Commentary Magazine

Claude Lanzmann and the IDF

Tsahal, the French director Claude Lanzmann’s five-hour movie about the Israeli army that recently closed after a brief run in New York and Israel, is a disappointment, although not necessarily—as most of its Israeli critics seemed to think—because it is too appreciative of its subject.

Both cinematically and thematically, Tsahal (the Hebrew name for Israel’s army, an acronym formed from Tsva Haganah Leyisrael, the Israel Defense Force or IDF) is a sequel to Lanzmann’s ten-hour Shoah (1985), an extraordinary documentary about the Holocaust. Like Shoah, it eschews all previous documentary footage and consists largely of interviews with people recollecting the past; and like Shoah, too, it proceeds slowly and with enormous patience, its camera often resting on its interviewees’ faces for long periods of silence while they struggle with their emotions or seek to phrase or collect their thoughts. Tsahal also follows Shoah in counter-pointing such interviews with lengthy visual meditations on still landscapes and moving vehicles—in Shoah these are of trains and the Polish countryside, while in Tsahal they are mostly of desert and tanks—which serve as a brooding commentary on the halting words of men.

But the same techniques that worked so powerfully in Shoah tend to leave the viewer of Tsahal unmoved and impatient to move on. Most of the Holocaust survivors interviewed in Shoah seemed to be narrating the details of their stories for the first time, thus creating a tense conflict between the need to tell and the impossibility of telling that Lanzmann recorded in each slight tremor and hesitation, refusing to lift his camera’s siege until the last memory had been surrendered. In Tsahal, there is little of this; although the soldiers and ex-soldiers appearing in it sometimes reminisce about difficult moments in battle, these do not strike one as virgin memories, and Lanzmann himself, more affable and less relentless than in Shoah, has not stalked them with the same gentle implacability that he exhibited there.

Perhaps if he had, and if he had stuck to the topic of the film’s opening section—the beginning of the Yom Kippur War and his subjects’ recollections of the first, terrible days of combat when they were overwhelmed by superior Arab forces—Tsahal might have had more of Shoah’s strengths. But this was not what Lanzmann wished to emphasize. For if Tsahal was conceived by him as a sequel to Shoah, it was also meant to be Shoah’s antithesis, in much the same sense that the state of Israel—risen, as the cliché has it, from the ashes of the Holocaust—is commonly thought of as both the Holocaust’s consequence and as its triumphant refutation.



“Suddenly I found myself alive. I didn’t expect to survive. I had to organize myself to make the decision to live again. . . . We were always taught that we were so strong and now we were impotent,” Lanzmann is told in the initial scenes by Yuval Neria, a Yom Kippur War hero who recounts the decimation of his tank brigade by Egyptian infantry; and for a moment this movie really does appear to be Shoah II. But soon it counterattacks by picking up the theme of Israel’s military successes, and the association of the trauma of the death camps with that of rout on the battlefield is not pursued.

Still, it is the Holocaust, Tsahal conveys to us, that has shaped the Israeli army’s aggressive battle tactics and philosophy. It is because of the lesson of the Holocaust, Lanzmann is told by southern corps commander Matan Vilnai, now Israel’s deputy chief of staff, “that I believe that when people say they are going to kill you, they will do it.” And it is the Holocaust, the film implies, which makes ex-chief of staff Ehud Barak believe that in war “the need is always to be the one to initiate activities and make the enemy and not yourself lose control,” and former general Ariel Sharon observe that “when you are [threatened] you have to attack immediately . . . you have to attack and not to think . . . because if you wait one more second you may be dead.”

This is half of the main point of a film that tends to lose itself in digressions. The other half of the point is that, despite this militant reaction against exilic Jewish passivity in the face of violence, Israel’s army remains imbued with the quintessential Jewish virtues of thoughtfulness and concern for life. “It is not a contradiction to retain your human sensitivity while always [being the first] to assault,” says Matan Vilnai, and over and over Tsahal makes the point that this is a synthesis the Israeli army has achieved.

The movie does this in various ways. For example, as the tank commander who is made to stand for the future of Israel’s armored corps, Lanzmann chooses a studious-looking young man with glasses. He films Ariel Sharon walking bucolically on his ranch while relating that he fought to rescue Israeli soldiers trapped along the Suez Canal in 1973 not because it was militarily important but because “it was a moral issue.” He listens to Yisrael Tal, former armored corps commander and one of the designers of Israel’s self-produced tank, the Merkava, explain that this tank has been maximally engineered to protect the lives of those inside it. And he rides during the intifada with a commander in the Gaza Strip who muses as a Palestinian rock bounces off his jeep:

The problem is . . . how does an army stay pure? The intifada could be stopped in a week if we used tanks like the French in Algeria. But we are a Jewish army and we know we have no right to do it.

