Security and defense: His final salute

An exclusive interview with Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern on the eve of his retirement from the IDF.

Elazar Stern 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Elazar Stern 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After a two-and-a-half hour drive to Tel Aviv from the North - where he gave his 80th and final lecture to a group of IDF officers ahead of a heritage trip to Poland - Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern has one more place to stop before heading back to his office in the Kirya Military Headquarters. Stern orders his driver to exit the highway and head into nearby Ramat Hasharon. He is paying a condolence call to an officer whose mother just died. The officer served under Stern a decade ago as a company commander at the IDF Officer Training School. This is quintessential Stern - one of the most charismatic, vocal and controversial generals to have emerged since the founding of the state - a man who, in between making provocative statements about the need to draft haredim and the problems surrounding the release of hundreds of terrorists for a kidnapped soldier, doesn't forget to pay his respects to a former subordinate. It is during this drive that Stern gives The Jerusalem Post an exclusive interview, just days before stepping down as head of the IDF's Human Resources Department, and ending an illustrious, 34-year military career. Stern, 52, and the father of five, was drafted into the IDF in 1974, together with several of his classmates from Netiv Meir, the national-religious flagship high school at the time. Three of these - Yair Naveh, Yishai Be'er and Gershon Hacohen - would also become generals. The young Stern volunteered for the Paratroopers and quickly rose through the ranks, proving to be an agile, confident and determined commander. But after serving as a battalion commander in the Paratrooper Brigade, Stern became disenchanted with the military. It was the period after the first war in Lebanon, and many young officers were jumping ship. He spent the next two years as a high school teacher, until he was called back to service by chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Shomron. Since then, he has had a meteoric rise in the military on an unconventional path. While most generals climb onto their seats around the General Staff table by serving in combat and field positions, Stern always opted for roles in which he could also serve as an educator. When he was invited to become a brigade commander, he asked to first serve as commander of the Paratroopers Training School. After serving as commander of a reserve brigade in the Northern Command, he was appointed commander of the IDF Officer Training School, a role in which he began to receive national attention. After that, he was appointed chief education officer, and in 2005 became head of the Human Resources Department. Our interview took place shortly before the bodies of reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were returned by Hizbullah in exchange for terrorist Samir Kuntar, four Hizbullah fighters caught during the Second Lebanon War and approximately 200 bodies of Lebanese and Palestinian combatants. As head of the Human Resources Department, it was Stern's job to maintain contact with the bereaved families, as well as with the Goldwassers, Regevs and the parents of Gilad Schalit. At a farewell party thrown for him last week, the mother of a fallen soldier told the crowd of 1,000 packed into the Holon Arts Center that the phone call she received from Stern every Friday before Shabbat "made my week." "I TOLD the families that while I am their sons' commander, I am also the commander of those who will be wounded or killed if we release too many," Stern says. "I think that we, as a society, have become confused with the idea that we will release 'at any price.'" He says that the "confusion" and hysteria over kidnapped soldiers have "harmed us as a nation" and as a result we have "betrayed our soldiers." He continues, "We are one of the countries that most surrenders to terrorism," and adds that he is envious of the US, which has set as its policy not to negotiate with terrorists. Stressing that his opinion is one of principle, and not in reference to either the swap with Hizbullah or the ongoing negotiations with Hamas over Schalit's release, Stern's response to being asked about the possibility that hundreds of prisoners will be released is to answer plainly, "I would not recommend that type of price." TALKING TO Stern is like being shown a mosaic of the Jewish world, with which, through his military career, he has grown very familiar. One of his close friends was the late Wall Street mogul Zalman Bernstein, who founded the Jerusalem-based Avi Chai Foundation and Shalem Center. Another is Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel. It is also like being given a taste of a kind of heimish yiddishkeit. When addressing the IDF delegation to Poland, for example, Stern sounds more like a stand-up comedian than a senior IDF officer. He tells stories about the hang-ups of his Holocaust-survivor parents, and how his mother still calls him in the middle of the night to make sure he is ok. And he recalls how the Saudi and Kuwaiti military officers with whom he studied at the National Defense University in Washington DC couldn't understand why he wasn't shaving during the nine days before Tisha Be'av. He then moves on to recount a meeting he had recently with the CEO of a large clothing company that decided to use a supermodel who had dodged the draft in its latest ad campaign. Stern told him not to be surprised if the IDF announces that only draft-dodgers buy clothes at his stores. Indeed, Stern is known for being one of the most opinionated officers in the IDF. At his farewell party, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said he would miss him at the weekly meetings, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak quipped that while Stern may have made some controversial remarks throughout his career, "they always stimulated thinking processes and action." STERN SAYS the Holocaust played a pivotal role in shaping his Jewish and Israeli identity. It was following a private family visit to Poland with his parents in 1992 that he began