On Israel’s 70th birthday, Germany’s parliament held a session marking the event. In his speech, the leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, like the heads of the other parties, committed to an alliance with Israel. But the AfD chief, Alexander Gauland, noted yet another factor that makes Israel an inspiration for the Germans: the Israelis’ readiness to die for their country.
Gauland also surprised his listeners by asserting that if Israel came under an existential threat, Germans should fight and even die for the Jewish state. “I am not certain whether the meaning of this sacrifice is actually understood in contemporary Germany,” he said, because “after two world wars Germany has become a post-heroic country, lying within its secure borders.”
Israel, in contrast, is battling for its existence every day. For Gauland – who has said his country should take pride in the deeds of the German army during World War II – Israel is a model heroic nation that, unlike Germany, hasn’t abandoned the old values of heroism. Similar views are espoused by leaders of fascist groups in Germany and elsewhere.
The AfD leader’s remarks might stir disgust, or perhaps an ironic smile, at the least. But they raise an important question: Is Israel truly a society of heroic fighters? Is it still fundamentally different than Europe? Some people will dispute this and argue that Gauland isn’t fully informed. Indeed, last month none other than Israel’s great enemy, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, cast doubt on Israelis’ heroism and strength.
“The only thing that interests the Israelis is cooking competitions on television,” he snorted. To him, that impression reinforces his famous saying that Israel is “weaker than a spider’s web.” As Nasrallah sees it, Israelis have become hedonistic and vulnerable, maybe even effeminate.
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You don’t have to be Hezbollah chief to grasp that contemporary Israel is a post-heroic society. Similar opinions are voiced in Israel, too, notably in the discourse about army-society relations. Just last month, the ombudsman of the Israel Defense Forces, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, warned about disciplinary problems in the army stemming from the use of smartphones. Instead of talking to their soldiers directly, officers prefer to send them text messages, and this, Brik believes, erodes the command ethos and esprit de corps.
Not long ago, the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported another symptom of decadence in the military: Drug use has become widespread in the IDF, among commanding officers as well, and including massive dealing in cannabis via the app Telegram. In addition, there have been allegations about the pampering of draftees, who complain to their parents about every perceived problem, from bland food to uncomfortable mattresses. With the backing of the worried parents, they treat the army as a service provider and act the part of grumpy clients.
War and PR heroes
Local sociologists too have identified a “post-heroic condition” in Israeli society. In its first decades, Israel was a markedly heroic society, spurred by an ethos of heroism in war. From the 1940s through the ‘60s, it revered war heroes such as Meir Har-Zion and Moshe Dayan. Accordingly, for years now the post-Zionist academic critique has targeted the new Zionist who, with body and soul, fulfills the vision of the “muscular Jew” articulated by the Zionist movement’s forefathers.
But many Israelis today grew up in a completely different cultural atmosphere. In the 21st century, this may be far from a peace-loving country, but it has long since espoused an ethos of valor. Israel is increasingly integrating into the post-heroic social climate that has characterized developing countries since World War II.
The latest issue of the journal Israel Affairs was devoted to “Israel’s post-heroic condition” and its expression in the media, public discourse, military strategy and various segments of society. The assumption of the researchers – none of whom can be suspected of harboring post-Zionist sentiments – is that Israel has been functioning post-heroically for decades now.
That hypothesis was first put forward by security affairs Prof. Avi Kober in 2013. He traced the phenomenon to two factors. First, the Israeli army hasn’t been engaged in a war of survival since 1973 and hasn’t waged conventional warfare against a foreign army since 1982. Israel only gets involved in low-intensity confrontations – a situation that has implications for its strategic culture. Second, the combat that does take place is increasingly based on sophisticated technology that no longer requires old-style heroes. For years the IDF has been striving to reduce its number of casualties in the knowledge that society’s tolerance for them is at an all-time low.
That point is well formulated in an article by political scientist Eitan Shamir of Bar-Ilan University. In his view, the changes in the Middle East, especially in Israel, have led defense chiefs to adopt American military concepts of post-heroic combat.
One element of that approach, which the U.S. military adopted beginning in the ‘90s, involves an effort to reduce the number of casualties and to rely heavily on precision weapons and precise intelligence. In other words, the discarding of the ethos of heroism is, in part at least, a conscious choice by the military. The IDF today is based more on drones and other unmanned aircraft than on fearless troops. Heroes are needed mainly for PR purposes by the IDF Spokesman’s Office in its messages to Israeli society.
Israel has also transformed the post-heroic condition into a public-diplomacy advantage. A 1950s-style macho militaristic country wouldn’t be very popular today. But the anxious, sensitive Israeli soldier who watches “Master Chef” on television and exchanges WhatsApp messages with his mother is capturing American – and sometimes also European – hearts.
At a time when Israeli snipers and drones are facing off against barefoot people on the brink of famine, heroic soldiers are less necessary. On the contrary: People who overrate heroism might mistakenly identify with Palestinians storming the Gaza border fence.