Israeli Army Weekly Missing for Actions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As if the Israeli military didn't have enough to worry about these days, a scandal is brewing in the offices of the army's weekly magazine.

Senior officers ordered the Bamahane newsmagazine closed after a cover story showcased a now-retired gay colonel who had come out of the closet during his military service and went on to become an activist in the gay-rights movement.

The shutdown is part of a tug of war over how the publication can best reflect the identity of Israel's fighting forces. In the backdrop is the conflict between the seemingly mutually exclusive worlds of press freedom and the military.

Until about a year ago, Bamahane (which means "In the Camp") had to submit all of its stories to the army spokesman's office for screening and "editing" before publication. Since then, pressure to toe a certain line remains, but the editors have been given more license and they have been eagerly testing the limits, with varying degrees of success.

In Israel, almost all Jewish citizens are drafted and obliged to perform reserve duty for many years after their mandatory service is completed. Consequently, this "people's army" expects publications that are more relevant and grass-roots than institutional. Many of the country's professional journalists fulfill their reserve duty at Bamahane or other army media.

In addition to the gay colonel feature, articles published in Bamahane have recently addressed alcoholism among the troops; dissent over controversial operations in Lebanon; the repeated blunders of state intelligence; and the neglect of female soldiers injured in the line of duty, in contrast to the preferential treatment afforded their male colleagues.

Another recent cover featured the photograph of a shirtless paratrooper-turned-male-model, complete with chiseled body and come-hither pose. To boot, he was a former ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boy who had defected from the religious life. He was quoted as saying that he'd rather be starring on the catwalk than patrolling Arab villages.

This is not your father's Stars and Stripes.

Bamahane won praise in many circles for having broken out of the staid, officious world of army-speak and for addressing sensitive, once-taboo topics.

But the stories irritated some officers in the army's upper echelon who believed that the more titillating reports simply went too far. And the gay colonel, one army insider said, was "the last straw."

Brig. Gen. Elazar Stern, the chief education officer who oversees military publications, ordered the weekly closed until further notice because of material that "depicts the army in a negative light."

Neither Stern nor anyone else in the army public information office would comment for the record on this case, and Bamahane's editor, Rami Keidar, was forbidden to talk to the media.

Past writers at the paper blame Stern for continuing to try to impose censorship. Stern has earned attention in the mainstream press, mostly for several less-than-progressive statements. He was quoted in March, for example, as suggesting that non-Jews make inferior soldiers.

Others put forward that Bamahane had indeed gone a little overboard, reflecting a yuppie, Tel Aviv-centric personality seen as elitist and out of touch with many of the troops.

Bamahane will probably be allowed to resume publication in a matter of weeks or months, officials said. But its tone then is anyone's guess.

"It will bid farewell to an editor or two, and then will revert to what it has always been," complained political activist Orna Oshri, writing last month in the Haaretz newspaper. "A boring, polite and squeaky-clean rag, the Pravda of a scared, heterosexual, narrow-minded army. It will then be necessary to find out who needs such a wretched product anyway."

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