The fine work “Start-Up Nation” (Saul Singer and Dan Senor), the most upbeat book written about Israel in years, describes in vivid detail the economic miracle, or at least, anomaly, that has seen Israel not only weather the global financial upheavals of the last few years but also become a world leader in technological innovation. Its economy bumped and rebounded during the recent recession, but did not crash. Israelis, literally, are brimming with ideas and the moxie to implement them. Undeterred by occasional failure – or, more tellingly, by the Arab terror that violently interrupts their lives from time to time – these entrepreneurs have re-made the Israeli economy and transformed modern living across the world.
This creativity is certainly multi-faceted, but is largely attributed to the skill sets acquired by the average Israeli through his military service and especially the informality, originality, personal responsibility and free-thinking that are hallmarks of that service. They note, for example, that “the IDF has a chaotic, anti-hierarchical ethos – which can be found in every aspect of Israeli society. A private will tell a general in an exercise – You are doing this wrong, you should do it this way. (This is not to say that soldiers aren’t expected to obey orders.) But orders are given in the spirit of men who have a job to do and mean to do it. They are not defined by rank. This is because Israel’s society and history is based on questioning.” To leftist writer Amos Oz, Judaism itself has cultivated a “culture of doubt and argument.” These individuals are groomed to think out of the box. It can be a mixed bag for a commander: “Assertiveness versus insolence; critical, independent thinking versus insubordination – the words you choose depend on your perspective, but collectively they describe the typical Israeli entrepreneur.” Today’s Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren noted that he served in units where they literally “threw out” the officers – a colonel , for one – simply voted them out, and the commanding officer was re-assigned because the enlisted men thought he was not up to the tasks at hand.
Furthermore, “at debriefings, emphasis is put not only on unrestrained candor but on self-criticism as a means of having everyone learn from every mistake. Explaining away a bad decision is unacceptable.” Nothing is swept under the rug, and this type of thinking and questioning leads these soldiers – once they leave the army – into businesses where re-organization, enhanced efficiency, and new ways of looking at old problems are prized and desirable characteristics. So products such as microchips, EZ Pass, sophisticated medical surgical equipment, instant messaging and many others boast an Israeli provenance.
Oddly, there was time in recent years when these skills failed abjectly: the 2006 War in Lebanon. I quote: “Indeed, the 2006 Lebanon War was a case study in deviation from the Israeli entrepreneurial model that had succeeded in previous wars. Giora Eiland, a senior military official and for years a national security advisor to a succession of prime ministers, stated: ‘Open –minded thought, necessary to reduce the risk of sticking to preconceived ideas and relying on unquestioned assumptions, was far too rare.’ “One of the problems of the Second Lebanon War was the exaggerated adherence of senior officers to the chief of staff’s decisions. There is no question that the final word rests with the chief of staff, and once decisions have been made, all must demonstrate complete commitment to their implementation. However, it is the senior officers’ job to argue with the chief of staff when they feel he is wrong, and this should be done assertively on the basis of professional truth as they see it.”
The 2006 war was a costly wake-up call for the IDF.” During the Second Lebanon War, “Israel suffered from a lack of organization and a lack of improvisation.”
What is even more bitterly ironic, and arguably causative, is that the obsequiousness to authority and the glorification of “following orders” without question actually began almost a year earlier, with the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif and Northern Shomron and the destruction of their thriving communities. This blot on Israeli society and Jewish history, now five years past, evoked a wave of hysteria about the sacred obligation to “obey orders,” how the failure to follow orders blindly would result in the collapse of the IDF and the imminent destruction of the State of Israel itself, and how the “mitzva” to obey orders supersedes any other mitzva in the Torah – especially that of settling the land of Israel. Those who embraced Oz’ “culture of doubt and argument” were branded as both immoral and seditious. The IDF Chief of Staff, Boogie Ya’alon, who challenged his civilian superiors and rejected the very premise of the Expulsion, was simply silence and replaced.
Is there anyone left who does not believe that had the Expulsion Plan been subjected to greater scrutiny and analysis that Israel would have spared itself both the stain of having maltreated its own citizens as well as the daily cascade of rockets that began immediately thereafter and terrorized Sderot and nearby towns ? To the anguished litany of catastrophes that have befallen our people on the Ninth of Av, we ourselves were bystanders to the addition of the following notation: “9 Av, 2005: the last day of legal Jewish settlement in Gush Katif and Northern Shomron.” That calamity took its place with the sin of the biblical spies, the destruction of the two Temples and the fall of Betar, the 1492 Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and other such cataclysms.
The wound of Gush Katif still has not healed. Most of the refugees, intrepid souls that they are, have successfully begun the process of rebuilding their lives – personal and professional – after much hardship, and with the assistance of a variety of private organizations (Jobkatif.org leaps to mind). They persevered despite the brutal betrayal of the Israeli government – before, during and after the expulsion. For many (even non-refugees), their trust in government, both in terms of policies and morality, will be forever shattered, and rightfully so. And Ariel Sharon, architect of the Expulsion, remains an exile himself, suspended between this world and the next one – perhaps awaiting the resettlement of the last of the refugees whose lives he shattered before he can find his own eternal rest.
Strange, further, that the authors of this insightful book do not connect the dots, and do not see the linkage between the travesty of Gush Katif and the failures of the Lebanon War a year later. The suppression of dissent – worse, the criminalization of dissent – that characterized the Expulsion became institutionalized in the debacle of Lebanon. Obvious mistakes were swept under the rug, no real introspective analysis has taken place about the costs of the Expulsion (nor, for that matter, about the Oslo debacle), nor has there been any accountability on the part of the poor decision-makers of the past. Most of the perpetrators of Oslo have remained unscathed, even celebrated. The architect of the Lebanon flight of 2000 – Ehud Barak – still offers his strategic insights as the Minister of Defense. The 10,000 refugees of 2005, caused by Israel’s own hand, mushroomed into the 350,000 refugees of 2006, the work of the heinous Hezbollah. “Following orders,” the catch phrase of 2005, became the macabre joke of 2006, when soldiers were ordered in and out of sectors within minutes, told both to move forward and then remain where they were in orders that changed every few hours, and occasionally, and sadly, marched to their deaths. Soldiers saw the futility of following commanders who were hampered by orders coming from distant superiors who did not understand the situation on the ground, and whose lives were therefore endangered and lost. Who can forget the ignominy of then PM Olmert’s directive at the end of the war for soldiers to capture a hill that he had already agreed would be returned the very next day when the cease fire was to begin? Thirty-three soldiers – Jewish husbands and sons – were killed seizing that useless piece of real estate that, indeed, was abandoned the very next day. “Futility of futilities, Kohelet said, it is all futile.”
Well, not all. “Start-Up Nation” certainly makes the case that Israel has learned from its mistakes, and the failed Lebanon War fueled a new wave of creative and iconoclastic thinking that hopefully will bode well for the future. The test will be when (if?) the next round of Israeli concessions requires more surrender of land and further expulsions of Jews. Will the reaction be as docile – and as ultimately destructive – as the one five years ago this week ? Let us pray we never have to find