The Sages on Winograd

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During the long summer months, Jews traditionally learn Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) on Shabbos afternoon. The ancient text can be read this year as a commentary on the Winograd Commission interim report.

The very first teaching found in Avos is: “Be deliberate in judgment” (1:1). By reexamining the issue many times, say the commentators, one will almost always discover a new facet not previously considered, and arrive at a more accurate conclusion. One who fails to do so is,is judged as if he had erred deliberately, even if he believed his judgment was correct: “One who is too self-confident in handing down legal decisions is a fool, wicked and arrogant of spirit” (Avos 4:9).

Judgment refers not just to determining past events, but to anticipating future consequences. Indeed when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his students “what is the proper way to which a man should cling?,” Rabbi Shimon answered that the most important thing is for a person to “consider the consequences of his deeds” (Avos 2:13). That is precisely what our government failed to do. In the words of the Winograd Commission: “The government authorized an immediate military strike that was not thought through.”

Not only did those responsible for going to war not think two or three moves ahead; they did not think one move ahead. That Hizbullah would strike back with thousands of katyshas was obvious. Yet no inquiries were made about the state of the country’s civil defenses. Far worse, no initial consideration was given to how the IDF could eliminate the katyushas or whether it was capable of doing so.

One key to deliberation in judgment is consultation with others. “The more advice, the more understanding,” Hillel taught (Avos 2:8). The internal consultative processes completely broke down in this war. According to the Winograd Commission, the prime minister, defense minister, and a security cabinet that included three former defense ministers did nothing to probe the IDF’s plan of action.

In order to seek advice one must know that one does not know. Dan Halutz’s immediate predecessor as chief of staff, Moshe (“Bogie”) Ya’alon told Ma’ariv that the essence of the job is consultation since nobody can be the greatest expert in every aspect of military operations. That entails creating a culture in which subordinates are encouraged to fill in the chief of staff’s gaps in knowledge, and he makes clear that he appreciates their input.

No chief of staff ever needed more outside input than Dan Halutz once it became clear that there is no means of halting katyusha fire from the air. As a lifelong air force man, he had no background for preparing or directing a large-scale ground operation. But his trademark arrogance ­ the same arrogance that caused him to say once that he relied solely on his own intelligence and determination without any need of a Higher Power ­ tripped him up.

Too bad Halutz did not learn just one Mishnah: “Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said: be exceedingly humble in spirit” (Avos 4:4). Maimonides comments that every character trait has a golden mean, except for pride. Most of a person’s miscalculations and sins come from an excess of pride.

To grow in wisdom one must be a lover of wisdom and seek it out rather than just relying on what already knows, no matter how great. So Rabbeinu Yonah explains Ben Zoma’s definition of a wise man: “One who learns from every person” (Avos 4:1). Before one can seek knowledge from others, however, one must first acknowledge that one does not know everything.

That Halutz could not do, and it was reflected in the incoherence of the military campaign and failure to develop and up-date plans for a ground action. When Ya’alon rushed back from Washington to brief Halutz on plans for a ground operation in Lebanon, Halutz could not find time to meet with him.

For consultation to be effective it is crucial that one does not surround oneself with yes-men. That requires seeking out those who will function like a good study partner and challenge one’s every idea and be prepared to offer trenchant criticism. For that reason Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya stressed: “Acquire for yourself a friend” (Avos 1:6). A true friend, explain the commentators, is one who seeks his friend’s perfection, and therefore does not hesitate to reprove him. To give good advice that friend does not even have to be at a higher spiritual level, he just needs to be free in the matter at hand of the bias and personal interest of the one he is advising. His distance allows him to give clear-headed advice.

That kind of advice was not only in short supply in this war ­ in which we paid the price for the reign of terror Halutz instilled in the general staff ­ but in the broader society. Bogie Ya’alon rails in his Maariv interview about how the spinmeisters and sycophants around Ariel Sharon completely seized the reins of government. They sank their talons into every nook and cranny of government ­ even into IDF appointments. Experts advice was shunted aside, and the Farm Forum decided everything. According to Ya’alon the decision to withdraw from Gaza was made without a single government minister present.

THE WINOGRAD COMMISSION REPORT at least settles an old debate about whether character matters in politicians. Too often that questions centers exclusively on marital fidelity. But character involves much more.

The Winograd Report constitutes, in David Horowitz’s trenchant phrase, is “a chronicle of tragedy foretold.” None of those who presided over the disaster detailed, or those who did nothing to plan or prepare during the six years that Hizbullah was amassing huge stores of katyshas on our northern border are indifferent to what they wrought. Nor are they, by and large, unintelligent men.

But they were done in by the pervasive corruption, overweening personal ambition, and arrogance that permeates our political culture. The habit of asking “What’s in it for me?” clouded their judgment and rendered them incapable of thinking straight.

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10 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Joe Fisher, in a democracy citizens are entitled and expected to express their opinions. This includes opinions based on partial knowledge (almost all opinions on military or diplomatic matters are based on partial knowledge). As far as I know, nobody in the IDF obeys Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, so his opinions are just that – opinions.

    So I guess pushing our live soldiers in front of live ammunition was really just, well, duh, an understandable mistake?

    It sucks, it well and truly does, but soldiers are there to fight. This means putting them in front of live ammunition when the reason is important enough and there is a reasonable chance of winning. If FDR didn’t push live soldiers in front of live ammunition, Europe would still be occupied by the Nazis. If Ben Gurion hadn’t done the same, Israel would have lost the war of independance and probably most people in the Yeshuv would have been killed.

