Up Close and Personal with IDF Brigadier General Bentzi Gruber

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DAVE GORDON 

As the State of Israel celebrates its 75th birthday this month, let us honor the brave heroes who protect and defend the state on a day-to-day basis. They toil with unparalleled dedication to keep Israel’s citizens safe, and in doing so they face considerable challenges.

One such hero is Brigadier General Bentzi Gruber, who has served for nearly five decades in the IDF. He considers his service to be a “holy mission.”  It was just over forty-five years ago that Gruber first fought in the IDF, in Operation Litani in Lebanon, in March 1978. Today, Gruber is not only Brigadier General, but he is also the Vice Commander (reserves) of Division 252, an armored division of 20,000 soldiers. 

Gruber is also an entrepreneur, and has established Internet startups, been a real-estate developer, and serves on the boards of a variety of technology companies. Especially close to his heart is his IDF service. Let’s hear about this in his own words. 

Commenting on his army service he states, “After age 40, you can say ‘that’s it.’ But I decided to keep going.”.

“My mother and father survived the Holocaust. I’m named after my grandfather. He was sent to Auschwitz, and two hours later went to the gas chambers. If my grandfather even dreamed that his grandson would be a soldier in the Jewish army [and that dream came true] – that’s a big deal.” 

 

Ethics in the Field

Whereas tens of thousands of soldiers are under Gruber’s purview, tens of thousands elsewhere know him as the public face of the lecture program he launched 20 years ago, Ethics in the Field. The program’s mission is to shatter popular myths and present the facts missing in today’s discussion of how the IDF operates concerning counter terrorism. Ethics in the Field has been presented all over the world, to conferences, synagogues, military academies, campuses, and schools. It provides a window into the moral decision-making process that the Israeli army follows.

“People don’t understand how much effort we expend, to avoid collateral damage or killing civilians. We think ten times before any planned attack,” Gruber said. 

“You know how many rockets we threw into the garbage? I am talking about very expensive rockets,” he said of missions scrubbed due to humanitarian reasons. “People don’t have a clue how much we think about every target.” Our enemies, in contrast, “don’t blink about doing a lot of immoral things, including using humans as shields.” 

Gruber knows about these things firsthand. He fought in several wars, including the First Lebanon War (1982),  Operation Defensive Shield (2002), the Second Lebanon War (2006), and Operation Protective Edge (2014). His educational background is just as impressive. He is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and the Jerusalem Institute of Technology. Gruber also received a PhD from The International University of Business and Law (London).  

 

 

Stress at the Checkpoints

Gruber says, “Checkpoints are very difficult places to be, morning to night. You have those who are belligerent or who are trying to smuggle things, and all the anxiety of dealing with those people. But at the same time, most people [coming through the checkpoints] are civilians. They are human beings.”

Once when Gruber served in a battalion near Bethlehem, one of his soldiers was rude to a Palestinian man at the checkpoint. Gruber instructed the soldier to buy flowers for the man he was rude to, and to deliver the bouquet to him at his house in a Palestinian village.

“The effect of that on his ethical behavior was amazing. Because he understood that I would not tolerate something like that,” Gruber said.

Even the way a soldier asks for identification is crucial, Gruber explained. “For some cultures, dignity and respect are so important. [Take] for instance, an elderly Palestinian man. If you ask for their ID in Arabic in a very stern way, you are off to a bad start. You should say, ‘Good morning. How are you? May I please see your ID?’ This is the way to do it.”  

 

Avoiding Burnout

Over time, it is inevitable that a soldier will get worn down, but Gruber cites that there are coping strategies to help.

“The word is shochek. In a car you have brakes, but the brakes wear and tear and eventually you have to replace them. This is what happens at a checkpoint. You wear down, and you wear down fast. So, what do you do?  If you start at a high, you won’t go down too low, as you continue to work the checkpoint and the days go by. If you don’t start with a high positive attitude, you will end up like garbage, working the checkpoints over time and behaving like an animal.”

It is predominantly for this reason he founded “Chesed in the Field,” a non-profit that brings together IDF reservists and chronically ill and disabled children for special events throughout the year, installing the values of community and social responsibility in the hearts of thousands of soldiers. This serves “to bring more sensitivity to the soldiers,” Gruber explained.  

 

Gruber on Leadership

With so many decades experience of commanding tens of thousands of soldiers, it is Gruber’s belief that the principles of leadership involve knowing what drives people to follow orders. “The main motivation for people all over – in hospitals, in high tech, for students, and in the army – is positive feedback.” 

The second motivator, Gruber said, is what he refers to as “glue.” “One of the secrets of leadership is – you can ask people to do something, but you have to love them. And they know if you love them or not.”

Even now, Gruber still feels a strong bond to two of his former soldiers now serving prison terms (for crimes unrelated to the army). Gruber sends them 200 shekels (about $57.00) every month to buy food in the prison cafeteria, and he visits them a few times a year.  

 

A Tough Decision 

Interestingly, that “glue” makes it more painful when dismissing a soldier for poor job performance. Gruber recalled a story that occurred when he was a commander of an intelligence brigade. He had known that group of soldiers for about fifteen years. After he dismissed them for not meeting expectations, they demonstrated in front of his house.

“It was like getting a divorce with a wife of that many years. I said to myself that my obligation was to have the best people, in the most important positions. If they’re not the best, I have to change them and bring new ones,” he said. 

“This was very tough. We fought together for many years. We knew each other many years. But on the other hand, I have an obligation to four thousand soldiers to do the best that I can. 

“The parents of the soldiers that I had fighting for me were relying on me to have the best people around to ensure their [sons’] safety. So, I had to perform a difficult ‘surgery’ to cut units.” 

 

Role Model to Many

Despite the difficult decisions Gruber has made, he remains a role model to many serving in the Israel Defense Forces. 

Gruber, who worked his way up from overseeing a three-tank squad at age 22, said that today he hears from a handful of people each week who are inspired by the words and deeds he stands for. He said, “They tell me, ‘You’ve changed the way I think about leadership and how to instruct people under my command.’”

He added that he can “see a change in the soldiers” he lectures to, and how they develop their leadership qualities. 

Israel is blessed to have a strong military presence to protect its citizenry, and we wish Brigadeer General Gruber only success as he continues his holy mission.