pushing the top IDF brass to create a program to bring hundreds of soldiers to Auschwitz every year. Since then, 80 delegations have made the trip. "Nothing should be taken for granted in life, and that is why Poland is important," he says, adding that if he were a young soldier and were asked if he wanted to visit the Western Wall, he would respond: "First take me to Yad Vashem." Indeed, a theme that has run throughout Stern's career is the enhancement of soldiers' Jewish identity. One example: Seven years ago, when he was chief education officer, Stern was informed that the IDF was distributing 600 New Testaments annually to non-Jewish soldiers. And though he could not prevent the distribution, Stern said, "Let's try to reach the point at which soldiers do not ask for it." Part of Stern's efforts on this score included offering conversion classes to the thousands of new-immigrant soldiers, mainly from the former Soviet Union. Since then, close to 2,900 soldiers have converted, 77 percent of them women. "This creates a feeling of partnership for the soldiers, and enhances their connection to the state and the IDF," he explains. "This is also significant, since now there will be 2,000 more Jewish mothers in Israel." This theme was also brought to light in Stern's public argument with Israel Prize Laureate Asa Kasher, author of the IDF code of ethics. Stern demanded that the phrase "love for the homeland" be inserted into the code. Kasher opposed, asserting that it was foolish to insert emotions into a code of ethics. Ultimately, it was Stern who prevailed. "My goal has always been to try to get soldiers to want to say that they are proud to be Jews," Stern declares. NEVERTHELESS, in recent years, Stern has become ostracized by many in the national-religious and settler camp. The anger toward him is mainly due to the fact that he was a religious officer who participated in the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The attacks against Stern from these quarters were not only verbal. On one visit to the Gush Katif settlement bloc before the evacuation, right-wing activists slashed Stern's tires and then proceeded to hurl epithets at him in view and earshot of the media. Several months later, Stern was physically attacked at the Western Wall, where he had gone to pray with his children. Activists hurled plastic bottles, rocks and chairs at him, while calling him a traitor. Stern does not believe he made a mistake in obeying his orders to evacuate settlements, but does stand by his longtime opinion that it should have been the police and not the IDF carrying out the withdrawal. His opposition to IDF participation in future evacuations also stems from a self-professed fear that there will be larger numbers of soldiers refusing to obey orders the next time around. "Today, there is a very ideological youth, and this is potentially risky," he says. Another, possibly more important reason for Stern's being condemned by religious Zionists is his intention to revamp hesder yeshivot - a five-year program that incorporates Torah learning and a shortened military service. Stern says he is in favor of the hesder yeshivot, but that the number of students has grown too high over the years, and needs to be curbed. He has also taken heat for working to integrate hesder soldiers - who traditionally served in segregated units - with secular ones. He says that integration is important for creating a stronger and more inherent "Jewish dialogue" in the IDF, and that in the end, both the secular and the religious soldiers will benefit. Despite the almost daily attacks on him in the religious media, Stern has stuck to his principles where moving his initiatives forward is concerned. He even admits that there was "a fraction of a second" when he considered taking off his kippa and throwing it away for good. "Not because I didn't feel religious, which I am. But because of the contempt I feel toward those who have done these things to me. If I ever had the thought, it was because I did not want to be associated with those bearded men who lie and incite and turn Judaism into a hate-filled and evil religion. I know that I am more religious than they are." AS PART of his work to enhance the IDF's Jewish identity, Stern has worked tirelessly to upgrade the military's ties with the Diaspora. In the past year alone, he has revamped the Mahal and Shlav Bet volunteer programs for overseas youth, in an effort to attract more new immigrants. Last year, he started the Gvanim program, which sent some 30 high-ranking officers to dozens of cities around the United States to lecture and interact with Jews. One of his greatest accomplishments in this area was getting the approval for soldiers to participate in birthright. So far, 30,000 soldiers have attended the 10-day tour program. "The military needs to be an attractive place, not a discouraging one," he says, expressing the hope that more Jews from abroad will come to Israel to serve in the IDF. DURING HIS last year in service, Stern faced possibly his greatest challenge - dwindling draft numbers. Ahead of last summer's draft, the IDF presented statistics showing a sharp rise in the number of teenagers dodging military service, with the total reaching 25% of youth born in 1990. Of that 25%, 11% received exemptions this year on religious grounds, an increase of 1% over last year; 7% were exempted for medical reasons, including physical and emotional; 4% had criminal records; and 3% live abroad. Stern does not hide his concern. "This is a real threat to the state of Israel, since we are not yet at the stage where we do not need a strong military. We have become confused. We thought that we didn't need a military in the beginning of the decade, and we were proven wrong." He says that in recent months he has noticed that the public campaign against draft-dodgers is having the desired effect. The slogan, "A true Israeli does not dodge the draft," which can be found on the bumpers of tens of thousands of cars, was created by a private public relations company, not commissioned by the IDF. While the IDF is pushing financial incentives for soldiers who serve a full military term, Stern believes that in the end the only way to curb draft-dodging will be through the public's asking: "Who are we as a society?" He is still waiting for an answer.