It is repeated scenes like these that led reviewers in Israel to complain that Lanzmann had produced an uncritical paean to the IDF, one that fails to come to grips with its darker sides. There is, they observed, no attempt here to deal with Israeli army brutality toward Palestinians, or the Israeli bombing of civilian neighborhoods and refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982; no indication that the over-confidence of the Israeli general staff was responsible for the opening debacle of the Yom Kippur War; no questioning of Israeli military doctrine, which—as in the tank charge that Yuval Neria helped lead—has at times proved disastrous; little consideration of the Israeli infantry, as opposed to the more elite armored corps and air force, and of ordinary soldiers as opposed to high officers; no attention paid even to one of the most exceptional aspects of Israeli army life, the conscription of women.

These criticisms are justified. Less justified, however, is the assumption of those making them that, had Lanzmann taken his camera into the casbahs of Nablus and Hebron and filmed Israeli soldiers clubbing and shooting Palestinians, the “myth” of a humane Jewish army would have been shattered. Lanzmann should indeed have gone to such places, and should have abandoned his overscrupulous insistence—a virtue in Shoah but a self-imposed handicap in Tsahal—on the interview as his sole medium. Yet had he done so conscientiously, he might have brought us, besides the standard horror scenes of the Israeli occupation as shown on NBC and CNN, a reality that the world rarely sees.

This reality might have included pictures of Palestinian demonstrators, often women and teenagers, jeering, taunting, cursing, and spitting at Israeli soldiers while the latter bite their lips and do nothing; the same soldiers being instructed by their officers to act with all the restraint they can muster; the same demonstrators being egged on by the very media that then record their victimization when the soldiers finally lose self-control. There has been Israeli army brutality toward the Palestinians; there has also been Palestinian provocation of the Israeli army. Lanzmann would have made a better movie had he shown both sides of this picture rather than neither.

On the whole, it seems fair to say, the Israeli army in the West Bank and Gaza has behaved somewhat better than most other armies would have behaved in similar circumstances, and one of the reasons for this may very well be that it is largely made up of Jews. It is not insignificant that the army units said to be most feared and disliked by the Palestinians are those belonging to the border patrol, predominantly made up of Druse. Nor is this particularly surprising, since the great majority of soldiers in uniform in Israel are conscripts and reservists representing a cross-section of Jewish society, which in its daily life has a relatively high aversion to solving problems by force.

The IDF has its ruffians and violence freaks, but in contrast to many volunteer and professional armies, or those composed largely of lower-class draftees, such types are no more concentrated within it than elsewhere, and they rarely set the tone in the units they serve in. It is worth remembering that the number of innocent Vietnamese killed by American troops in one day at My Lai was roughly half the number of Palestinians killed by the IDF in daily clashes and confrontations over the six years of the intifada.



In any case, what is most unusual about the IDF is not that it is a Jewish army—once one gets over the shock or thrill of realizing that Jews can fight, this is a rather banal fact—but that it is a citizens’ army, and has remained so for the nearly half-century since its founding. This is something without historical precedent.

True, from the French Revolution on, citizens’ armies have been raised in times of war. Armies based on a universal draft and a professional officer class have also existed in peacetime, and Switzerland has a reservists’ army that on paper is organized like Israel’s. But Israel remains the one country in the world where for decades a combat-ready and experienced military has been composed of men—privates, NCO’s, and officers of all ranks—who, when their three years of conscription are over, spend 90 percent of their time as civilians.

This is what several hours of a five-hour movie on the IDF should have been about. Tsahal’s overlooking of the topic is all the more puzzling because (unlike such things as combat scenes, which Lanzmann reportedly could not get clearance to film) it is so accessible. One can hardly go anywhere in Israel without encountering the numerous ways in which army and civilian life intersect, frequently in the same person and often in the same day of the same person; a cinematic examination of this phenomenon, and of the way Israelis cope with it, would have produced a far more interesting movie.

