Into the Fray: Excoriating Eisner: Egregious or ethical?

The panicky response by Israel’s leaders to the Eisner episode will only serve to encourage pernicious ‘protest tourism’ by pampered radicals.

IDF officer hitting activist with M-16 370 (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
IDF officer hitting activist with M-16 370
(photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
Nor do the gods appear in warrior’s armor clad
To strike them down with sword and spear
Those whom they would destroy
They first make mad – Bharthari, 7th century (translated from the Sanskrit)
A Spanish journalist, with a particular penchant for local red wine told me how every international correspondent dreams of being posted in Israel. “It a paradise for foreign journalists” she explained. “Where else in the world can you go to an restaurant in a town like Tel Aviv, have a drink in Dizengoff and then go to sleep in a good hotel when all that stands between you and a first-hand report from “the battleground” is a 45-minute ride to Sheikh Jarrah or Bil’in.” – Tal Dror, Ynet, April, 21, 2012 (translated from the Hebrew)
The two activists, who developed a taste for the blend of arak and red grapefruit [juice] I served them at the bar, explained to me [when] I asked – half naively, half critically – “Why don’t you demonstrate in Egypt? Why not in Syria? What do you want from us?” The Swede stopped smiling and replied with deadly seriousness. “Are you crazy? Those places are really dangerous” – Ibid
Quite some time ago – when I was significantly younger and considerably slimmer – I served in a unit that operated behind enemy lines. I therefore have a keen awareness of how important it is for the motivation of combatants who undertake demanding missions and for their resolve to execute them, that they believe that – if they are in a jam – they will enjoy the unmitigated backing of their superiors.
I mention this not because I was ever charged with the kind of tasks Lt.-Col. Shalom Eisner was expected to execute two weeks ago, but because it gives me some idea of the sense of bitter disappointment and disillusionment he must be feeling at the moment. The potential operational impact the episode – and the unfortunate ethos that it reflects – could have on the efficacy of the IDF cannot be ignored.
What’s wrong with this picture?
There is something deeply disturbing about the picture that is emerging in the wake of incident that took place in the Jordan Valley on the post-Passover weekend. It goes far beyond the specifics of the particular incident and reflects a deeper malaise that pervades the public discourse in the country.
On the one hand, we have a radical anti- Israeli activist belonging to an organization virulently hostile to Israel, unequivocally supportive of terror organizations dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, taking part in an unruly confrontation with Israeli security forces, who ends up with (gasp) a cut lip.
On the other hand we have a senior IDF officer with a record of proven valor in combat, highly regarded by both his men and his superiors, who has been relieved of his command, his entire career in jeopardy, because of a fleeting video of a few seconds showing him striking the aforementioned radical with a single blow.
In a stroke, years of exhausting effort, and commendable courage were washed away – as if knocking over a vitriolic anti-Israeli activist (who was seen back on his feet seconds after the blow) carried more weight than all the deeds of daring and dedication he accumulated to his credit over a long period of distinguished service.
In a twinkling, a massive PR victory was handed to Israel’s most venomous vilifiers – with an abject admission of guilt before the prosecution even presented its case.
Have the gods really made us mad? A devoted defender of Israel dispatched in disgrace while a demagogic detractor is elevated to celebrity status. Whichever way you cut it, there is something wrong with that picture.
Maniacal media
True – the fundamental aesthetics shown in the short video were highly prejudicial. A swarthy, unshaven, balding, overweight, yarmulke-donning, gun-toting Jew, clubbing a tall, blond, slender handsome Dane for no apparent reason. The visual impact could hardly be more damning and damaging for Israel.
And the media seized on it with unbridled enthusiasm, embarking on a veritable “feeding frenzy”– as if some world-shattering event had taken place. The morning news channels played and replayed it ad nauseam seemingly determined to engrave indelibly into the mind of viewers that finally definitive proof of Israel’s bestial brutally had been discovered.
Context and balance were discarded and ignored. The true nature of the organization, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), to which the aggrieved activist belonged, was obscured – or at best skimmed over – as if irrelevant.
The fact that its members openly embrace Palestinian terror groups, conceal their operatives from the IDF, intentionally initiate clashes with Israeli forces, impede army operations aimed at protecting Israeli civilians, provide Palestinians terrorist organization with financial, logistic and moral support, are active in advocating boycotts divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, played a central role in the Gaza flotillas, call for the “right of return” and thus, in effect, for the elimination of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
None of this seemed to be of much interest to the maniacal media which made little effort to convey to the public the ilk of the people Eisner was called on to deal with–but seemed hell-bent on destroying his career and his reputation.
Reprehensible recording
Much has been said about Eisner’s “moral failing” in this episode. But what could be more morally reprehensible than the behavior of Channel 10 and its surreptitious recording and broadcast of a private exchange between a bereaved mother and Eisner, who at considerable personal risk had retrieved the body of her son after he had been killed in the 2006 Lebanon war.
In the exchange, Eisner expressed his bitterness at the lack of support he had received from his commanding officers.
Neither Eisner nor the mother, who has voiced her strong support for him in an earlier interview, had any idea that his expression of resentment was being recorded and certainly not that it would be broadcast. The public airing of the private conversation caused Eisner considerable harm and it is widely believed to have played a part in the severity of the measures taken against him by his superiors.
