Erlanger on Israeli Soldiers: Where’s the Balance?

In an interview with Lori Lowenthal Marcus and Steve Feldman, Steve Erlanger explained that it was not really part of an article on the “lost generation” of Palestinians to do something on the culture of hatred and violence with which the Palestinian leaders — political and religious — abuse that generation. “That’s another story,” he commented evasively. “We’re waiting to read that other story,” his interviewers responded.

I’m sure that Erlanger’s still working hard doing the extensive research necessary to cover the topic, especially since he seems to be a total neophyte on the subject. But in the meantime his next piece was the following account of the “small crowd” of still-leftist Israelis come to hear about the painful experiences of Israeli soldiers forced to maintain “humiliating” checkpoints in the West Bank. Read it through and ask yourself if there’s any knowledge or desire to impart any information on what makes such onerous checkpoints necessary.

Israeli Soldiers Stand Firm, but Duty Wears on the Soul

Published: March 23, 2007
JERUSALEM, March 22 — Some of Jerusalem’s nicest people gathered the other night to listen to a talk by an Israeli soldier troubled by how he and some of his colleagues had behaved in the occupied West Bank.

The small crowd on a rainy evening was a bit disheveled, with lots of untamed hair and sensible shoes. Largely English-speaking, they were generally somewhere on the left of Israel’s wide political spectrum, and they listened earnestly as Mikhael Manekin, 27, spoke quietly about his four years of service with the Golani infantry brigade in the West Bank.

The small — read dwindling — “left” group is not “some of Jerusalem’s nicest people.” They may be nice, but the most outstanding characteristic of them is their commitment to completely unrealistic approaches to the problem. (See below.)

Mr. Manekin and his colleagues spent a lot of their time at security checkpoints around Hebron and Nablus, controlling the movement of Palestinians to try to ensure that suicide bombers could not infiltrate Israeli cities. The checkpoints are part of a security network, including the separation barrier, that protects Israel, but also deeply inconveniences Palestinians who would never consider strapping on a bomb.

But don’t count on this group of inconvenienced Palestinians to let the Israelis know who in the line is problematic…. or to speak out within their own society against these moral monsters who, by forcing the Israelis to keep these checkpoints so harshly, make their own lives miserable. And don’t expect Erlanger, were he to interview them at a checkpoint, to ask them why they don’t so speak out. I don’t think that kind of possibility exists in his bigotry of low expectations.

Mr. Manekin is the director of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli combat soldiers and some current reservists, shocked at their own misconduct and that of others, who have gathered to collect their stories and bear witness. Since 2004, the group has collected testimonies from nearly 400 soldiers (available in English at

He spoke of how some soldiers humiliate or beat Palestinians to keep crowds in line and how soldiers are taught to be aggressive, but how most behave within decent moral limits — and of how the fear that hundreds of people could erupt in anger wears on the soul and turns young men callous.

“I don’t think this is a problem of the military,” he said. “It’s a problem of the society. We’re sending these kids in our name. And there has to be a space to talk of bad things. It’s not enough to say, ‘But there’s Palestinian terrorism,’ which there is, but that’s too easy.”

He felt conflicted whenever he went back into the army on reserve duty, he said. “I love my soldiers, and I’m a good officer,” he said. “But going back into that system is hard. Still, I see my future here and my children’s future. And I want a safe country, like everyone, and also a moral country.”

In the aftermath of Israel’s inconclusive summer war against the militant organization Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Mr. Manekin’s stories struck an ambivalent note even in this audience at the Yakar Center for Social Concern, founded in 1992 to promote debate and dialogue among Israelis and their neighbors. Run by Benjamin Pogrund, a distinguished journalist from South Africa, the center embraces difficult topics like the status of Israeli Arabs, settlements, religious orthodoxy and challenges to democracy.

There is a general gloominess in Israel after the war with Hezbollah, a sense that neither the government nor the army performed very well, and the result is widespread anxiety and a new mood of introspection.

The government is one thing, but the army is the core institution of this little state, and a fine new film about the army’s last days in Lebanon in 2000, “Beaufort,” is being praised for its depiction of the sensitive Israeli soldier bravely doing his duty despite his fear and the usual political and military confusion.

While criticism of the army is quite acceptable in Israel’s democracy, and not just on the left, Breaking the Silence left some raw feelings here.

At the recent talk and discussion session, one man stood and said Mr. Manekin and his friends were hurting Israel, especially its image abroad, in order to salve their own consciences. Many in the audience nodded in agreement. Tall and dignified, about 45, the man said that he, too, had served in the West Bank, “and I’m proud of what I did there to defend Israelis.”

It is crucial to intimidate people at checkpoints to keep them cowed, he said, his voice shaking a little, “because we are so few there, and they are so many.”

Then he said: “These people are not like us! They come up to our faces and they lie to us!”

That was enough for Uriel Simon, 77 years old, a professor emeritus of biblical studies at Bar-Ilan University and a noted religious dove.

“As for liars,” Mr. Simon said, then paused. “My father was a liar. My grandfather was a liar. How else did we cross lines to get to this country? We stayed alive by lying. We lied to the Russians, we lied to the Germans, we lied to the British! We lie for survival! Jacob the Liar was my father!” he said.

