Head to Head With IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu

The highest-ranking kibbutznik in the army rues the decline of the kibbitzim as a supplier of Israel's soldiers.

The head of the IDF Spokesman's Office, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, remembers how 25 years ago, when he began working as a military correspondent for the left-wing newspaper Al Hamishmar, about half of the General Staff were kibbutz members and the chief of staff was Moshe Levy from kibbutz Beit Alfa. Al Hamishmar folded long ago, and the Kibbutz Movement is no longer what it used to be though it celebratex its first 100 years this month. But there's not a single major general who is a kibbutz member and even among the brigadier generals, the only kibbutznik is Benayahu.

Avi Benayahu, Itay Cohen / Bamahane
Itay Cohen / Bamahane

How does a boy who grew up in Tel Aviv's Yad Eliyahu neighborhood and moved to Kibbutz Lahavot Haviva feel as the highest-ranking officer in the Kibbutz Movement today?

"Unfortunately I really do find myself the most senior kibbutz member in the IDF. On the one hand, I'm proud of the distinction and remember the days when I looked up from below and saw kibbutz members as chiefs of staff, generals and commanders of units. Today I'm the only brigadier general, and there's one colonel somewhere. On the other hand it's sad. I'm ashamed for the movement that once knew how to be the leader in the field of defense."

Why are kibbutzniks no longer serving in senior command positions?

"The principles of cooperation and equality, in the most profound, basic and precise sense, caused senior members of the standing army to leave the kibbutz, because it didn't know how to meet their special needs. You aren't on the kibbutz for two weeks, you go to serve in distant places, don't see your family and the kibbutz still puts all your wages and rights into its bank account."

You also dealt with that, as someone who served as IDF spokesman, the spokesman of defense ministers and the commander of Army Radio.

"Until five years ago, my entire salary went straight into the kibbutz account, and I received an annual budget like every member.

"It wasn't easy, especially when I knew I was carrying a lot of responsibility on my shoulders and left very early in the morning and returned late at night. My children had no father, I didn't play soccer with them in the afternoon on the lawn or spend time with them in the swimming pool on Friday.

"Every morning, I had to decide to stay on the kibbutz. For many years, I was at peace with that, and there were also a few years when I didn't feel it was justified, that there had to be a connection between input and compensation. But I didn't have time to leave. I would meet many senior officers and journalists who would ask how come I was still a kibbutz member."

Do you think the Kibbutz Movement should work to restore the situation to what it was?

"It's important to say that it wasn't healthy for the IDF that one body had such control, that it stood out compared to every other sector. But the Kibbutz Movement cannot agree to not contributing senior officers.

It's impossible to imagine the State of Israel without the Kibbutz Movement, which determined the borders of the country, contributed so much to defense, the economy and industry, to science and culture and that has such painful representation in the military cemeteries.

I think we have now entered a period of renewal, that we've found the compass and that a young generation is growing up on the kibbutzim that is very similar to the national religious youth, and they are still doing meaningful combat service.

"That's a very important value that has remained, and they serve in combat units and in command positions. But they don't go on to positions as company and brigade commanders, and here the former glory should be restored. It's the job of educators and the educational leadership."

Will the processes of privatization on the kibbutzim bring the senior officers back home?

"The movement has undergone a two-decade crisis. There was a long period of confusion during which we thought about how to continue with this thing called 'the kibbutz.'

"Soldiers in the standing army have returned to the kibbutz lately because of the safety net and the privatization, because people love their childhood landscape after all, but they don't like the cooperation and the equality that was apparently right for its time but is no longer appropriate.

"Eighty percent of the kibbutzim have succeeded in undergoing difficult processes and finding a way to adapt the kibbutz to the changing reality.

"We are no longer cooperative and egalitarian, but there are values of communal life and Zionism. Everyone has the obligation to support himself and has to take care of himself and his family, to pay for the services he receives. But we also set aside a regular sum for mutual guarantees, to support needy members. It's not a life of every man for himself.

"But there were years when we wasted a lot of money in an unjustified way, and sometimes that caused alienation from the surroundings. I think we're emerging stronger now, and there are many kibbutzniks, including officers in the standing army, who are returning."

It's impossible to ignore the fact that the religious have replaced you.

"The religious Zionist youth and the youth of the Kibbutz Movement are very similar. A high percentage of graduates of the left-wing Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and of the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement fulfill their ideals - these are youth with values and dedication to a mission."

Is there concern among believers in Hashomer Hatzair ideology regarding such a high percentage of religious men in command positions?

"We in the army see the members of religious Zionism as making a very significant contribution. They are outstanding officers who know how to separate what the rabbis say from what the commanders say, and there is no problem of loyalty. In my lifetime, I have seen much more refusal from the left than from the right."

Today the kibbutzim are investing much more in economic enterprises. There is less attention to military service.

"These things do not have to come at the expense of one another. Twenty years ago, all the economic managers and factory managers on the kibbutzim were reserve brigade commanders; they managed to do both."

Maybe it's not only a change experienced by the Kibbutz Movement but that the entire society, and the IDF as part of it, has become more focused on career and money. In the IDF they are also now talking about the army as a career, and the senior officers are much older than in the past, and the salaries in the upper echelons are better than before.

"There is meaning in the fact that people are serving and defending the country. It's not only salaries and a career. The fact is that even in today's General Staff there are major generals who are graduates of the Kibbutz Movement, even if they don't live on kibbutz now.

"These are responsible people. The entire Israeli society has undergone a process of privatization, that symbolizes everything.

"In the past they said on the kibbutz 'first the country, then the party, then the movement, the kibbutz, the family and me. It's not the same today, both in the Kibbutz Movement and elsewhere. Even in Yad Eliyahu the mutual responsibility has changed. On the other hand, this process is slower here than in the West, because we're still a struggling society."