I dearly wish, for example, that Lanzmann had been around to film two little scenes I witnessed several years ago, which demonstrated exquisitely how the knowledge that the man who is your commander today will be just another fellow citizen tomorrow makes relationships between officers and enlisted men in the IDF unlike those in any other military on earth. I was serving at the time in a unit responsible for liaison with the Egyptian army in Sinai, and I had just crossed back from the Egyptian side of the border, where I had drunk tea with an Egyptian major. The tea was brought by a young conscript, who entered the major’s office with a tray, bowed deeply in the doorway, set the tray on the major’s desk, bowed again, walked backward to the door so as not to turn his back on an officer, bowed one more time, and departed.

I then went to have lunch in the Israeli army mess hall where ahead of me in the chow line were an Israeli colonel and his driver, a conscript the same age as his Egyptian counterpart. The conscript went first, got his tray filled, walked to an empty table with it, set it down, stared at it for a second, turned around, and shouted at the colonel, who was still being served: “Hey, Hayyim, bring some salt!”

Needless to say, in most circumstances this young driver would have unquestioningly obeyed his colonel’s orders. But it is precisely the way in which these parallel modes of behavior coexist, and at times overlap, that is one of the most unusual things about the IDF.

Another is the army’s reinforcement of Israeli social egalitarian-ism; all its officers are chosen and promoted from the ranks solely on the basis of merit, there being no pre-induction officers’ training schools in Israel. Still another is the IDF’s maturing effect on young people, who are suddenly thrust into positions of responsibility involving life and death at an age when their peers in Europe and the United States are strolling on college campuses. And still another is the collective bonding fostered by an army experience that everyone undergoes, the one point of reference nearly all Israelis share in common.



Together with the kibbutz, Israel’s army is certainly the most distinctive institution the country has produced. And yet, just as the kibbutzim are now undergoing changes that threaten to eliminate their most characteristic features, doubts have also begun to be raised about the long-term prospects of the IDF in its present form.

These doubts reflect developments both in high army circles and in Israeli society at large. At the planning level, their most prominent expression to date has been the army’s still-classified Shafir Report (1993), which recommended that the IDF consider transforming itself into a “more selective” body, or, in the words of then chief-of-staff Barak, “a smaller and smarter” fighting force.

The report itself was a response to a number of projected trends, among them the rapid growth of the country’s population relative to the manpower needs of the military; the army’s adaptation to a high-technology battlefield, in which smaller numbers of better-trained and more specialized soldiers can be entrusted with operating increasingly more deadly and expensive weapons; the social strains likely to be created by the fact that such units will bear the brunt of training and preparedness while large numbers of other men become subsidiary (already there are complaints about the increasing inequality of Israeli reserve service, in which fewer and fewer soldiers are doing more and more days of duty); and the assumption that, as Israel signs peace treaties with its Arab neighbors, the IDF’s role will be reduced to a deterrent one.

The Shafir Report fell short of calling for the creation of a purely professional army, and in the light of the intifada and continuing Palestinian terror, which have tied down large numbers of ordinary foot soldiers in policing actions, its conclusions may seem premature. But it still could prove to be the writing on the wall.

This is especially so because deep changes taking place in Israeli society cast doubt on the degree to which Israelis will go on indefinitely being prepared to be mobilized for the national-security effort. Even now, among draft-age boys and, especially, girls, there is a palpable drop in the expressed desire to serve in the army, as well as a statistical decline in the percentage of those who do serve. A decrease in motivation to serve in combat units has also been reported by army researchers, and also a shift in the composition of these units, which now draw more heavily on religious youth and less on the secular public and, particularly, the kibbutzim, which once provided a disproportionate number of recruits to the army’s elite forces.

This last trend is connected to the rift over the peace process, which pits a heavily secular Israeli Left against an Israeli Right with a large religious component. And this in turn underlines the fact that a citizens’ army in a society of consensus, such as Israel has been until recently where most security issues are concerned, is a different story from a citizens’ army in a society suffering deep divisions that may be aggravated by what the army is or is not asked to do. If, for instance, the possibility exists that religious soldiers might refuse to obey orders to evacuate Jewish settlers forcibly from their homes in Palestinian territories, it may be tempting to consider the political advantages of a professional military in which the threat of such ideologically motivated insubordination would not occur.



Tsahal deals with none of these issues, nor with the broader question of whether, in a contemporary democracy, a citizens’ army is a desideratum or even a possibility. This is regrettable. It is largely because of its army and the role it has played in national life that Israel has come closer to the ancient ideal of the polis, the community of equal and mutually responsible freemen entrusted with defending one another’s rights and lives, than any other modern state. Here, rather than as an answer to the Holocaust, which it can be conceived of being only poetically, lies the true remarkableness of the IDF.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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