As for the Palestinians, he said: “Of course they lie! Everyone lies at a checkpoint! We lied at checkpoints, too.”

So don’t let anyone tell you that Israelis, Jews, even professors, are all smart. None of Prof. Simon’s ancestors were lying at checkpoints in order to go blow up civilians on the other side. If you can’t see the difference between lying to stay alive and lying to kill (or allow someone else to kill), then you’re a fool. Apparently the point escapes both Prof. Simon and Steve Erlanger.

This is classice We-too-ism. They have terrorists? We too! They teach hate? We too! They lie? We too. The instinct not to draw distinctions, to insist that “both sides…” are equally guilty, that even if it means making imbecilic comparisons, we’ll do that to keep the balance, is uniquely Jewish in this conflict. The Arabs engage in “They too…”ism. When Alan Keyes showed the hate teaching in Palestinian schools, the immediate response of Hassan Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination League, was “they do it too.”

Everyone is afraid of mirrors, Mr. Simon said, readjusting the knitted skullcap on his nimbus of white hair. “We hate the mirror. We don’t want to look at ourselves. We don’t like photographs of us — we say, ‘Oh, that’s not a very good likeness.’ We want to be much nicer than we are. But here there are also prophets who are mirrors, who are not afraid of kings and generals. The prophet says, ‘You are ugly,’ and we don’t want to hear it, but we have to look at the mirror honestly, without fear.”

This is pure moral equivalence. Prof. Simon seems to think he’s brave, unlike the “everyone” he denounces. But he’s fashioned for himself a distorting mirror that makes him (his people) look as ugly as some of the ugliest people on the planet, and he considers himself an honest man for so doing. Instead, he’s a good example of a hyper-self-critical Jew who, thanks to a morally lazy and politically correct journalist — Erlanger makes Simon the center of this article — misinforms the world on some crucial moral issues.

Later, Mr. Simon tried to describe the ambivalence and even confusion, as he saw it, in the room.

The army is central to Israel, and the problems so complicated, he said. At the beginning of the summer war, as in the beginning of any war, including the war in Iraq, “there’s a euphoria that derives from an almost irrational belief in power and force, that the sword can cut through all the slow processes.” It is more enthralling if, like Israel, “you have so much power that you can’t use, and suddenly you can.”

But the euphoria is always short-lived, he said, because no army is as efficient as advertised, and power rarely delivers the clean outcome it seems to promise.

“We bomb southern Lebanon like mad, and still they continue to send missiles at us,” he said.

The frustration is even more intense “for a people like Israel forced to live on its sword, for who will save this little state?” he asked. “The United Nations? The good will of America? We’d be overrun 10 times before America awakes, even if it wants to awake. So every 10-year-old knows the sheer importance of the Israeli Army, and the more you need it the more you expect from it.”

At the end of the evening, Mr. Simon said, he went to talk to the tall man who had been so upset. “He said to me, ‘You won’t believe me, but I agree with 90 percent of what you said.’ ” Mr. Simon laughed softly. “It just showed how confused he was.”

Alas, if anyone’s really confused, it’s Prof. Simon, who seems to think he’s got it all figured out, and Steve Erlanger who thinks that this shoddy piece of “reporting” constitutes a piece of journalism.

We’re still waiting for your coverage of the culture of hatred, Steve. Although, I’m not holding my breath. Even if you do it, I’m sure it will be “even-handed.” Otherwise, what will happen to your access to the Palestinians?

4 Responses to Erlanger on Israeli Soldiers: Where’s the Balance?

  1. Richard, great post, and a great site–I can’t believe I’ve never been here before, my loss!

    Compare Erlanger’s pitiful “analysis” with these pithy, powerful words from a great Iraqi, Omar Fadhil at IraqtheModel, about the Iraqi soldiers at THEIR checkpoints. Which one is really the more accurate JOURNALISM??!!


  2. Sorry, it looks like those comments by Omar were even pithier than I intended–let’s see if this copies over OK:

    “From my personal experience I can tell that the men staffing the checkpoints do not take their job lightly. One can feel that a long month of hard work did not exhaust them, and I am awed by the courage of those soldiers and policemen. In a city which has absorbed more suicide bombings than all other cities in the world combined every passing vehicle or motorcycle is a threat.
    I can’t imagine myself in a position where my job requires I open dozens of trunks every day and each one of those moments might be the end of my life and those of the people around me. The physical and psychological pressure is enormous, yet those brave men continue to be our shield.”

  3. Yehudit says:

    I posted on this but you took the article apart more than I did. But I did post the IDF vet petition which responds to “Breaking the Silence.” It’s a powerful rebuttal to that group’s propaganda, and I’m trying to get exposure for it.

    You can read it here.

  4. […] in Jounalism 101: Palestinian Suffering via PCP1 Listen to the hollow man: Erlanger defends himself Erlanger on Israeli Soldiers: Where’s the Balance? Erlanger, Dupe of Demopaths: Does he really believe this stuff? Not Even Pretending to be Fair: The […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *