Israel's Society, Still Shaped by Military Arrogance

A new play recently opened in Tel Aviv about a Yom Kippur general shows that nothing has really changed: We are still permitted to do anything, in the army and in civilian life, then and now.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Shmuel Gonen (R) with Ariel Sharon (C) during the Yom Kippur War, 1973. Credit: Shlomo Arad/GPO
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Gorodish again? That war again? How much more can we wallow in it? There is an excellent show in town, run and see it. You mustn’t miss “Gorodish,” written and directed by Hillel Mittelpunkt, at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. Haaretz theater critic Michael Handelzalts already praised it to the skies two days ago on the Haaretz Hebrew website. But it is not (only) the wonderful script, the remarkable directing, the magnificent acting, the lighting, scenery and music. It is the relevance that cries out.

First performed in 1993, the play is even more relevant in 2014. It is the incomprehensible Israeli alchemy. In 1993 it was a nostalgic play, “this is how we once were”: the generals, the debauchery, the arrogance, corruption, inflexibility and blindness. At the time we thought we had changed. That the 1973 war had healed us. That there were no more Gorodishes, nor Moshe Dayans. And look at the nightmare we’re in now. They are all back, and in spades. In fact, they never left.

There is no point in counting all the similarities. At a time when suspicions of sexual harassment, weapons theft, misuse of donations and cover-ups by commanders are being investigated in a storied army brigade, Gorodish is here and now. Maj. Gen, Shmuel “Gorodish” Gonen, who was raised in a religiously observant home, has (allegedly) been replaced by Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter, who sends his troops into battle in the name of the Lord of Hosts. The hotels have been replaced by bed and breakfasts, the sexual harassment of female soldiers by that of male soldiers as well. There are suicides in both “Gorodish” and in Givati’s Tzabar Battalion, and nearly everything else is unchanged. Not only “Kahane lives,” so does Gorodish.

But the rot in the Israel Defense Forces — one deputy battalion commander already compared conduct in the battalion with organized crime — is just one side of the picture. The other is the military and the political arrogance, and we have both. Back then its name was Golda Meir, today it’s Benjamin Netanyahu, both of them speaking the smoothest English. Then it was Sharm el-Sheikh, today it’s Sheikh Jarrah, and the attitude is the same: Israel will decide everything, according to its whims and caprices, and there is no other. What about time? It continues to work in its favor.

Watching “Gorodish” makes one think. Together with the unbelievable conclusion that no lessons were learned, there are also thoughts on the role of the army. The Israeli ethos still hinders criticism. A great army of propagandists covers for it. Even when a scandal like that in Givati breaks out, they hurry to say that these are exceptions. Watching “Gorodish” prompts another thought: Not only is this the esprit de IDF, but the army’s contribution to the Israeli state and society also includes the army’s inherent corruption and arrogance. The arrogance and corruption of the happy days of Gorodish are an inseparable part of the behavior of an occupying army. If in 1973 we thought that we were healed and in 1993 we thought that it was nostalgia, then we were as dreamers.

The conclusion is clear: Instead of defending the IDF and placing all the blame on the politicians, the time has come to understand that the IDF is the people’s army. It does not only reflect society, it also shapes it. Perhaps the corrupt behavior of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the rape committed by former President Moshe Katsav were born in Gorodish’s barracks. The bullying on Israel’s roads and the violence in its clubs were born there too. We cannot continue to treat the army as only a victim of society and the soldiers as only people who carry out orders. The one who ran riot during Operation Protective edge in the Gaza Strip will do the same in battalion headquarters. And a bully who went crazy while carrying out the Hannibal Directive in Rafah will be a bully in his home as well. The spirit of 1967 has never faded: We are permitted to do anything, in the army and in civilian life, then and now.

In one of the highlights of “Gorodish,” Epstein, the general’s loyal assistant, says: “We have been praying for peace, singing songs of peace since nursery school: peace, peace ... Do I believe my government would prefer occupied territories over peace, and as a result would sacrifice hundreds and thousands of lives for them? I, Cohen, am a rotten person. I believe so.” Nothing has changed. Curtain.