab el Wad” ( a classic zionist anthem) for my blog, although I cheated slightly in that one of the treatments doesn’t even pretend to be the original song – it is a completely different song, with an almost identical name. The other two are also contrasting, though, in that one is a very standard, quiet treatment with accompanying visuals of the place as it is now, with its little memorial by the highway, and some newsreel footage from the approximate location in 1948 (I think)while the third one is a chillingly powerful TV live presentation, with a hypnotised audience, and heavy homoerotic undertones, done by the Israeli pop icon Harel Skaat. I defy anyone to look at these three videos and then maintain that the USA has any kind of monopoly on state of the art mass communication:

  2. I don’t think anyone has looked at the items I mentioned yet (to judge by the blog stats), but anyway, the point I want to make is this : when we try to examine a society or an institution within it, we usually proceed in the way our schoolteachers showed us, viz., by means of real or imagined written reports, which may be composed of journalistic impressions, first-hand recollections, sociological studies, or political analyses, or any mixture of these. However, none of this really helps, in my opinion, to grasp the psychological climate within which the institutions function, which set the preconditions for the behaviour of their members and those around them.

    In modern mass societies, psychological climate is, in my opinion, set not by text or speech so much as by visual tableaux. For instance, US pseudo-perceptions of the mid-east are determined largely by cinema and TV. In the same way, Israeli pseudo-perceptions of the role of the IDF are determined for most people by TV and cinema products.

    This complicates matters in one respect, namely that an increasing proportion of non-conscript IDF are from Mafdal or Hardal backgrounds, which means that they actually avoid cinema, TV, and popular culture in general, in favour of a sort of yeshiva culture, but I can’t really say anything about this except that it is a problem for the larger, more or less profane, public, not for me.

    Anyway, returning to the mass culture treatment of the IDF, I want to mention a couple of things about “Bab el Wad” videos (as opposed to the song per se) that stand out even to me, a non-Israeli and a non-Jew. The most important is that they link the role of the IDF back to the Second World War struggle against exterminationist anti-Semitism, even though this link is anachronistic. The link is mythically NECESSARY, and this is my point.

    Just writing about, e.g., the pro-Nazi proclivities of Haj Amin Muhammad al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, though logically suitable, doesn’t immediately engage the emotions. Successful propaganda internalises itself and bypasses logic and critical reason, and this why the thing I would want to study first is the cinema and TV-created mass psychological climate to which ordinary young Israelis are exposed, and which, I feel certain, installs this subconscious link between army service and “fighting nazism” by the time they are fifteen or so. It isn’t unique : English cinema and TV mass culture revolved around similar tropes in the 1950s, as I recall from my childhood.

  3. I think it is important to distinguish between the “popularity of the Army” with the “popularity of the Generals”. Someone who says the army is “popular” doesn’t necessarily mean he wants a military junta to run the country. I think if the poll were to ask people what they think of the Army High Command, especially in the wake of the Lebanon II war fiasco, you would see much lower numbers. The military High Command in Israel, unlike in the US or Britain is highly politicized….top generals are not chosen necessarily for competance, but for political reliability. Dan Halutz was chosen as Chief of Staff by military “expert” Ariel Sharon because he agreed to use the army (which is a conscript army) for the political purpose of expelling Jews from Gush Katif. While he was very successful in indoctrinating the army to drag civilians, including women and children out of their homes and bulldozing them, his ability to fight a real war in Lebanon was proven to be nil.

  4. It sometimes seems to me that the more philosophical and responsible Jews believe that we – the entire human species, if not the entire Creation – have an Enemy, or face a Threat, that only they can see. This enemy or threat is so vast and intangible that I cannot label it at all. Sometimes it seems like a conscious force of malice, sometimes like a shortcoming within us ourselves, mere lethargy almost. Anyway, it is more than just ‘anti-Semitism,’ and it is more than just themselves that they seek to protect, on this theory, which explains the somewhat baffling range of emotions with which, I have always found, Jews respond to any questioning of their motives. I think it is true that, in general, Christians lack a certain depth of perception, historically and morally. It is not implausible to me that these ‘more philosophical and responsible Jews’ do indeed seek to protect both ‘us’ (the Christian world) and themselves from something that they feel only they can see.

    Muslims, however, have little or no respect for this view. Muslims, unlike Christians, tend to feel that “they are the answer to the riddle of history, and know themselves to be this answer” (to borrow a phrase from Marx and Engels). Their theory of what is wrong with history, on the profane level, is simplicity itself : usury is what is wrong with it. Now, speaking for myself, I was born in the Christian culture-sphere, but I was never a Christian, and, having become profoundly dissatisfied with the results of my attempts to feel my way into the Jewish world (by this I mean not so much “conversion” as merely being permitted to learn the language), I propose to become a Muslim. I have concluded that whatever it is ‘the Jews’ imagine themselves to be protecting themselves and us against, they have failed to protect us against it, so that other approaches become morally mandatory.

    It would certainly not be correct for me to walk away from such an unsatisfactory encounter cherishing a suspicion of Islam, as the thing we were to be protected against. All the evidence suggests that Jews, and Christians for that matter, are deliberately trying to evoke the hatred of Muslims, merely as a pretext for imperial adventures, in an age that no longer has any need of white imperialists, and indeed urgently needs to be rid of them.

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