The Eisner paradigm
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a YouTube clip is valued at millions. This is why, in a split second, Lt. Col. Shalom Eisner – deputy commander of the Jordan Valley Brigade – turned into a world-renowned anti-hero this week.
Eisner, leading an operation to curb the activities of the “peace activists” who made up last Sunday’s “flytilla,” unwittingly became the latest casualty in the propaganda war against Israel. Caught on camera smashing the butt of his M-16 into the face of a young Danish activist, the IDF officer instantly lost the career he loved, along with the former admiration and respect he had earned as an upstanding commander. Everyone at the top, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Defense Minister Ehud Barak to IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, rushed to distance himself from Eisner, without so much as a “by your leave.”
The investigation into the 60-second incident, the lead-up to which lasted a full two hours, will take place. But whatever its result, Eisner’s reputation has already been broken, like his spirit and one of his fingers.
I am not going to provide a defense of Eisner here, as the facts of the case have yet to emerge in full. But his version of events is utterly plausible, given the history of behavior on the part of “peace activists” toward the IDF, sent in by the government to prevent large-scale violence. This always puts the soldiers in a terrible position, because no matter what they do, they are in jeopardy. Since the goal of such activists is to provoke the military into doing its job, so that it will look bad on film, our Israeli boys in uniform either get clobbered physically (as happened during the flotilla to Gaza in 2010) or get accused of using excessive force. The activists who planned the flights to Israel on Sunday were not going to waste the opportunity to stir up trouble, one way or another. This is why the government did everything in its power to keep them out. But it doesn’t take more than one bop with the butt of one rifle to cause an international scandal focusing on Israeli “atrocities.”
For this reason, some of the criticism leveled at Eisner was for “stupidity.” The logic was, as usual, that he should not have allowed himself to fall prey to bad press. Well, I’ve got news for those particular critics: Eisner would have received bad press in any case, from one sector or another. Indeed, he ended up being called to task by his superiors for failing to employ water canons and tear gas canisters – standard riot-dispersal tools.
Eisner explained that he had not done so because there had been no need to go to such extremes, while faced with a mere 60 demonstrators, who were not acting in a violent manner.
The trouble started, he claimed, when two busloads of radical International Solidarity Movement (ISM) members arrived on the scene, blocking the road and attacking the soldiers, including Eisner himself. Of course, this part of the drama did not make it onto YouTube.
Initially, Eisner’s response to the wrath of his superiors was to criticize them for only taking note of his “improper conduct unbefitting of an officer,” without seeing the whole picture and praising him for having carried out his mission successfully. It is possible that his statements angered Gantz and Barak even more than his use of his rifle butt.
In any case, he subsequently apologized, expressing regret for having flown off the handle, literally and figuratively.
The larger issue here, however, is that Eisner was punished, and both the army and the government promptly dissociated themselves from him. Rather than this inspiring praise from the so-called “international community” – or, heaven forbid, from Haaretz, whose editorials on the subject could serve as paid ads for ISM – Israel is being given a big, fat rifle butt in its face yet again.
This ought to lead one to wonder who was more foolish – Eisner for letting loose, or his bosses for sending the message to other officers that, when in doubt, they should close their eyes and think of the Internet.
Ruthie Blum, a former senior editor at The Jerusalem Post, is the author of a book on the radicalization of the Middle East, soon to be released by RVP Press.