Sunday, January 18, 2009

Waltz with Bashir, Gaza, and Israeli Militarism

This week, the Israeli movie “Waltz with Bashir” won a Golden Globe for best foreign film. It is up for an Oscar as well.The movie has been highly acclaimed around the world for its exceptional animation as one of the most creative movies for years. Mazal Tov! So, what is the movie about? It is about a soldier who is trying to piece together his traumatic memories of the Lebanon War. The horrors of war and sense of moral compromise that wars bring are illustrated graphically.

Why am I mentioning this? Because here, yet again – even as we win awards around the world – Israel is portrayed and cast as a military nation, dedicated to violence, addicted to it. Likewise, last summer’s hit movie, “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (link), despite being a farce and a comedy, highlighted Israelis as military machines (as well as sex-obsessed and crude. The values of the Zohan movie have been discussed in this article.)

If this was only in the movies, I wouldn’t mind, but I believe that we are living in a generation where for a great number of people around the world, Israel is perceived as an aggressor, as a personification of the “blessing” to Esau – על חרבך תחיה – and not as a purveyor of morality, truth, wisdom, sensitivity and the like. The word Israel is synonymous with war. See this interesting blog piece by Treppenwitz (link) as he describes a visit to Sky News’ offices in Jerusalem. He pays attention to the art on the walls and what they say about Israel:

On the walls of their Jerusalem office are ten or twelve beautifully framed black & white photographs that are clearly supposed to demonstrate to a guest, the space's occupant's appreciation for the rich, multi-cultural tapestry that is Israel.
There are photos of Christians in and near the ancient Churches of Jerusalem... Muslims (including crying children) near mosques and in pastoral settings, and of course Jews... mostly in prayer:

Jew photo #1- A close-up of a hand holding an open siddur (Hebrew prayer book) with a sub-machine gun in soft focus on a table in the near background, within easy reach.

Jew photo #2- An Israeli soldier wrapped in tallit and tefillin praying in front of an enormous battle tank (not the famous one from sukkot taken during the Yom Kippur war).

Jew photo #3 - An Israeli soldier wearing a helmet and holding an assault rifle next to his face, peering around a corner of a stone building as if trying to line up a difficult shot.

After viewing the first two images of Jewish Israelis, an observer could be forgiven for assuming that the soldiers were praying, not to G-d, but to the tools of war before them. And the third photograph does nothing to dispel the notion of Jewish Israelis as an entirely militaristic society.

Whereas we within Israeli society perceive ourselves as peace loving and gentle, as interested in furthering our society, Israeli technology, poetry and the like, the outside view frequently looks upon Israel as aggressive, militaristic and violent.


Now some will say that the world likes Jews as docile and powerless. They are disturbed to see a Jew in a position of force and domination. If this is true, then possibly this feeling has Christian roots, in that Christianity believed in the destiny of the Jews as a degraded, displaced and shameful people. Christian doctrine sought to subject the Jews to humiliation and disgrace. And indeed, Zionism came to change that. The notion of the fighting Jew is central to Zionism. The idea that we can take care of ourselves is a cardinal principle of the modern State of Israel.

As Dominic Lawson put it last week in The Times: (link)

I was startled by the monument that stands at the entrance to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s memorial to the Holocaust. One side of Nathan Rappaport’s diptych is what looks like a caricature of Jews. The hunched, twisted figures, with hooked noses and heavy-lidded eyes, seem devoid of physical energy. The other panel displays a group of heroic young men and women who are heavily muscled, standing tall, weapons at the ready.

It turns out that the first group is meant to depict Jews being marched to their deaths, while the second is the leaders of the Warsaw uprising; the whole monument is constructed of granite imported from Sweden by the Nazis for the construction of what was meant to be one of the Third Reich’s victory towers.

The message is in fact close to the view expressed with brutal clarity by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion: “That masses of exiled Jews walked to the death trains . . . silently, stupidly . . . is a decisive, embarrassing and painful statement of the disintegration of spiritual-ethical strength. What is their place among us?” Ben-Gurion envisaged that “new Jews”, with the security of their own nation state, would erase what he saw as the shameful memory of a “submissive, lowly camp of strange creatures . . . who know only how to arouse pity”.

In short, Israel decided that it would represent the empowered Jew, the fighting Jew.


But after the fighting in Gaza, after any fighting, I always experience a personal backswing. After listening to and reading the foreign media, I am disturbed by this military personification of Israel. Is that our message to the nations? Is that our legacy?

I recall how Rabbi Jakobovits, a man who I admired, spoke out against excessive militarism in Israeli society. He warned of the ethically corrosive nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict, of the moral compromise that is war. He insisted that we keep in mind even our enemies suffering: “Compassion extends to all who suffer, even our enemies.” He was deeply disturbed that Israel was one of the world’s major arms exporters, trading in death. He spoke of how we were meant to export “Torah from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” rather than tools of destruction.

We have just been to war. Let there be no doubt about it, this war has been justified absolutely. We have engaged in a battle against an amoral enemy which doesn’t balk at using women and children, schools and mosques as weapon launching pads, as arms stores. These people have perfected the demonic art of the “Human shield” uncaring as to how many will die as they seek to achieve their hallowed goal of destroying the “Zionist Entity.” As Nassrallah said some years back:

"We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death."

He said it! This culture of Hamas and Hizbolla is evil personified. This is the culture of Molech. This is the ideology of suicide bombers and people who let miserable refugees fester in hatred, despair and squalor rather than allowing them rehabilitation, hope, life, a future. In this regard, this war has been a supremely moral war, the sons of light against the sons of darkness, hatred and death.

And yet, at the same time, we have now killed over 1000 people, many of them innocent; so many children. How do we regain our sensitivity to life? Morality needs hard work in times like this. How do we ensure that the bullets of war do not warp and twist our moral direction? How do we refine our ethical compass so that we educate our children to love life and to understand that human life is still ultimately sacred?

I recall the famous Midrash quoted in the name of our patriarch Jacob. As he prepared for battle when his life and the lives of his family were threatened, the Torah tells us:

“Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed.”

Rashi elaborates:

“Greatly afraid: that he might be killed; Distressed: That he may kill other people.”

In war, we have to protect ourselves, we must know that our first priority is to protect our people. However woe to us if we lose that worry, that concern with the lives of others. We may not delude ourselves that our right to defense is a license to kill. We must retain a sensitivity to the life of our enemy. Furthermore, we must understand that even when we kill justifiably, the act of killing desensitizes us and darkens us. We do not remain unaffected.

My feeling is that in the dialectic between War and Peace, between sensitivity and softness on the one hand, and aggression and violence on the other, in the excruciating dance between the hand reaching for the gun, and alternatively, extending it in Peace, we are in need of a rebalance. Not for the world, not for the media or the UN or international opinion; No! - for ourselves! We need to teach our children to preserve, to love and protect life; Not only our own lives, but the lives of the children in Gaza, as well.

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