Faces of the Israeli Army



By Brett Goldberg
304 pages. Modan Publishing House. $19.95.

In March 2002, Israel suffered the worst month of terror attacks in its history. Over two hundred people were killed and many hundreds more injured. This wave of attacks climaxed at Netanya’s Park Hotel, where on Seder night a suicide bomber murdered thirty people and injured scores more. In response to this horrifying crime, the Israeli government undertook the sort of military operation many Israelis had been clamoring for during the previous months. Operation Defensive Shield was launched; it turned out to be decisive in greatly reducing Palestinian terror in the following days and months.

The most well-known focus of military action during this operation was Jenin, the West Bank city considered the capital of Palestinian suicide-bombing. Even before the Israeli military operation was underway, press reports emerged throughout the world of massacres by the Israeli forces of the Palestinians in the city and in the "refugee camp" nearby. These claims of massacre, fueled by the Palestinian propaganda machine, led to worldwide cries of outrage against Israel, accusations of genocide, and comparisons with the Nazis. Palestinian spokesman Saab Erekat claimed hundreds had been murdered in the Jenin camp. The worldwide cries led to a U.N. investigation.

This investigation concluded weeks later with a lame admission (by a body normally hostile to Israel) that there was no evidence of massacre at all. But the damage to Israel’s already battered image was significant.

For Jews throughout the world who saw Israel stigmatized, isolated, and made the object of an intense and unjust attack, the whole incident was a frightening reminder of another period, a little more than half century before, when the Jews were also under ideological attack. Brett Goldberg, who was living at the time very comfortably in Greenwich, Connecticut with his wife and daughter, felt impelled to act. Goldberg was no stranger to Israel, having served in the IDF as a tank commander and lived for seven years in the Negev development town of Yeroham. He flew to Israel and spent the next several months interviewing the Israeli soldiers who participated in the operation in Jenin. A Psalm in Jenin is the product of those interviews, and it provides a detailed and authentic picture of both the Israeli military and the daily struggle of Israeli civilians during this time of terror.

Goldberg does not confine himself to the military action alone but also tells the stories of the soldiers' families. He depicts the ethnic mix of Israelis and their moral and religious strengths. The unit he concentrates upon consists in large part of what are known in Israel as "national-religious" soldiers, though it includes a good mix of other types, as well.

Remarkably, Goldberg shows soldiers fighting for their lives and, at the same time, contending with moral issues, seeking to fulfill their extremely unpleasant duties in the most humane way possible. Despite snipers nests, booby traps, ambushes, and above all their own losses and injuries, these soldiers maintain their own dignity and consideration for their enemies. Many within Israel claim this consideration was taken too far in Jenin: had Israel acted as "normal army," some say, and bombed the camp from above (as, for example, the U.S. did when it razed a building in Baghdad in an effort to kill Saddam Hussein), sixteen of the Israelis soldiers who were killed in an ambush in the camp would still be alive today. 

Goldberg's book illustrates the thesis that to truly understand the way an army works, one must look at relations within platoons and small units. The friendship networks Goldberg presents enforce our sense of how loyalty and courage play a central role in the life of the everyday soldier. There are no superheroes here, but plenty of quietly courageous people, a number of whom regrettably are lost in the battle.

Clearly and movingly written, Goldberg's book is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the challenges Israel, its people, and its soldiers have faced in the past three years, and continue to face now.