Culture Is a Civilian Matter

Culture is a civilian matter. Army Radio can go on broadcasting, 24 hours a day, without boasting of its military affiliation.

In the early 1970s I did my stint in the military as a producer at Army Radio, the station of the Israel Defense Forces. In that capacity I was producer of something entitled "Midnight Chat," a series of short (10-minute) monologues by intellectuals of renown (Prof. Ben-Ami Scharfstein, Prof. Joseph Agassi) and intellectuals "in embryo" (Adam Baruch, Menachem Benn). The chats, which had nothing to do with things military (on the contrary), were broadcast after the midnight newsreel, just before the station signed off for the night.

As a regular soldier I had, once a week, to wash the stairs leading to the studios (on the third floor of what was once a block of flats in Jaffa), and one day I was on the job, rag and pail in hand, in uniform, when Prof. Scharfstein climbed the newly scrubbed steps on his way to the studio. I finished my "stairs shift" as quickly as possible, executed a swift change to civilian garb and joined the professor in the studio to record his "Midnight Chat."

In those days, under the inspired leadership of Yitzhak Livni, the IDF's radio station gained its justified reputation as one that broadcasts to all and is listened by all, soldiers and civilians alike. From the very first days of the State of Israel, the IDF was perceived as a "peoples' army," which participates and leads also in matters nonmilitary: absorption of immigrants from all over the world, education and culture. Army Radio was unlike any other military radio station: It addressed all subjects. There were many things that could not get on the air, as unbecoming to the IDF ethos, but the soldiers who were on the job were challenged to test the limits of endurance and tolerance of the top brass. One thing was pretty clear: We wore uniforms if we had to, on military occasions. But when dealing with the world of civilians, we shed them.

I was the theater critic of Army Radio for many years, while doing my regular service. I never wore my uniform when attending a performance of a play. I'm reminiscing about this in the context of maestro Daniel Barenboim's recent, widely publicized refusal to grant an interview to an Army Radio reporter in uniform following an event celebrating the publication of a book he had written together with the late Prof. Edward Said. Limor Livnat, the minister for education and culture, accused him - as is her wont, almost shooting from the hip - of anti-Semitism. He explained the reasons for his refusal. One could have expected of him, being more than half-Israeli, to know what Army Radio is all about, or at least not to turn his refusal (for valid reasons, in my view) into an incident that makes him easy prey for staunch Israeli patriots. But that is what happened.

The crux of the matter is not Barenboim or the uniformed reporter, but Israel being a militaristic society, of which Army Radio is one of the facets. From the earliest days of the state, we have been living in the shadows of our security problems, and the light of military luminaries has guided us. Only in the last decade have new voices come to the fore, claiming that it is high time for Israel to become a civil society - that its political leaders should come from all walks of life, and not only from the military, that its priorities should be determined not only according to security demands, and that army service should not be compulsory, or a "ticket" to being an Israeli, but should be done by a professional force, ready and able to address Israel's security needs.

Army Radio during its finest hours - which have been many - managed to muddle the issues and cover up the unavoidable conflict between the militaristic and civil facets of Israeli life. The soldiers who end their service at Army Radio present an endless supply of professionals and an eager work force for all the media in Israel. They have under their belt a lot of experience of living in uniform, but acting as if they are civilians. To this very day Army Radio reporters who report about political rallies appear in public without their military insignia, because we do not want our army to be tainted by party politics. I hope that they realize there, in the top echelons of the station, that it is better for the reporter who has to interview the chief of staff or any other general not to show off his corporal's rank.

But somehow we do not think the same applies to culture, although this is indeed a matter of culture. Israelis are pretty used to seeing soldiers in uniform, sometime carrying weapons, in theaters and concert halls, and that is the way it should be. But army uniforms are out of place at political rallies and at cultural events. Woe be it to the nation for whom the freedom of expression means wearing a military uniform to attend a cultural media event.

The Army Radio reporter didn't have to show off her uniform during that bit of her duty in the concert hall - not in deference to the feelings of the Palestinians involved (Barenboim's claim), but simply because wearing the military uniform is a kind of a statement. Soldiers wear uniforms. Culture is a civilian matter. Army Radio can go on broadcasting, 24 hours a day, without boasting of its military affiliation.