Good Hearts Still Exist — Wonder Woman, the Israeli Defense Force and Defying Stereotypes in Our World

Earlier this summer, there was a surge of excitement at the Hollywood box office. Wonder Woman unexpectedly became the most successful movie of the summer, not only starring a Jewish woman, but also directed by female director Patty Jenkins. Predictably, all her onscreen superpowers could not alter the forces of discrimination and distrust of Israel and more significantly, criticism against her due to her unwavering support for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).  It is definitely thought provoking that a young woman film superstar would weigh in on such a seemingly fringe issue in a media landscape virtually dominated by the Trump presidency.

What caught me off guard was the push back from elements in the progressive left that seemed to issue cautionary statements rejecting that a woman of talent, intelligence, on screen power and charisma could, in fact, also be supportive of an organization in her native country of Israel, perceived as carrying out the deadly work of a biased and right-winged government and persecuting ethnic minorities throughout the middle east.

Israeli actress Gal Gadot was born in the small city of Rosh HaAyin, became Miss Israel at age 18, and served a compulsory two years in the Israeli Defense Force as a combat trainer.  She has continued to build on the discipline of this training throughout her career in addition to her steadfast support for women. This is obviously quite different from the U.S. armed forces that only this past year gave permission for women to enroll in a combat unit or participate as a member of special forces.

As an American living in both the US and Europe, I often debate my friends about the level of unfettered support we show for the State of Israel.  I believe that no government is perfect, and certainly I have many concerns about the approach the current government in Israel has taken in areas of engagement and regional peace. That said, it was still a bit surprising to see the media make an issue of this topic, especially considering it has had the ironic and opposite effect of more box office ticket sales for the film.

It is important to note that the same media that lambasts the IDF as the active force carrying out Israeli government policies, fails to tell any other part of the story. They fail to shed light on the many positive roles and stereotypes the IDF has broken in its almost 70 year history. Founded in 1948, as one of the first official acts of Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, the IDF is one of the first militaries to allow women in combat units, to provide options for mentally disabled soldiers to participate, and is one of 18 countries to allow transgender soldiers- which stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s recent ban.  They also have recently provided innovative programs and humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees.

These elements do not take away from their basic mission, which is to protect a country surrounded by enemies. But perhaps there is much to learn about how we look at all different elements within our society before we jump to conclusions and before we decide to criticize organizations and those that support them.

I recently wrote a piece exploring some of the disparity that exists between public opinion on Israel and what is actually true about Israel, as a country and culture, and how communities in the U.S. view and judge it from thousands of miles away.  In that piece, I focused on the exciting business topics of innovation, partnerships, and technology.  But continued events of intolerance and hate have fueled me to further examine how those disparities play out when it comes to issues affecting our society and important values such as compassion, inclusion, and understanding.

As an activist in the world of culture and art, I am always looking for opportunities to challenge the status quo.  Knowing how Israel and the IDF specifically navigate and act on the values of tolerance, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the much more subtle and human story of the Israeli military, which nearly every Israeli serves in at some point in their lives.

A strong humanitarian side of the IDF is demonstrated by its Operation Good Neighbor, officially launched in 2016.  It is a highly complex and profoundly successful operation providing medical, dietary and infrastructural relief and services to Syrian refugees, with IDF soldiers involved in some of the most dangerous and volatile areas. The  primary recipients of IDF support are the approximately 200,000 residents of the Hauran region of southwestern Syria. About 400 families live in tents near the Israel-Syria border. The rest live in villages or out in the open. A third of the aid recipients are displaced persons or refugees and half of them are under the age of 18.

Operation Good Neighbor is not only taking place in Syria, but also on Israeli soil. Since its launch, over 600 Syrian children and their mothers have journeyed to Israel for medical treatment. Currently, the IDF is in the process of constructing two medical clinics in Syria, intended to treat over 80,000 Syrians injured by Assad’s cruel military campaign. Those 80,000 are in addition to the over 3,000 wounded Syrians that are treated in hospitals in Northern Israel. Once construction is complete, the clinics will be run by NGO staff, but will remain guarded by the IDF.

