Friday is usually a slow news day, so Army Radio had no problem pushing a story in which one of their reporters became part of the story. The renowned conductor, Daniel Barenboim, was the star of a launch party for the Hebrew edition of a book he wrote jointly with his close friend, the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said.
When the reporter asked Barenboim for an interview, he refused on the grounds that she was wearing her IDF uniform.
"How do you dare appear here dressed like this?" he chided. An uproar ensued.
The radio station became all patriotic and began blowing up the story; politicians from the Right and the Center were quick to weigh in with their condemnations. Even Barenboim felt he had to explain his actions on air.
"I just thought that since we are dealing with a book written by an Israeli and a Palestinian," he said, "and we are sitting in occupied territories and everyone knows that, it's simply insensitive to turn up at an event like this in uniform."
I hate to say this, but Barenboim is right.
Not because I think we should show sensitivity to the memory of the man Said who was mainly responsible for the anti-Israel atmosphere at American campuses. Especially not when Barenboim declined to show any sensitivity to Holocaust survivors by repeatedly conducting performances of the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner.
But soldiers shouldn't be going around serving as journalists in a democratic country. Youngsters in uniform should not be pushing microphones neither at problematic musicians nor at prime ministers and generals. The IDF has a very clear role in Israel. It has no business running a media organization.
It has to be said that Army Radio is an extremely effective news station. It regularly breaks scoops. Most of its shows are much more interesting and informative than those broadcast on rival Israel Radio certainly much better than anything the local radio stations have to offer.
Nevertheless, this doesn't change the fact that the defense establishment shouldn't have its own private media arm. A soldier's job is to obey orders, while that of a journalist is to be skeptical and pose questions. There is no way the two roles can live together in harmony.
The IDF is the largest and most central organization in Israeli society. As such, it is the subject of extensive coverage and media scrutiny. It therefore should not be able to play on both sides.
ARMY RADIO sets the tax-payer back about NIS 35 million a year in direct costs; overall costs, including various services the station receives free of charge from different branches of the military, is estimated at around double that sum. In a period of defense-budget cuts, it makes no sense to carry on bearing those costs.
The station plays a vital role in the Israeli media scene. Severing its connection to the IDF doesn't mean it has to disappear. On the contrary, it's brand name (commonly known in Hebrew as its acronym, Galatz) and broadcasting rights will undoubtedly fetch a princely sum from an entrepreneur eager to transform overnight into a media mogul.
The only problem is that the station couldn't be sold without one of its key assets: Two thirds of its employees are talented young soldiers selected from among thousands of candidates who work at the station virtually free of charge, as part of their compulsory military service. (There is no doubt they could bring a lot more benefit to more vital branches of the IDF.) Yet, even without these soldiers, the Army Radio package still has great commercial attraction as a media property.
These soldiers are the youngest generation in a very powerful family. Hundreds of Army Radio graduates hold influential positions in the Israeli media and more importantly, fulfill their reserve duty at the station.
The attraction of this is clear: Serving a few days a year in a central location, Jaffa, is infinitely more comfortable than serving 28 days of reserve duty patrolling around in the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, journalists who didn't start out there as soldiers are offered to transfer their reserve duty to the station.
Despite the fact that all politicians and in Israel, generals are above all politicians would love to have their own radio station, some IDF chiefs of staff and defense ministers have realized that Army Radio should not exist. All of them have been frustrated in their plans.
The station's survival tactic is simple. The moment rumors of a planned closure begin to circulate, the Army Radio mafia puts out the message. No general or minister wants to make enemies with the media establishment. As Don Corleone said in The Godfather: "Never go against the family."
It's a pity that the only famous Israeli who dares say the truth about Army Radio is Barenboim.
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