On my third night as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, the scowling sergeant hurried us new recruits, still more civilians than soldiers, into a large, air-conditioned lecture hall. We’d been through three days of alternating between trotting on the dusty hills outside Ramallah and standing at attention at the large courtyard of our base, an old military HQ that once served the Jordanian army. It was July. We were sweaty and filthy and weary. A cushioned seat and the soft hum of the AC gave more than just physical comfort; sitting down for the first time in days, we felt ourselves redeemed. It was then that they gave us the lecture about moreshet krav.
The literal translation neatly captures the term’s metaphysical aspirations—the phrase means “the heritage of battle.” For nearly two hours, a rotating cast of officers took the small stage and told us stories about brave men and women. We heard of the young officer who, trapped in a malfunctioning tank, single-handedly fought off a throng of Syrian tanks. We heard about the soldier who lost his eyesight to an explosion and continued to fight, relying only on his hearing. We already knew all these stories—every Israeli child does—but hearing them told by our commanding officers drove home a larger point: The first official message the army wanted to deliver to its newest soldiers had to do not with discipline or structure or hierarchy but with the spirit of the individual. We were expected to march back to our tents that night and fall asleep reflecting on the fact that the army we had just joined valued, above all else, creativity and daring, the same qualities that led the blinded soldier to fight it by ear and drove the tank commander to fool the Syrians into thinking he had at his disposal not just one broken tank but a whole armored division ready to attack. This was our esprit de corps.
I thought about that evening, almost two decades past now, when I read the news this week of a photograph taken by four female IDF soldiers. In the photograph, the young women are in various stages of undress, smiling at the camera. Somehow—precisely how isn’t yet clear—the photograph made its way onto the Internet and soon became an international sensation, meriting publication everywhere from London’s Daily Mail to the Huffington Post.
Besides showing the racy photograph, most stories quoted the IDF’s official response. “The photograph is a violation of the army’s values and the behavior expected from its soldiers,” it read. “Steps were taken to ensure similar instances do not recur.” Ordinary Israelis, as could be expected, were far more impassioned and took to Facebook and other social networking platforms to express their opinions. Some argued that the snapshot made a mockery of the IDF. Others said it was good for the world to see a human face—or, in this case, derrière—of an army known primarily for its forcefulness. Scolders and supporters alike, however, seemed to support the army’s basic assertion that by posing in their underwear, the four soldiers acted in defiance of the IDF’s spirit.
They did the opposite.
Of course, the soldiers’ decision to disrobe was not a military act but a bit of fooling around. And yet it is oddly more of an embodiment of the IDF’s true spirit than anything the Israeli army has seen in a long while. Since its inception, the IDF enjoyed a reputation of unparalleled excellence, afforded it not because of its size—there are far larger armies in the world—or its armaments, but because of its capacity for imagination.
This may sound like a silly statement, especially considering the fact that for more than two decades now the IDF’s chief routine undertaking involves the policing of the Palestinian population—an endeavor that, from an operational standpoint, is repetitive and exhausting. But think about the army in its prime, and you’re likely imagining something along the lines of Operation Thunderbolt. To rescue the hostages in Entebbe, the IDF, within the course of one week, built an exact replica of the Ugandan airport, worked out a way to refuel its planes in Kenya, retrieved a car identical to that of Idi Amin, and mastered a daring rescue that involved flying 100 soldiers more than 2,500 miles. The raid is often praised for its precision and its nearly flawless execution, as if the IDF was a machine whose cogwheels were neatly aligned. But plenty of other fighting forces possess the capacity for effective operations. What they lack, and what the IDF had in spades, is the ability to dream up something so audacious. Rescuing the hostages from the hijacked Sabena flight while disguised as airport technicians in white overalls; infiltrating Lebanon to target PLO officials while dressed as women—this is cinematic stuff, bursts of creativity possible only in a system that valued it above all else.
To some, thinking of an operation designed to take lives—even the lives of terrorists—may be jarring, but warfare is a human endeavor and like all other human endeavors provides its practitioners with the joy that comes with overcoming hurdles and inventing new approaches to old problems. This joy was the IDF’s engine of survival. It was there in the days of the Palmach, the pre-state paramilitary group whose members are etched in Israel’s collective unconscious as a host of lovable rakes who approached their combat duties with the same childlike enthusiasm they reserved for telling tall tales, swiping chickens from nearby farms, pulling practical jokes, and seducing young women. It was there a decade or two later, when officers like Ariel Sharon led de facto independent units that often set their own agendas and chose their own missions. It was there in 1967, and it led to a brilliant military campaign. And it was there in 1973, turning around a near-certain defeat into a victory so luminous that the IDF only stopped when it had reached the outskirts of Cairo and Damascus.
That old spirit hasn’t been on display so much lately. It may be the radically different nature of the army’s assignments—rescuing hostages is one thing, going from house to house to make arrests is another. It may also be the increasingly polarized nature of Israeli society, or any other number of factors. But the bottom line is that, when I read about the army these days, it is mostly in trite (to say nothing of troubling) contexts.
Which is why those four scantily clad ladies gave me a jolt of optimism. In their smiles, though pixilated, and in their decision to shed their uniform for a moment and choose to be normal and young and carefree and a little bit careless, they suggested that maybe there was still hope. Generations of IDF soldiers thought and acted in unorthodox ways, carrying Israel through grim times. By posing as they did, the young women showed that they possess the potential to do the same. They’re not risk averse. They’re driven by the same wild, hormonal, adolescent energy that had given Israel its greatest soldiers. I imagine them, a few more months into their service, posing tough questions to their commanders, maybe even becoming officers themselves and insisting on change. It’s time for a new generation to shed their prejudices and help rescue Israel. And if to do that shirts and pants should occasionally be shed as well, so be it.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.