Our McChrystal? Revisiting the case of Ori Orr

Two generals that spoke some necessary truths.

stanley mcchrystal 311 (photo credit: AP)
stanley mcchrystal 311
(photo credit: AP)
In the time it takes to read an article, the career of a good man – a general to whom his nation owes a great debt – is shattered, his personal life embittered, his head a trophy on a journalist’s wall.
The outing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, by a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine evokes an echo here, where 12 years ago the political career of Gen. (ret.) Ori Orr was suddenly terminated by impolitic remarks attributed to him by a reporter, in his case Daniel Ben-Simon of Haaretz.
Unlike McChrystal, who did not challenge the accuracy of the Rolling Stone report, Orr maintained that Ben-Simon had warped his views in an article dealing with his attitude toward Sephardim.
Orr’s protests did not help and he was drummed out of political life by his own party colleagues who sought to distance themselves and the party from the taint of racism. Ben- Simon’s article removed from politics a man who had been chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and deputy defense minister, a potential leader of the Labor Party.
In the course of writing a book on the Yom Kippur War several years ago, I interviewed Orr as well as officers and men who served under him.
Orr was one of the most outstanding field commanders in that desperate war. His reserve armored brigade, which began to mount the Golan Heights less than 20 hours after mobilization began, was the first reserve unit to reach the front. The Syrians had broken through the IDF defenses in overwhelming strength and were swarming the Heights. In a series of fierce, running battles through the coming day, Orr managed to stem the tide in the central Golan and form a thin defense line by nightfall. As the fighting tapered off with darkness, Northern Front commander Gen. Yitzhak Hofi told his staff, “Ori saved us today.”
Most of Orr’s unit commanders had been killed or wounded. Because of the anticipated resumption of the Syrian attack, he could not summon his officers to the rear to reassign positions.
Instead, he walked from tank to tank, pausing in the darkness periodically to listen to the conversations of the men. He had taken over the brigade only two months before and was an unknown quantity to the reservists when the battle began. It became clear from what he overheard that what sustained the brigade’s morale during the day’s chaotic fighting were the calmness of his voice on the radio net and the troops’ acceptance of his leadership.
In his prize-winning account of the war, tank gunner, later rabbi, Chaim Sabato describes Orr climbing onto his tank in the darkness and introducing himself – “I’m your brigade commander.”
Orr pulled a bar of chocolate from his shirt pocket and distributed it among the crew. In the Six Day War, he told them, he had been in some of the toughest battles in Sinai, but they could not compare to what the brigade had experienced this day. “I know it’s difficult for you. You’re young. You’ve lost your battalion commander and your company commander. It’s difficult for me too. But we’re going to win. We have no choice. It’s going to be a tough day tomorrow.
Get some rest.”
ORR HAD SEEN a young lieutenant standing dazed in the middle of the battlefield that day, apparently the only survivor of a destroyed tank.
Instead of sending him to the rear, Orr took him aboard his command half track. The lieutenant sat in a corner staring blankly as the war raged around him. The next day he began to display interest in his surroundings and helped prepare food for the brigade staff. On the third day, he asked to be given command of a tank. Orr sent him back into battle.
It was Orr’s menschlichkeit and his easy rapport with all ranks that made the allegations of racism leveled against him by politicians following the Haaretz article so jarring.
After retiring from the army, he had been elected to the Knesset on the Labor ticket. Sent by the party to development towns in an effort to win back voters, mostly from Arab countries, who had shifted allegiance to the Likud or Shas, Orr found a population mired in poverty “without the spiritual and physical freedom to be open and curious about other things,” he would write.
He found it difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue with those who came to hear him. It was sad, he wrote, that 50 years after the state’s founding there were people “who don’t feel they are Israelis with equal rights because the state has not succeeded in giving them the feeling that it cares about them.”
He had read Ben-Simon’s perceptive articles on social and political issues in Haaretz and invited him to his office in the Knesset to explore the ethnic issue and the way it was being exploited by politicians. As Orr describes it in his book, These Are My Brothers, it was not supposed to be an interview but a discussion. Ben-Simon did not tape the conversation, although he did make notes from time to time. It was a pleasant talk, Orr wrote, in which the journalist said little but gave the impression that he agreed with Orr’s observations. When Ben-Simon asked which politicians he was referring to, Orr named several, including Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a future foreign minister, and defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai as men for whom criticism or impediments were taken as ethnic slights.
“Toward the end of the conversation the journalist asked if I would mind if he wrote something about our meeting. In my great innocence, I said, ‘Why not?’” Ben-Simon has a different version. “The gentleman asked me to interview him,” he told The Jerusalem Post this week. “He asked, almost begged, for the interview to be published.”
Two days after their meeting, Ben-Simon’s article appeared in Haaretz. There was nothing sensationalist or accusatory in the writing, no sarcasm.
