In late 2005, after Israel pulled its soldiers and settlers out of Gaza following an intense public controversy, Elazar Stern arrived at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and was greeted by a furious crowd and a hail of stones.
The crowd called him a “criminal” and an “oppressor of Jews,” spit at him, separated him from his 10-year-old son and cursed the fetus in his pregnant daughter’s womb. The police had to be called in to protect Stern, an Orthodox Jew and a member of the army’s general staff. He was subsequently given a security detail to protect him from the people he had spent his life protecting.
Stern, 56, who is now making his first Knesset run as a member of Tzipi Livni’s new centrist party, has had an eventful and unusually controversial life as a soldier and officer, but it is with this incident that he chose to begin his 2009 memoir. “The years have passed, and the security guards were called off a long time ago, but the stones hurled at me that day at the Western Wall and the venom I felt sizzling behind my back,” he wrote, “still disturb my peace.”
Stern was targeted because he had helped execute the Gaza withdrawal as a serving member of the military, and because he opposed calls from hard-line rabbis for soldiers to disobey orders, which Stern saw as an existential danger to the army and to the fragile threads holding Israel together.
The same concerns, he said in a recent interview, led to his current decision to try his hand at politics as number four on Livni’s party list. He worries about the growing gulf between Orthodox Jews and the Israeli mainstream, about the conflation of religion and right-wing politics, and about the estrangement of secular Israelis from Judaism.
To survive, Stern said, “we have to be Jewish and democratic.”
“If we’re not Jewish we won’t be here, and if we’re not democratic we won’t be here. Sometimes this has a price. Refusing or not refusing orders during the disengagement is part of the price of being Jewish and democratic,” he said.
But politics is a field for which Stern acknowledges he might not actually be suited. Indeed, if the practice of politics involves knowing what to say and when, the notoriously outspoken Stern might have been one of the least politically astute officers ever to achieve high rank in Israel’s military.
By his own account, Stern thinks little of public opinion and both speaks and leads from the gut, which might work in the military but is a risky strategy in parliament. His personality might show the makings of a charismatic leader, or of a novice politician whose career will be colorful and brief.
Stern spoke at a retirement village in central Israel, where he had come to pay a visit to a Yiddish club run by Pnina Kenishbach. He wore jeans and sunglasses.
Kenishbach, a Holocaust survivor, had one son — a company commander who served with Stern. He was killed in combat with Palestinian guerrillas in south Lebanon in 1980, and Stern has spoken to his mother every week since then.
“It doesn’t matter where he is, he could be in Honolulu, he will always call before Shabbat,” Kenishbach told the retirees of the Yiddish club as she introduced Stern. This made an impression on the assembled grandparents: “Good for you,” one elderly woman called out.
“Meine reshimeh iz Elazar Stern,” Kenishbach told her Yiddish club: My party list is Elazar Stern. It seemed clear he had picked up a few votes.
Stern, a wiry man with a knitted kippa and an omnipresent grin that can come across as playful, obstinate or threatening, was born in 1956 to Holocaust survivors in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb. After high school he joined the Paratroops, opting out of an all-religious unit and serving instead as one of the only religious soldiers in his outfit. A commander in basic training made Stern run back and forth in full gear in an attempt to erase his insolent smile, which was something of a trademark even then. It didn’t work.
‘We didn’t tie the dead terrorists’ hands, and when I carried the front of the stretcher the soldier behind me complained that the dead man’s hand kept swinging back and forth and hitting his face’
Stern eventually became an officer, remained in the infantry and climbed the ranks. His service involved grim incidents like one, recounted in his memoir, in which he successfully led a charge against a guerrilla cell in Lebanon and then had to bring three bodies back to Israel:
“I remember the journey vividly, since it was the first time I ever carried a corpse. Corpses are much more difficult to carry than live bodies,” he wrote. “We didn’t tie the dead terrorists’ hands, and when I carried the front of the stretcher the soldier behind me complained that the dead man’s hand kept swinging back and forth and hitting his face.”
As commander of the army’s officer school, Bahad 1, Stern became known for a pedagogical streak that some saw as grating and others as inspiring. His vision of the role of the officer, and of the army itself, was not restricted to military affairs: The army’s job was not simply to fight, but to help build a better society.
Stern famously declared that a cadet who did not give up his seat on the bus for an elderly woman did not deserve to be an officer, and he personally investigated incidents in which cadets were said not to have done so. He once expelled a cadet who fell asleep during a lecture by a Holocaust survivor.
