Does the Army Need a Publisher?

As the Defense Ministry Publishing House turns 50, its future is in question. Following a not-so-complimentary report by the Brodet Committee about the defense establishment's situation, the publishing house was sentenced to a thorough review, after which its sentence will be decided -- closure, cutbacks or reorganization.

Meanwhile the CEO of the publishing house, Yossi Perlowitz, has been instructed not to begin publication of any new books, beyond the 70 currently in the pipeline, until further notice.

This is not the first time the publishing house's future is being discussed (just like closing Army Radio was discussed in the past). The government actually decided to close the publishing house in August 2005. Another discussion on its fate will take place next week.

While the publishing house has printed a large number of books of questionable cultural value in the past few years, it still has many important reference works. In addition, any publishing enterprise that is not motivated by purely commercial considerations is welcome in its own right, considering the state of publishing in Israel.

The publishing house was founded 50 years ago in order to serve the various defense organizations in Israel. It has published more than 1,500 books, on subjects including the history of the Jewish people, the archaeology of the Land of Israel, the Jewish settlement and the history of Zionism, and security and the Jewish-Arab conflict. It has also published albums and encyclopedias ("Flora and Fauna in the Land of Israel," "The New Guide to Israel").

One of the publishing house's flagships is "Ha'universita Hameshuderet" (the published university), a series of introductory books based on Army Radio lectures by leading Israeli academics. This series has produced more than 300 books over its 30 years. In addition, for years the publishing house printed a series of pocket books of local and translated literature known as "Tarmil," The Knapsack Library, edited by Israel Har. In 2001, the series was sold to the Babel publishing house.

The defense ministry's publishing house also produces the "Ma'arachot" (systems) military books and distributes various government publications, such as those on tax matters and Central Bureau of Statistics reports.

"We will reexamine the publishing house," said Shlomo Dror, the defense ministry spokesman. "In the past few years, there were quite a few books that it is not clear the Defense Ministry publishing house should have published."

This includes the Bibles the publishing house printed for the Israel Defense Forces troops. A few months ago Toby Press, which bought the printing rights to the Koren Tanach, complained that the defense publisher was not permitting fair competition. Toby Press won, and the State Comptroller instructed the ministry to stop printing the Bibles, essentially reraising the issue of whether there was a point to keeping the publishing house.

The Defense Ministry spokesman, however, was referring to a different kind of book. "Some people served in the army and later wrote a book about their service. It's not clear the Defense Ministry publishing house should print these books, which cost a fortune and interest no one," Dror says. "The publishing house published some excellent books -- 'Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda,' by Sean Naylor, about the American operation to catch Osama bin Laden.

"This book should have been published before the Second Lebanon War. Or Yigal Sheffy's book about military deterrence. These are publications that would not be published by any other printers. I think the publishing house must produce books that have security value, and not behave as if it were a regular publishing house."

By this principle, an excellent scientific series like "Ha'universita Hameshuderet" would never have been published.

"This series was published on the assumption that soldiers do not have time to go and study at the university and these books enrich their knowledge. Books with educational value, like those about Holocaust memorial sites, can be published by the publishing house, but an album of photos taken around Israel and sold as a gift item can be printed by any other publishing house. For that, one does not need the Defense Ministry's publishing house."