The Tzahal Shelanu (“Our Israel Defense Forces”) exhibition at the Holon Toto Arena is not a military parade. Unlike what is customary in Iran, Russia or North Korea, there was no showy demonstration in Holon, no marching soldiers, shiny cannons and flying flags. The sounds, video games, the toy area and the long lines were more reminiscent of Disneyland than Red Square.
Until 1973, before the achievements and the embarrassments of the Yom Kippur War, a military parade was held in Israel every year. After the difficult war, the leaders of the state may have internalized that the strong did not need demonstrations of power. It’s also possible that after the Yom Kippur War and the Six Day War, the IDF felt, for the first time, a new sentiment: shame.
The exhibition in Holon, whose free tickets and air-conditioning tempted thousands of families looking to entertain their children during the Sukkot holiday vacation, may not be a parade, but it is a show of strength. It presents the best tools and technologies the army has to offer divided into four sections – ground, sea, air and cyber – the latter bearing the flattering name “The Human Mind.”
The scenes there weren’t surprising: schoolgirls climbing on a Hummer and demanding to be photographed; a man in a kippa dragging five kids to see a robotic arm; children wearing virtual reality glasses and pretending they were paratroopers. Arkadi Duchin performed there. It was all part of the familiar Israeli reality in which the army is an inseparable part of the fabric of life and an armored vehicle that fires mortars is not perceived as a killing machine but as protective armor. The exhibition was put together with care and easily thrilled the hundreds of visiting children.
The exhibition opens with an audiovisual presentation that surveys Israel’s wars and several selected operations, including, of course, the Entebbe operation, which was led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother. The Second Lebanon War is the most recent one named at the exhibition; there is no trace of the Gaza operations – Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge.
The strange absence of the Gaza Strip, in which the army invests so much of its time and effort, was felt in the exhibition. The flight simulator, built inside the crew compartment of a sawed-off plane, allows children to fly in a sky without enemies and bomb an unnamed city (a man of about 40, larger than anyone in the line, also insisted on entering the cockpit). The digital sandbox shows a built-up area where no one lives. In a game that resembles Space Invaders, each child can defend an unidentified city from rockets that come from nowhere. Two children, apparently brothers, competed with each other to “destroy” the most missiles. A person visiting the exhibition might get the impression that the IDF has no enemies and the weapons it uses have no real purpose.
The IDF of 2018, at least as it portrays itself in the exhibition, wants more than anything to be an arms development firm. The signs posted next to every weapon and vehicle include the manufacturer’s logo, like wall labels featuring artists’ names in a museum. Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, United Defense — the fat arms and procurement contracts are the focus, but their operators and objectives are hidden.
There is no sign of the Palestinians — nor of the tank operators, gunners, Border Police officers, paratroopers or pilots. The soldiers have been replaced by mannequins in uniforms, as if they were being offered for sale, and by signs — sailor, diver, pilot. Information kiosks throughout the hall tell the history of weapons’ development. Nearby there’s a wall displaying the symbols of all the IDF units. A father could be seen standing with his bored little boy trying to pick out the symbol he wore on his uniform years back.
One of the officers at the exhibition explained that the IDF belongs to everyone, which is why the exhibition was named “Our IDF.” According to the IDF Spokesman, around 1,000 people an hour are expected at the expo, which remains open through October 3. So if there was any doubt, this is more proof that the IDF was and remains part of the broadest possible consensus in Israeli society.
But this is an army that’s different from the one presented in the exhibition’s audiovisual presentation, the army that captured Mount Hermon and Jerusalem, rescued hostages from a hijacked plane and defended Israel from annihilation. It’s an army that wasn’t able to display in this exhibition any contemporary heroic objectives or weighty enemies; an army that’s proud of its strength but prefers not to explain how and where it is used. On the way out, large speakers played a medley of songs from the military entertainment troupes. The songs, pretty as they may be, are a relic of an army that no longer exists.