In an undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, an IDF soldier feeds a Syrian baby in Israel as part of Operation Good Neighbor. Photo courtesy of IDF Spokesman
In an undated photo provided on July 19, 2017, an IDF soldier feeds a Syrian baby in Israel as part of Operation Good Neighbor. Photo courtesy of IDF Spokesman

Hundreds of tons of food, medical and basic living supplies have been delivered to Syria by the IDF, and there is no end in sight to this profound humanitarian campaign.

It is interesting to note how Operation Good Neighbor began, before it was an official program and policy. Approximately 4 years ago, an injured Syrian literally limped to the Israeli border and an IDF commander made an on-the-spot decision to provide refuge and treatment. From this one soldier and his heartfelt gesture, a massive program was born, with over 110 aid programs running today that make up the whole of Operation Good Neighbor.

Unit 9900 is another example of the more human side of the IDF. It is a special and elite intelligence unit, staffed exclusively by soldiers with autism, many of whom are blessed with intense perceptual skills. It is otherwise known as the Roim Rachok (RR) program, which translates to Far Beyond Horizons. Within RR, there is an even smaller, more elite unit, with soldiers that possess the most intricate and far-reaching perceptual, tracking and analytic capabilities.  This allows them to survey geographical and visual intelligence and provide Israel with a level of security that would be virtually unavailable to the state without these uniquely abled soldiers.

The elite unit within Roim Rachok surveying imagery and saving lives. Photo courtesy of IDFblog.com
The elite unit within Roim Rachok surveying imagery and saving lives. Photo courtesy of IDFblog.com

Since military service in Israel is compulsory, there is a stigma that comes with not serving, one that is understandably painful to add on to the already challenging life of a person with autism.  The IDF not only includes these young soldiers in the body of the military, but has identified and successfully implemented a program that taps into their unique capabilities. RR is also notably integrated into the general military population, where friendships and camaraderie are shared with a population of individuals that may have never had such mainstream exposure if not for their military service According to one of the IDF Colonels,  the RR soldiers have “excellent relations with the soldiers of the unit – from time to time, out of the building where they work I see them sitting with others in the unit, having lunch or just having a cup of coffee. No one forces them to do so. It is very natural, and I think that says it all.”

When it comes to the topic of tolerance, the LGBT communities of the world also come to mind. The IDF has a strong anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, protecting soldiers of any sexual orientation, and also provides military and bereavement benefits to spouses of same-sex relationships.

Uploaded to the IDF’s official Facebook page, a staged photo to celebrate Pride Month in 2012.
Uploaded to the IDF’s official Facebook page, a staged photo to celebrate Pride Month in 2012.

I definitely don’t want to seem like an apologist for an organization that is fundamentally focused on military readiness and the violence that it entails.  But I do believe that just as we continue to see a strong support in the   “anti-war” movement growing around the world, we also need to recognize the many roles and perspectives that a complicated organization such as the IDF embraces. This is reflective of the social commentary at play in our world which is one plagued with dilemmas and positions that make no sense.

The distinction between public opinion and a mostly revenue driven media which is false in content continues to promote a lack of clarity and division in our society.  With this in mind, the truth in a post truth era is still the far better road.   For those on the far end of the opposition, I hope that these facts will resonate and inspire critics to address their biases, especially those critics that claim to champion freedom and human rights in their own causes.

About the Author
Annette Blum is an activist and philanthropist with a focus on global citizenship. Using art and media as dialogue-generating platforms, Ms. Blum advocates for social justice causes across the globe, and sponsors diverse advocacy-based programs. Among many board and advisory positions, Ms. Blum is a member of the Artists and Educators Board at Center Theater Group, the Clinton Global Initiative, and Religions for Peace, a U.N. affiliate program. Recently, Ms. Blum has collaborated with the Jerusalem Season of Culture program, the Clinton Global Initiative, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post, where she shares her experience with social and political programs and events taking place across the globe, with her specific focus on the intersection of art, advocacy and dialogue.
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