For IDF Colonel (reserves) Bentzi Gruber, the defining moment in his long army career came after arriving home exhausted from Israel’s 2009 Cast Lead action in Gaza. “I fought for three weeks in Gaza with 10,000 soldiers,” he recounts. “Inside for three weeks.”
Returning home to Efrat, his suburban community in Israel’s West Bank, he heard stories about a different war — both in the press and on the Internet. Distressed and more than a little bewildered, he felt he was hearing about a completely different war, with only lies and myths filtering through.
As the vice commander of Armored Division 252 in the army reserves, Bentzi manages 20,000 soldiers in five brigades of tank, parachute, infantry,artillery and armored units.His professional life has been in the business world but he has always made time for causes important to him, and he started to speak out, taking on the job of hasbara or public diplomacy as a personal mission. He began speaking to groups visiting Israel and eventually abroad, at synagogues, schools, churches and even to Canadian cadets undergoing military training.
In the last 18 months, Bentzi has lectured an astonishing 212 times on what has become his signature topic, ethics and the IDF. His goals are simple; to tell the truth, answer questions, give information and hopefully change perceptions.
“I want to put a worm of a doubt inside [so that the] next time they hear a ridiculous story, maybe they’ll ask themselves if it’s real,” he says.
Bentzi is not only concerned with changing perceptions, he’s also worried about the demoralizing effect on Israeli soldiers, who are frustrated by a world that refers to them as “baby killers.” Soldiers are taught an absolute code of ethics in the IDF, explains Bentzi. “The rules are tough, even more so in the last 15 years. You have to risk your life, but no matter what we do they will say on other side that we are criminals.”
Changing mindsets, especially on college campuses, is particularly challenging, says Bentzi,, who has had his share of unpleasant interactions with students and attendees at his lectures at schools and organizations across the United States. He laments that “most Jews, especially students don’t have the courage to stand up and say this is not truth. The other side is very aggressive.”
Colonel Gruber tells of a recent talk at a college campus in the Chicago area, host to a large Muslim presence. In an unpleasant interaction with a burqa-clad woman in the audience, only a few weeks after the brutal murder of five members of the Fogel family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, he asked her, “Are you willing to condemn those who killed them?” She responded, “No.” When he asked her if they could have a reasonable dialogue about issues, she answered, “You’re a liar. Every time something happens in Israel, you blame the Palestinians. You killed this family.” This kind of exchange, reports Gruber, happens all too often.
As his audience has grown, so has his subject matter. Bentzi has developed his topic with footage and stories, offering special access to army-permitted, sensitive materials and information that give an insider’s view of life in the IDF.
Colonel Gruber isn’t sorry he’s taken on this somewhat Sisyphean role. The job is never ending really, he’s realized, as Israel needs an “army on the Internet, Twitter and Facebook. [We can’t] ignore what the rest of the world thinks, says and believes.”
His efforts make a difference not just to those who come to hear this smart, capable and clearly talented man speak but most importantly to the soldiers under his command. “I am more experienced because of my speaking all over the world,” he says. “[I have] something different to bring to my soldiers.”