    You can argue that in this instance Israel should have just ignored the kidnapping and killing of its soldiers to avoid losing more lives. Or you can argue that a ground attack would have been too costly in lives, so Israel should have continued the ineffective air campaign. But you can’t argue that putting soldiers are risk is always a bad idea unless you think Israel can afford to disband the IDF.

  2. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Joe Fisher: I don’t understand you. Are you saying the Israeli army should never launch a ground invasion of Lebanon in face of a threatening Hezbollah buildup, because by doing so it puts soldiers “in front of live ammunition,” and some of them will get killed? FTR: as my friends will testify, at an early stage of the War I was wondering when the ground invasion would be launched. But like other outsiders, I was unaware of just how unprepared the Army was for such an invasion.

  3. Ilan says:

    Joe, are you saying that no one who didn’t have access to military secrets should be qualified to comment when its huge failures become public?

    The IDF has been respected and feared in the Middle East for decades, because of how well-prepared its fighters are. For anyone outside the military, “who would have imagined” is not “lame” at all. That the IDF was sent into a ground war with such a lack of equipment and training should surprise and appall any thinking person.

    The problem isn’t that Israel fought a ground war. Israel has a history of winning those. But then the military was ready to fight.

  4. Joe Fisher says:

    So I guess pushing our live soldiers in front of live ammunition was really just, well, duh, an understandable mistake?

    Here’s the lame litany:…”Who would have imagined…?” (Rosenblum)…”a terrible and tragic mistake” (Kaplan)…”he only knows information that is in the public domain” (Pomerantz)…

    Rabbi Rosenblum claims competence, reliability, and fact checking. He is supposed to, yes, imagine what could go wrong, and, yes, not make boo-boos that kill kids, and, yes, know more than what’s available on a Google search. Otherwise why read him?

    Get serious now. Real lives are at stake.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Restoring the IDF’s professionalism after its recent decline won’t happen tomorrow but has to happen. Removing past, present, and future general officers from political involvement is a must. This army needs no commissars! Installing a responsible, incorruptible defense ministry is another must.

  6. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Joe Fisher is not the first to point out that I was a strong supporter of a very strong response to Hizbullah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and cross border attack last July 12. And I still am. As I wrote in a recent Yated piece, the initial Israeli response was at least better than the alternative — doing nothing, as Ehud Barak did in October 2000 when three IDF soldiers were kidnapped.

    But I was also critical of the conduct of the war from almost the beginning, in particular the IDF’s failure to order a ground operation. The relevant articles are all posted at http://www.jewishmediaresources.com under weekly columns/other. Nothing in the Winograd Commission Report argues against such a ground operation; only against one commenced without planning or training.

    What no one knew or could have known at the outset of the war was how badly prepared the IDF was. Who would have imagined that it had neither prepared plans (Bogie Ya’alon hotly contests this) nor trained for a serious action to take out Hizbullah’s mobile launchers? Nor could we have known that Prime Minister Olmert had never asked for such plans, not even after deciding to hit Hizbullah hard, or that no one was thinking past the original salvo. Only the Winograd Commission revealed how bad things were in that respect.

  7. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    JoeFiushe: I seen no contradicton. The Winograd commission did not criticize the govt. and generals for fighting the war, but for fighting it without adequate preparation, lacking a coherent strategy ,etc. As for the issue of a ground invasion: The actual last minute ill thoght out ground invasion on the last two days of fighting was a terrible and tragic mistake; however the Commission suggests that a properly thought out and properly prepared for ground invasion in the early stages of the battle was necessary in order to destroy Hezbollah’s military capabilities.

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Joe Fisher, you’re right that Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum thought the IDF was able to stop the Katyushas. I don’t know his credentials, but I assume that his estimate was based on the IDF’s history and that he only knows information that is in the public domain. Jonathan Rosenblum, if I am wrong please correct me.

    General Halutz, Defense Minister Peretz, and Prime Minister Olmert had access to top secret military readiness reports. I assume that the Winograd Commission had access to the same reports, and that their criticism is based on the information in those reports. They either knew that an air attack can’t stop the Katyusha rockets, or they should have known (after it was shown ineffective after a few days). They either knew if the IDF was ready for a ground offensive, or they should have known.

  9. Joe Fisher says:

    Hmmm. Rabbi Rosenblum writes, “Far worse, no initial consideration was given to how the IDF could eliminate the katyushas or whether it was capable of doing so.”. Funny.

    Rabbi Rosenblum was one of the biggest proponents of the attack on Lebanon last summer. Here’s from his August 2 column:

    “At the end of the day, it appears that Israel has no alternative to destroying much of Hizbullah’s capabilities itself, and no more propitious time than the present. We can only pray that New Republic’s Yossi Klein Halevi is correct when he writes:

    “This is not a repetition of the first Lebanon war, but a return to our consensus wars of survival – not a Vietnam moment but a World War II moment. That is why Israel fights, and why it will win.”

    A year ago he was telling us we were quite capable of eliminating the Katyshas. Now he tells us it was obvious we couldn’t.

    And his implication here that a greater ground operation would have been successful is worse than armchair quarterbacking. We lost big time when we sent in ground forces. It was too expensive in terms of human life to envision even more ground ops.

  10. dovid says:

    Dear Jonathan Rosenblum:

    Based on the title of your post, I expected you to comment on how the Winograd commission would have withstood the scrutiny of our sages. There has been a remarkable dose of honesty and desire to get to the bottom of things which otherwise have been so alien to the political and legal establishments in power of EY. I would very much welcome a P.S. on the topic.