Monday, November 15, 2010

The Military Elephant in the Room

by Evelyn Gordon

Here’s a topic that wasn’t on the agenda at this week’s United Jewish Communities General Assembly, but should have been: how young American Jews’ ignorance of military matters affects their relationship to Israel.

Speaking in an unrelated context, after his film Lebanon was named a finalist for six European Film Academy awards last week, Israeli director Samuel Maoz told Haaretz he was surprised at how “young audiences in Europe, particularly Britain and Scandinavia,” reacted to the film, which depicts an Israeli tank crew’s experiences on the first day of the 1982 Lebanon War:

A lot of people who saw the film [abroad] told me they were sure the Israeli soldier was a kind of killer who goes around Gaza killing children, and all of a sudden, when they see “Lebanon,” they understand he is a person like them, thinking and agonizing over what to do, dealing with conflicts and situations forced upon him.

What Maoz said of young Europeans is equally true of young American Jews. Most have never served in the army themselves, nor have most of their friends: neither Jews nor their circle of liberal, highly educated non-Jewish peers are prominently represented in America’s all-volunteer military. Consequently, they have no concept of the agonizing dilemmas combat entails, especially against foes who deliberately fight from among civilian populations, or the mistakes that inevitably happen amid the fog of war.

Thus when they see pictures of dead children in Gaza, they lack the knowledge and experience to understand that in wartime, children can be killed despite the best intentions and the most careful precautions. As a result, they all too easily believe, like their European peers, that “the Israeli soldier was a kind of killer.” And that inevitably fosters alienation from Israel: how could any self-respecting, moral individual identify with a nation of killers?

This issue doesn’t exist for American Jews of my parents’ generation. Back then, America still had the draft, so most Jews either served themselves or at least knew people who did. Thus they know that most soldiers are decent people like themselves, not ruthless killers, and they understand that civilians often die in wartime despite not being intentionally targeted.

But America isn’t likely to reinstate the draft, nor are American Jews likely to start volunteering for the military in large numbers. And Israel’s need to fight wars is unfortunately not likely to disappear anytime soon. Thus if the American Jewish community wants to address the growing alienation from Israel of some of its younger members, it must start thinking about how to give young Jews some understanding of what combat entails despite the fact that neither they nor their friends are ever likely to serve.

Films like Maoz’s might be one option. Bringing Israeli soldiers — or American Jewish veterans — to talk to young Jews about their own experiences might be another. American Jewish leaders can doubtless come up with many other creative ideas.

But first, they have to acknowledge that this elephant in the room exists, and must be dealt with. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Evelyn Gordon

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