He pioneered delegations of military officers to the Nazi death camps in Europe and later successfully fought for a program that would enable non-Jewish soldiers to convert to Judaism during their military service, though many in the military believed that dealing with issues of identity were not the army’s job. He also went against the legal opinion of IDF lawyers and other officers to make bone-marrow testing a requirement for new conscripts, a move that helped revolutionize the country’s bone-marrow registry and has saved lives.
After the 2006 Lebanon war, Stern became somewhat notorious for having suggested in a radio interview that Israelis from Tel Aviv were not fighting and dying as much as citizens from other parts of Israel, and was roundly hammered for the comment. He says he was misunderstood, but in his memoir he does note a study showing that of the 50 high schools with the highest draft numbers, none are in Tel Aviv.
Bereavement has been one of the themes of Stern’s life. At the time of that radio interview, he was in charge of the army apparatus that notifies the families of dead soldiers, and he recalls writing letters “with a shaking pen” informing parents of the loss of a son.
For religious Zionism, Stern says, ‘the thrust needs to be Jewish identity, and not where the border is going to run’
One of the most heartfelt sections of his memoir recounts a night during the festival of Sukkot when he received news that a boy from his own Galilee community had been killed fighting in Gaza. He had to decide how and when to notify the boy’s parents, who were his friends. Bringing along his wife, herself the sister of a soldier killed in action, and the local rabbi, Stern waited for the official army notification team and then walked over to the family’s house early in the morning: “And the convoy of angels marched on their way to shatter another family’s world.”
In many ways, Stern is a throwback to an earlier strain of religious Zionism, one that has been increasingly marginal since the rise of messianism in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War. The Orthodox Zionist camp was once led by careful moderates — now-forgotten politicians like Haim Moshe Shapira and Moshe Unna — who saw their job as guarding Jewish values and tended to take a dovish political line. After 1967, those leaders were replaced by new ones who went on to make religious Zionism synonymous with right-wing politics and the settlement project.
For religious Zionism, Stern said, “the thrust needs to be Jewish identity, and not where the border is going to run.
“That’s the mistake, and that’s causing damage,” he said.
Like most Israelis, Stern seems to doubt that Israel has a reasonable Palestinian partner for a peace agreement, and says this will not be “a central pursuit” for him as a Knesset member. But in the framework of a peace agreement, he said, he would be willing both to uproot certain settlements or to leave others on the Palestinian side of a future border.
“I truly believe that the commandment of settling the land is important, but I never felt that my Zionism was any feebler when I lived at 81 Pinchas Street in Ramat Gan,” he wrote in his memoir. “You can be a good Zionist wherever your house may be.”
His political activities will center, he said, on removing obstacles to the conversion of non-Jewish Israelis — hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not considered Jewish by Jewish law — and on encouraging employment among the ultra-Orthodox. He wants to “turn Bnei Brak into Brooklyn,” he said, referring to an ultra-Orthodox town in central Israel. “Brooklyn,” in this formulation, is a place where ultra-Orthodox Jews retain their unique identity and also work for a living.
Stern admits he might be unsuited to the deal-making required for success in political life. One of the attractions of Livni’s new party, he seemed to suggest, was that he had been invited to join and did not have to plead for support to get a place on the list.
“If you ask me whether I would be able to connect with workers’ unions in Labor or Likud to get in — no, I would not. Even as it is, the decision was hard for me,” he said.
Of Livni, he said, she is reputed to run “the most honest work environment in Israeli politics.” She is, Stern said, the only viable alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud.
Their styles, though, are markedly different, as was evidenced by the way both handled the debate over the deal to free captured tank crewman Gilad Shalit in return for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Stern’s was one of the few public voices opposed to the deal, which enjoyed broad support. The price was too high, Stern warned, and would cost Israel dearly in the future. “Anyone who dared to express another point of view was mocked in the orchestrated campaign managed in the media,” he wrote, accurately, in a letter he wrote to Shalit explaining his position, and which Stern included in his memoir. It was a lonely and brave position.
Livni, the opposition leader at the time, remained silent, only to come out immediately after the deal to say, rather absurdly, that she had actually been opposed all along.
Stern sees it as his job to speak uncomfortable truths, not to compromise, and to lead by example. He likes to repeat a saying about Henry Ford: If the American entrepreneur had provided people of his time with the thing they wanted, Ford would have made a faster horse.
Nothing about this disposition guarantees that Stern will be able to get anything done in the gray zone of alliances and trade-offs that is parliamentary politics. But he has no plans to change.
“The job of a leader is to get people to a place they wouldn’t get to otherwise,” he said, “whether because they are unable to get there or because they don’t even understand that they want to get there at all.”
This is the second in a series of profiles of political players leading up to Israel’s national election on January 22, 2013. The first can be found here.