What made the release Eisner’s words particularly egregious was fact that Channel 10 gave the impression that they were in fact intended to be a public declaration, rather than a personal intimation of his feelings not meant for wider distribution. Indeed other media outlets quoted Eisner as if he had given an interview to the TV station.
Revulsion at this unscrupulous journalistic conduct has led to a request for a criminal investigation into the cynical exploitation of the bereaved mother’s trust. But whatever the legal outcome of the probe, it seems clear the incident comprises a new low for the already less-than-illustrious behavior of the Israeli media.
The journalist who publicized the conversation later issued an apology, stating: “The last thing I want as a military correspondent, an Israeli journalist, a patriot and Zionist, is to hurt the feelings of a bereaved mother.”
His words however, are difficult to accept at face value. After all, knowing the close bond between Eisner and the mother; knowing that she would never wish to cause Eisner any embarrassment, what other result did he expect his actions would have?
Indeed, his so-called apology has a ring of crass insincerity about it that only adds insult to injury–setting new standards for journalistic hypocrisy.
Short-sighted, self obstructive obsequiousness
The knee-jerk condemnation of Eisner by senior public figures across the board in Israel, who rushed, with undignified haste, to express their opprobrium at his actions – long before the facts were known, was less than inspiring. It betrayed an unbecoming mixture of panic and obsequiousness, driven more by a fear of annoying detractors than of alienating supporters (see “Public perceptions” below).
Thus, showing greater solidarity with the ISM than with the IDF, Israel’s president, Shimon Peres – in possession, at best, of partial information – rushed to express his “shock” and “disgust” at the sight of one of its anti-Zionist members being bowled over – with nary a reference to the nature of organization, its history of provoking clashes with Israeli forces, the fact its members refused to comply with IDF instructions or that the Eisner had been attacked and had suffered a fractured hand.
Somewhat paradoxically, he declared: “This attack undeniably demands an investigation,” apparently unaware that his harsh condemnation demonstrated that he had already prejudged the results of such an investigation.
Statements from the prime minister, the defense minister and chief of staff were, if somewhat less emotive, hardly more supportive or circumspect.
Indeed, The Jerusalem Post editorial (April 16) could not have been more apt in stating: “The prime minister, the president and others who leveled criticism at Eisner should have refrained from commenting until the findings of a proper probe are released.”
This alacrity to admit guilt, the instinctive self-flagellation and abject hand-wringing are both self-demeaning and counterproductive. It will do little to enhance Israel's image. Quite the contrary!
By handing Israel’s detractors a resounding PR victory, without a fight, it serves only to create an increasingly conducive atmosphere for “protest tourism” of pampered radicals and hostile correspondents who will be encouraged to believe that they can vilify the country with impunity, while nonchalantly sipping their cocktails in the comfort of some elegant lounge or well-stocked bar.
This cult of mea culpa and remorseful breast-beating will not work to project Israel as principled, self-critical society, quick to admit –and address – its faults. Rather, it will only reinforce and reaffirm all the negative perceptions of its adversaries, convincing them that not only are their accusations well founded but that their efforts to address them are productive.
So why go off to some “really dangerous places” to confront far more grievous abuses when one can achieve high recognition at low risk right here in Israel?
Public perceptions
The panicky response to the Eisner episode showed once again how out of step the politicians and the press are with the Israeli public. For, in stark contrast to the severe reproach meted out by the media and much of the official establishment, Eisner seems enjoy widespread popular support, or at least, understanding A recent survey conducted by one of Israel’s leading polling companies found that the majority (51%) of the population feel that Eisner’s dismissal was not justified, outstripping by almost 40% those who thought it was (37%).
Significantly, 70% believed that the decision by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to relieve him of his duties was a result of media pressure, over four times more than those who did not (a mere 16%) – which implies that even a good percentage of those who endorsed decision felt that the media had a dominant role in molding it, rather than any substantive considerations on the part of Gantz.
Perhaps even more significantly, 41% said they felt a sense of identification with Eisner, almost double (21%) those who felt angry with him – while almost 40% “preferred not to answer the question.”
The real moral failing
The real moral failure in this sad episode was not Eisner’s. He has already conceded that he may have acted inappropriately. If on the one hand, it was a mere and momentary lapse of judgment on his part, he should not have been treated so shabbily by his superiors. If on the other hand, his actions were the a reflection of a some deeper character flaw, the entire IDF system of evaluating officers must be broken – and it is his superiors who are at fault in allowing him to function in a command capacity for so many years. And it is they – not him – who should be held accountable.
This brings me back to the issue with which I began – and perhaps the most important aspect of the Eisner episode: The bond of trust between the warrior and his superiors.
The editorial in this paper hit the nail on the head when it remarked that “the ease with which these leaders and others denounced Eisner conveys a mixed message to our soldiers.”
Indeed it does. For, as the editorial went on to state: “Instead of providing them with the trust and backing they so desperately need when confronting radical activists bent on disrupting public order, our leaders issued hasty statements based on partial evidence. This sort of response will inevitably undermine IDF soldiers’ confidence in their next confrontation with anti-Israel activists.”
This is no trivial matter. For the confidence issue applies not only to confrontations with “anti-Israeli activists.” And if in the future a young IDF soldier loses his life because he hesitated before acting (or reacting) lest a lurking camera be near-by, Lt.- Col. Shalom Eisner will not be the one to blame.