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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Follow Me!

September 29, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

Traditionally, a symbol that has always aroused pride and admiration in discussions of the Israeli army is the motto of its officers, "follow me!" As opposed to other armies, where the officer orders his men into battle (to the extreme of the stories of soldiers chained to their tanks in the Egyptian army), the Israeli officer leads his troops into battle, taking the danger and the responsibility on himself, being the first to face the fire. For this to work, he must trust them - and must be trusted by them. A symbol of our democratic army, where all of us are equally committed to the mission and equally willing to pay the price. And the army is the symbol of the nation: a small nation, united, like a family, more concerned with surviving than with marching in step, more concerned about each other than about medals and ranks and rigid discipline.

On the other hand, an army is still an army. Military discipline is not democratic, even in the Israeli army. Generals rule by fiat, not by focus groups. There is a chain of command that is clearly and rigidly defined. Even the inspiring "follow me" philosophy is based on the assumption that the officer knows what to do, and the soldiers' responsibility is to follow his lead, not to question or argue or deliberate. And needless to say, despite its reputation, even the Israeli army has its share of fools and bigots and sadists alongside its geniuses and humanists, just like any other army.

None of this is remarkable or surprising; it is sort of intuitively obvious. What is remarkable is that not only the army, but the country is run by generals. Dayan, Rabin, Barak, Sharon, ben Eliezer -- and now, it seems, the great white hope, Mitzna -- just to name a few of the best known, moved directly from the army into the upper echelons of political leadership. One could argue that in a country that like Israel is so fragmented, and whose main worries are defense worries, it is natural and appropriate for the civilian leadership to receive its training and testing in the military. Moreover, in a country where there is universal conscription (except for Arabs and ultra-orthodox yeshiva students and orthodox girls) and over 20 years of reserve duty for men, we are all always in the army, so it feels natural to be under the command of a general.

I am wondering whether this might just be the basis of our "leadership problem" today. Israel faces complex and difficult challenges of self-definition. We have continually put aside the question of the meaning of a "Jewish State" vis a vis democracy, rights of non-Jews, the role of orthodox law, the messianic significance of the state, because these are very hard dilemmas, and consensus or even civil discourse has always seemed out of reach. Having a general at the helm allows us to avoid these issues for two reasons: a) generals are interested primarily in security issues as that is what they know how to deal with and that is why they were elected; and b) generals resolve complex problems with the call of "follow me." And that is just what we want: not deliberation, not painful discussion of taboo questions, not admission of our uncertainties and inconsistencies, but "follow me!" We want leaders with vision, strength, and charisma, whom we can follow, who will show us the path to salvation.

What we need, it seems to me, is leaders who will help us take responsibility for defining who we are and what we want to be, leaders who have the courage to tell us that they themselves are not quite sure of the right path, but that they can help us find it together. What we want, on the other hand, is leaders who will help us avoid that challenge by taking all the responsibility on themselves, and who will lead us forth into battle, perpetual battle, against enemies who are evil and foreign and for whom we don't have to take any responsibility.

You can laugh at this soft-mindedness; after all, how can one talk about deliberation and seeking consensus while terrorists are homing in on targets from Manhattan to Afula?

Go ahead and laugh. We got just what we wanted.


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