Wednesday, October 29, 2003

# Posted 8:19 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

STICKING IT TO THE JEWS: OxBlog has never hidden its respect for the Jewish people. We are always ready to stand up for Israel and against anti-Semitism. But as an insider, let me tell you that sometimes the Jewish people really need to be taken down a notch. Through mantra-like repetition of assorted myths, we sometimes persuade ourselves to believe in our own delusions of grandeur.

Case in point: The supposed invincibility of the Israeli military. Long frustrated by stereotypical images of Jews (and especially Jewish males) as pale, thin and cowardly, Jews the world over now insist that Israeli soldiers are the bravest and most capable in the world. How else to explain the overwhelming victories of 1948, 1956 and 1967, as well as the death-defying come-from-behind triumph of 1973?

But what about 1991? According to Prof. Eliot Cohen -- best known as the author of Supreme Command -- the US military lost much of the respect it had for the Israelis as a result of the first Persian Gulf War. It turns out that this development had nothing to do with Saddam's ability to get in a few shots at Tel Aviv before pulling out of Kuwait. Rather, after their nonchalant devastation of the finest Arab military in existence, the Americans became much less impressed with Israeli victories over adversaries who were even less competent.

Prof. Cohen raised this point in response to a question that was asked after his lecture today on Israeli military strategy and culture in comparative perspective. In the course of his lecture, Prof. Cohen exposed the emptiness of the cherished myths that well-meaning Jewish teachers pass on to countless students in Hebrew schools across the nation.

As a survivor of 13 years of Jewish education, let me tell you that you cannot go to a Jewish school without having myths of Israeli prowess drummed into your head at every turn. And if you went to an Orthodox school like mine, chances are you were taught that Israeli victories were literal miracles, visible signs of God bestowing favors on his chosen people. (What I could never figure out was whether the Almighty just started being nice to the Jews in 1945, or whether the Israeli military's success was some sort of compensation for all of the terrible things that He let happen to us beforehand.)

Suffice it to say that the overwhelmingly Jewish audience at Prof. Cohen's talk was deeply unhappy with what he had to say. With one exception, every question thrown at him demanded to know how he could reconcile this or that Israeli achievement with his insistence that the Israeli military is nothing special. Some of the questions were fairly intelligent. For example, one man wanted to know how Israel established a competent military force in its first heady days as an independent state. As it turns out, David Ben Gurion wisely recognized that the fastest way to build up the armed forces was to take advantage of many Israelis' experience serving in the British and other European militaries.

Among the less thoughtful questions was how Cohen could fail to recognize that Israeli pilots are the best in the world, especially when behind the controls of their F-16s. Somewhat sarcastically, Cohen asked his interlocutor whether the Israelis built the F-16s and taught themselves how to fly, or whether the Americans had something to do with it. However, before Cohen could finish what he was saying, an old Israeli woman asked him how many MiGs the American air force had shot down. (Answer: Enough.)

What really surprised me about the audience was its unwillingness even to accept that lsrael might have the second best military in the world, after that of the American juggernaut. It sort of reminded of the debates I used to have with some of my friends in junior high school. We genearlly assumed that America was stronger than Israel because its military was bigger. But a lot of us argued that, man for man, the Israel military was better. While this view generally prevailed, some dissenters insisted that the American army was better man for man, but only because it could afford to spend so much more on each soldier's training and equipment.

With these adolescent debates as a backdrop, it was especially interesting to hear Prof. Cohen explain that the Israeli military, historically, has valued quality less than quantity. Little known is the fact that in 1948 the Israelis outnumbered their opponents. And thanks to its extensive system of conscription and reserves, Israel maintains one of the last mass armies in the age of the professional soldier.

Prof. Cohen also argued that despite prevalent images of Jews as intellectuals, Israel has one of the least intellectual armies in the world. Unlike the American army and many of its European counterparts, the Israeli armed forces produces few substantive works of military theory and history.

Now, lest one think that Prof. Cohen's entire lecture was an effort at Socratic subversion of Jewish egomania, it is important to recognize that such exercises have tremendous practical value. After all, Israel's most devastating losses on the battlefield -- in the Sinai in October 1973 -- were a direct result of the stubborn hubris that had set in after the Six Day War.

In addition, unloading all of this mythical baggage enables one to appreciate what may be Israel's greatest accomplishment on the military front: the establishment of the only democracy in the Middle East thanks to David Ben Gurion's aggressive efforts to undermine the political influence of senior generals and ensure the subordination of the military to civilian authorities.

At a time when many Israelis considered themselves to be revolutionaries and kept portraits of Stalin above their desks, it was hardly a foregone conclusion that Israel would become both a Jewish state and a democracy. For that, we ought to be thankful.
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