Col. Bentzi Gruber addressed a receptive audience of about 40 at Congregation Mikveh Israel; he was clad in his olive-green uniform and combat boots, and armed with a laptop that contained video footage from Operation Cast Lead, which took place two years ago.
His message: The IDF did all it could to limit civilian casualties, even putting its own soldiers' lives at stake in order to give civilians the opportunity to flee an area. But in many ways, Israel lost the subsequent public-relations battle, and the image of the IDF as an ethical military surely suffered. Gruber is hoping to change that by speaking to as many American audiences as he can.
From dropping leaflets and sending text messages to diverting remote-controlled bombs at the last minute if a suspected terrorist sought shelter in a crowded area, the Israeli army did its utmost to avoid collateral damage, he stated. The flip side, he argued, was that Hamas fighters exploited Israel's code of ethics to protect themselves.
The Palestinians claimed that 1,600 civilians were killed in the fighting, but Israel placed that number at 295, with 709 Hamas combatants killed. Of those, 50 were women and 89 were under the age of 18: These numbers offer proof, he said, that Israel took great pains to target terrorists.
"We are not doing it for the media. We are doing it for our souls," said Gruber, a 52-year-old reservist who commanded 20,000 men during the campaign. "We were in Gaza with a laser-like knife. We risked our lives to avoid collateral damage."
His talk focused chiefly on military affairs — it was called "Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces" — and, aside from his comments on the Goldstone report, he refused to discuss political matters, such as recent failed American efforts to entice Israel to enact another temporary moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank.
Video and Other Evidence
Officially, Israel decided not to cooperate with the investigation, arguing that the effort was biased from the start. But unofficially, Gruber said, the Israeli army supplied the U.N. team with video and other documentary evidence.
At Mikveh Israel, Gruber showed a video clip that he said he shared with the Goldstone team. The footage showed a rocket being fired from a Gaza City mosque that was later destroyed by the Israelis. The report stated the mosque was hit needlessly.
"He got everything, even with footnotes," said Gruber, suggesting that the South African jurist Richard Goldstone, whose name the report bears, must have had his own agenda to produce such slanted conclusions.
Gruber, whose mother survived Auschwitz and a subsequent Nazi death march, echoed the oft-stated claim that Israel regularly fails at public relations. He said he often cringes when watching Israeli diplomats on television, speaking in halting English. (Gruber lives in Efrat, which, although close to Jerusalem, is in the West Bank.)
So the reservist and computer engineer, who also directs a nonprofit in Israel that serves disabled and seriously ill youth, decided to launch another career as a speaker.
Working largely on his own, he has given about 150 talks in the United States this year, many on college campuses, where some events were disrupted by anti- Israel activists.
The half-dozen or so speeches he's delivered in this region — at several synagogues, at Chabad of the Main Line and at the Perelman Day School's Saligman Middle School — were organized by Robin Moskow, a local booking agent. Benyamin Korn, the founder of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, organized the Mikveh Israel event, though it was done in conjunction with his Jewish Independent Talk Radio show.
Gruber said that the next time he's in Philadelphia, it won't be while college students are busy taking finals, so he can bring his message directly to the campus.
"I really believe," he said, "that we [Israel] protect all the Western world."