The Israel premiere of Canadian filmmaker Martin Himel's documentary Jenin: Massacring the Truth was held last week in Israel at Jerusalem's Menachem Begin Heritage Center. The audience included many bereaved relatives of soldiers who died in Jenin and soldiers who had fought there in April 2002. The film's videotaped battle scenes, the documentation of the subsequent libel, and the lack of remorse by journalists who had taken their son's names in vain must have been torturous for them.
In one scene, Janine di Giovanni of The Times of London expressed her repugnance at finding herself in a room with an Israeli soldier who had fought in Jenin. The journalist, unmoved by evidence of her own flawed reporting, demanded that he leave.
Since no one out there believes us, and even more significantly, no one cares, should we stop trumpeting our moral standards?
In the discussion that followed the film, Himel addressed Israel's woefully ineffective attempts to succeed in the international media war that is part of this conflict. Among his ideas was the fruitlessness of our attempts to portray our military actions as pristine attempts to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.
Civilians die in war, he shrugged. Americans don't make a big deal about unfortunate killing of civilians in Iraq, and neither should we. Himel's subtext was that we should stop trumpeting our moral standards. No one out there believes us, and even more significantly, no one cares.
His suggestion ruffled panel member David Zangen, a Jerusalem pediatric endocrinologist who was the chief medical officer in Jenin. Zangen told exactly the kind of story Himel had counseled against. Sent to place explosives outside a building holding armed terrorists, a soldier in his unit returned not only without completing his task, but with a bullet in his leg. Questioned by an officer, he claimed to have disobeyed orders because he'd seen a mother and two school-aged children in the building and couldn't bring himself to kill them. Zangen was treating the injury. The soldier begged him to patch up his torn femoral artery so that he could hurry back to serve.
Who's right? The irony of the malicious reporting about Jenin is that the strategy of fighting house to house was made on moral, not military, criteria. As Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky, who spoke before the film, said: we lost 23 Israeli lives to spare Palestinian lives. Never did such a sacrifice win so little approval in the eyes of the world.
Even after the lies were debunked, the response was "oops, the body count was wrong." In the general press, there weren't stories lauding compassionate Israeli soldiers choosing booby-trapped alleys over air power. Di Giovanni wouldn't deign to be in a room with Zangen, but if she did, we can imagine her snort of derision. In the international arena, Himel is correct: our moral stance didn't win us votes.
Does that mean we should abandon the high ground? I continue to be moved by stories like Zangen's which demonstrate the humanity and heroism of our soldiers. One of my earliest impressions as a young immigrant was my sabra cousin's description of his sharing scarce water with captured Egyptians in Sinai.
Once, while I was translating a speech for former Jerusalem police chief Mickey Levy, he told the audience that the hardest decision of his life was to give the order to shoot dead an apprehended terrorist who was still trying to activate his explosives. Such reports resonate not only with my old Zionist visions of our Jewish army, but with my feelings about my own sons and sons-in-law, my neighbors and friends who risk their lives at warfare for the Jewish state.
While our protestations of morality may not endear us to the foreign press, (although they are more likely to see our point of view if they're given greater access -- one of my pet peeves is our reluctance to allow the press, local and foreign, to accompany our soldiers in battle) we need to remind ourselves of the integrity of the IDF.
Despite the bitter tests to which we're put by debilitating war, the Israeli army isn't morally debilitated. And the enemy knows that, no matter what they say to the press.
Our enemies' attempts to demonize and delegitimize us are part of the struggle, and convincing us that we're evil is one of their objectives. Despite the bitter tests to which we're put by debilitating war, we aren't morally debilitated. The enemy knows that, no matter what they say to the press.
When he arrived in Jenin with the IDF, the parents of one of Maj. Zangen's patients from Jenin phoned. Usually they saw him at the diabetes center at a Jerusalem hospital, but they'd heard he was in town.
We don't have the luxury of thinking of war as a passing phase that allows for temporary moral suspension. We haven't had one truly peaceful day of statehood, and if we didn't have the army standing on our borders we'd be quaking in our kitchens.
When my children were born, I was confident that we'd have achieved peace before they would have to serve. Now, when I hold my sweet-smelling newborn grandchildren in my arms, I can't promise them that they won't have to go off to war like their fathers and grandfathers. And that would be unbearable without faith that we were always aiming for the higher ground.