It was on the face of it a straightforward account of how Labor’s efforts to regain its lost Sephardi electorate continued to elude it a year after Labor leader Ehud Barak had asked forgiveness in the party’s name for “mistakes” made in absorbing immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East in the early years of the state. Ben- Simon permitted Orr free rein to express his frustrations and, in doing so, to self-destruct politically.
Gently egging him on, Ben-Simon had asked what he thought about the Moroccan community.
“The problem is that I can’t speak to these people [several Labor Party Knesset members of Moroccan ethnicity] the way I talk to others who are more Israeli in their character,” Orr is quoted as saying. “Every time you tell them something they’re insulted and go wild. They have sensitivities and problems of ‘respect’ that make it impossible to have a normal conversation with them. They want to exploit the feeling of ethnic discrimination for political purposes.”
The Mizrahi (Sephardi) community lacks self-criticism, Orr reportedly said. “When I say Mizrahim, I especially mean the Moroccans, the biggest and most problematic of the ethnic groups. I’m saddened because these groups don’t have the curiosity to know what’s happening around them and why it’s happening.”
As for Ben-Ami, who had attacked the Labor Party leadership for ignoring the blue-collar masses where his own ethnic roots lay, Orr said he was quick to be insulted and “just wants to be caressed.”
Orr was either unaware of or ignored the fact that Ben-Simon himself was from the Moroccan community. In any case, the soldier-turned- politician did not grasp that words that might be fair comment or even innocuous in private conversation can be lethal in print and that he had not said anything about off-the-record.
In an academic study on the exposure of scandals by journalists, two Hebrew University communication professors, Tamar Liebes and Shoshana Blum-Kulka, distinguish between whistle-blowing and entrapment. The former involves an inside source who, for whatever motive, betrays his institutional loyalty by leaking the story to a journalist. Entrapment is defined as “a story in which the reporter betrays an often naïve source (possibly for the sake of a good story).”
In their 2004 study published in American Behavioral Scientist, the authors place Ben-Simon’s treatment of Orr in the entrapment category, or as they subtitle it, “treachery by journalist,” in which unsuspecting interviewees are encouraged to dig their own graves.
Orr had told Ben-Simon that he wanted to tell a fellow Labor Knesset member, Rafi Edri, that his political initiative supporting Binyamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as Likud prime minister, was stupid but had refrained. “I was afraid that he would be hurt and take it as an ethnic offense. You can’t say anything to these people without it being regarded as scheming against them.” Ben-Simon published what Orr had himself refrained from telling Edri.
To Liebes and Blum-Kulka, Orr’s remark about the rebuke he intended to deliver but didn’t shows that he believed he was speaking to Ben-Simon off-the-record even though that ground rule had not been stipulated. “Had he been a little more sensitive to his interlocutor,” they write, “Orr would have realized that the journalist serves as a voice of the repressed underclass in the paper and that, as in the case of Ben-Ami, academic learning and sophistication would not make him immune to ethnic generalization.”
An aspect left out of Ben-Simon’s article was consideration of whether Orr might have had a point – namely that Sephardi politicians, particularly Moroccans, might indeed be unreasonably sensitive about the ethnic issue on the one hand and on the other hand exploit it to gain political advantage with the voters and within the party. Framing Orr’s remarks in such a context might have opened a useful public debate. Without it, the story left Orr dangling from the gallows of political correctness.
Ironically, significant parts of the Moroccan public did not agree with the politicians rushing to defend them but agreed instead with Orr. Trying futilely to regain his political legitimacy, he made a round of visits to development towns to apologize. The Post’s Larry Derfner, who accompanied him to Ofakim, encountered some surprising reactions. “What does he have to apologize for?” asked one local resident from the Moroccan community. “Everything he said was right.
Sephardim just like to act hurt. Anyone who wants to succeed, can succeed.” Said another, likewise from Morocco: “Ori Orr only said what we’ve been saying for 20 years [since the rise of Likud].”
The 37-year-old daughter of Moroccan immigrants agreed with Orr that Moroccans were too easily insulted. “The poor guy had the guts to tell the truth, and everybody jumps on him and tries to tear him apart.”
In Jerusalem, however, politicians – Ashkenazim like Haim Ramon no less than Sephardim – reveled in Orr’s “disgrace” and, by definition, their own righteousness, and he was drummed out of political life without ceremony. He went on to become chairman of Israel Aircraft Industries and to hold other senior executive positions, but the pain of the experience – being labeled a racist, being deserted en masse by his party colleagues, being foolish enough in the first place to have agreed to an article being written – was such that he could not refrain from tagging on a bitter chapter about it to his book about his brigade’s battles in the Yom Kippur War.
The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War. abra@netvision.net.il