After almost five decades of serving in the IDF, Bentzi Gruber, a child of Holocaust survivors, launched a lecture program called ‘Ethics in the Field’ and a non-profit ‘Kindness in the Field,’ bringing sensitivity to the soldiers.
By Dave Gordon, Exclusive to United with Israel
It was 45 years ago that Bentzi Gruber first fought in the IDF, in Operation Litani in Lebanon, March 1978. After nearly five decades serving Israel, today Gruber is Brigadier General and Vice Commander (reserves) of Division 252, an armored division of 20,000 soldiers.
“After age 40, you can say ‘that’s it’. But I decided to keep going,” he said of his service. Because for him, it’s a “holy mission.”
“My mother and father survived the Holocaust. I’m named after my grandfather. He was sent to Auschwitz, and two hours later went to the gas chambers. If my grandfather even dreamed that his grandson would be a soldier in the Jewish army, that’s a big deal.”
Whereas tens of thousands of soldiers are under his purview, tens of thousands elsewhere know Gruber as the public face of the lecture program he launched, Ethics in the Field, that he’s presented for more than 20 years all over the world, to conferences, synagogues, military academies, campuses, and schools. With the mission to shatter popular myths on how the IDF operates, it’s a critical-thinking dive into the moral decision-making followed by the Israeli army.
“People don’t understand how much effort we do, to avoid collateral damage or killing civilians. We think 10 times before any planned attack,” he said.
“You know how many rockets we threw into the garbage? I am talking about very expensive rockets” he said of scrubbed missions due to humanitarian reasons. “People don’t have a clue how much we think about every target.” Our enemies, in contrast, “don’t blink about doing a lot of immoral things, including using humans as shields.”
Gruber knows this first-hand. He fought in several wars, including the first Lebanon War (1982), Lebanon in 2004, Operation Defensive Shield (2002), and Protective Edge (2016). His educational background is just as impressive, as a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and the Jerusalem Institute of Technology. Gruber also received a PhD from International University of Business and Law (London).
‘They are Human Beings’
The public rarely knows or understands the pressure on Israeli soldiers, he said at Tz’elim tank base – the closest one to Gaza.
“Checkpoints are very difficult places to be, morning to night. You have those who are belligerent or who are trying to smuggle things, and all the anxiety of dealing with those people. But at the same time, most people are civilians. They are human beings.”
There was one example when he served in a battalion near Bethlehem, and one of his soldiers were rude to a Palestinian at the checkpoint. With 500 people watching, Gruber instructed the soldier to buy flowers and deliver it to the man, at his house in his Palestinian village.
“The effect of that on his ethical behavior was amazing. Because he understood that I would not tolerate something like that,” he explained.
Even the way a soldier asks for identification is crucial, he insisted. “For some cultures, dignity and respect is so important… for instance an elderly Palestinian man, if you ask for their ID in Arabic in a very stern way, you are off to a bad start. You should say ‘good morning. How are you? May I please see your ID?’ This is the way to do it.”
Over time, it is inevitable that a soldier will be worn down, but there are coping strategies Gruber advises.
“The word is shochek. In a car you have brakes, but the brakes wear and tear and eventually you have to replace them. This is what happens at a checkpoint. You wear down, and you wear down fast. So, what do you do? If you start at a high, you won’t go down too low, as you continue to work the checkpoint and the days go by. If you don’t start at a high positive attitude, you will end up like garbage, working the checkpoints over time and behaving like an animal.”
It is predominantly for this reason that, aside from his ‘Ethics in the Field’ lectures, he founded “Chesed in The Field” (‘Chesed’ is Hebrew for ‘Kindness’), a non-profit that hosts events where critically ill children meet IDF reservists – “to bring more sensitivity to the soldiers,” he explained. “The main goal is to make sure the soldiers are still sensitive to guarding a crying baby after their service, like they tend to be before.”
With so many decades of experience commanding tens of thousands of soldiers, it is his belief that the principles of leadership involve knowing what drives people to follow orders. “The main motivation for people all over – hospitals, high tech, students, army – is positive feedback.”
The second, he said, is what he refers to as “glue”: “One of the secrets of leadership: you can ask people to do something, but you have to love them. And they know if you love them or not.”
To this day, in fact, he feels an ongoing bond with two of his former soldiers now serving prison terms (for crimes unrelated to the army). Gruber sends them 200 shekels every month to buy food in the prison cafeteria and visits a few times a year.
Interestingly, that “glue” makes it more painful when dismissing a soldier for poor job performance. One story he recollected is when he was a commander of an intelligence brigade, for which he knew the group for about 15 years. After he dismissed them, they demonstrated in front of his house.
“It was like getting a divorce with a wife of that many years. I said to myself that my obligation was to have the best people, in the most important positions. If they’re not the best, I have to change them and bring new ones,” he said.
“This was very tough. We fought together for many years. We knew each other many years. But on the other hand, I have an obligation to 4,000 soldiers to do the best that I can.
The parents of the soldiers that I had fighting for me were relying on me to have the best people around to ensure their [sons’] safety. So, I had to make difficult ‘surgery’ to cut units.”
In the months ahead, as Israel gears up for its 75th birthday, it’s important to honor the hidden heroes who protect and defend the state on a day-to-day basis, and important to know the burdens and challenges they face to keep us safe. They are, like Brigadier General Gruber, part of the wall of defense for without which our nation would be torn by our enemies.