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Yitzhak Laor: You are terrorists, we are virtuous

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    You are terrorists, we are virtuous Yitzhak Laor LRB | Vol. 28 No. 16 17 August 2006 As soon as the facts of the Bint Jbeil ambush, which ended with relatively
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 13, 2006
      You are terrorists, we are virtuous
      Yitzhak Laor
      LRB | Vol. 28 No. 16
      17 August 2006


      As soon as the facts of the Bint Jbeil ambush, which ended with
      relatively high Israeli casualties (eight soldiers died there),
      became public, the press and television in Israel began
      marginalising any opinion that was critical of the war. The media
      also fell back on the kitsch to which Israelis grow accustomed from
      childhood: the most menacing army in the region is described here as
      if it is David against an Arab Goliath. Yet the Jewish Goliath has
      sent Lebanon back 20 years, and Israelis themselves even further: we
      now appear to be a lynch- mob culture, glued to our televisions,
      incited by a premier whose "leadership" is being launched and
      legitimised with rivers of fire and destruction on both sides of the
      border. Mass psychology works best when you can pinpoint an
      institution or a phenomenon with which large numbers of people
      identify. Israelis identify with the IDF, and even after the deaths
      of many Lebanese children in Qana, they think that stopping the war
      without scoring a definitive victory would amount to defeat. This
      logic reveals our national psychosis, and it derives from our over-
      identification with Israeli military thinking.

      In the melodramatic barrage fired off by the press, the army is
      assigned the dual role of hero and victim. And the enemy? In Hebrew
      broadcasts the formulations are always the same: on the one
      hand "we", "ours", "us"; on the other, Nasrallah and Hizbullah.
      There aren't, it seems, any Lebanese in this war. So who is dying
      under Israeli fire? Hizbullah. And if we ask about the Lebanese? The
      answer is always that Israel has no quarrel with Lebanon. It�s yet
      another illustration of our unilateralism, the thundering Israeli
      battle-cry for years: no matter what happens around us, we have the
      power and therefore we can enforce the logic. If only Israelis could
      see the damage that's been done by all these years of unilateral
      thinking. But we cannot, because the army - which has always been
      the core of the state - determines the shape of our lives and the
      nature of our memories, and wars like this one erase everything we
      thought we knew, creating a new version of history with which we can
      only concur. If the army wins, its success becomes part of "our
      heritage". Israelis have assimilated the logic and the language of
      the IDF - and in the process, they have lost their memories. Is
      there a better way to understand why we have never learned from
      history? We have never been a match for the army, whose memory - the
      official Israeli memory - is hammered into place at the centre of
      our culture by an intelligentsia in the service of the IDF and the
      state.

      The IDF is the most powerful institution in Israeli society, and
      one which we are discouraged from criticising. Few have studied the
      dominant role it plays in the Israeli economy. Even while they are
      still serving, our generals become friendly with the US companies
      that sell arms to Israel; they then retire, loaded with money, and
      become corporate executives. The IDF is the biggest customer for
      everything and anything in Israel. In addition, our high-tech
      industries are staffed by a mixture of military and ex-military who
      work closely with the Western military complex. The current war is
      the first to become a branding opportunity for one of our largest
      mobile phone companies, which is using it to run a huge promotional
      campaign. Israel's second biggest bank, Bank Leumi, used inserts in
      the three largest newspapers to distribute bumper stickers
      saying: "Israel is powerful." The military and the universities are
      intimately linked too, with joint research projects and an array of
      army scholarships.

      There is no institution in Israel that can approach the army�s
      ability to disseminate images and news or to shape a national
      political class and an academic elite or to produce memory, history,
      value, wealth, desire. This is the way identification becomes
      entrenched: not through dictatorship or draconian legislation, but
      by virtue of the fact that the country's most powerful institution
      gets its hands on every citizen at the age of 18. The majority of
      Israelis identify with the army and the army reciprocates by
      consolidating our identity, especially when it is - or we are -
      waging war.

      The IDF didn't play any role in either of the Gulf wars and may
      not play a part in Bush's pending war in Iran, but it is on
      permanent alert for the real war that is always just round the
      corner. Meanwhile, it harasses Palestinians in the West Bank and
      Gaza, to very destructive effect. (In July it killed 176
      Palestinians, most of them from the same area in Gaza, in
      a "policing" operation that included the destruction of houses and
      infrastructure.) They shoot. They abduct. They use F-16s against
      refugee camps, tanks against shacks and huts. For years they have
      operated in this way against gangs and groups of armed youths and
      children, and they call it a war, a "just war", vital for our
      existence. The power of the army to produce meanings, values, desire
      is perfectly illustrated by its handling of the Palestinians, but it
      would not be possible without the support of the left in Israel.

      The mainstream left has never seriously tried to oppose the
      military. The notion that we had no alternative but to attack
      Lebanon and that we cannot stop until we have finished the job:
      these are army-sponsored truths, decided by the military and
      articulated by state intellectuals and commentators. So are most
      other descriptions of the war, such as the Tel Aviv academic Yossef
      Gorni's statement in Haaretz, that "this is our second war of
      independence." The same sort of nonsense was written by the same
      kind of people when the 2000 intifada began. That was also a war
      about our right to exist, our "second 1948". These descriptions
      would not have stood a chance if Zionist left intellectuals - solemn
      purveyors of the "morality of war" - hadn't endorsed them.

      Military thinking has become our only thinking. The wish for
      superiority has become the need to have the upper hand in every
      aspect of relations with our neighbours. The Arabs must be crippled,
      socially and economically, and smashed militarily, and of course
      they must then appear to us in the degraded state to which we�ve
      reduced them. Our usual way of looking at them is borrowed from our
      intelligence corps, who "translate" them and interpret them, but
      cannot recognise them as human beings. Israelis long ago ceased to
      be distressed by images of sobbing women in white scarves, searching
      for the remains of their homes in the rubble left by our soldiers.
      We think of them much as we think of chickens or cats. We turn away
      without much trouble and consider the real issue: the enemy. The
      Katyusha missiles that have been hitting the north of the country
      are launched without "discrimination", and in this sense Hizbullah
      is guilty of a war crime, but the recent volleys of Katyushas were a
      response to the frenzied assault on Lebanon. To the large majority
      of Israelis, however, all the Katyushas prove is what a good and
      necessary thing we have done by destroying our neighbours again: the
      enemy is indeed dangerous, it's just as well we went to war. The
      thinking becomes circular and the prophecies self-fulfilling.
      Israelis are fond of saying: "The Middle East is a jungle, where
      only might speaks." See Qana, and Gaza, or Beirut.

      Defenders of Israel and its leaders can always argue that the US
      and Britain behave similarly in Iraq. (It is true that Olmert and
      his colleagues would not have acted so shamelessly if the US had not
      been behind them. Had Bush told them to hold their fire, they
      wouldn't have dared to move a single tank.) But there is a major
      difference. The US and Britain went to war in Iraq without public
      opinion behind them. Israel went to war in Lebanon, after a border
      incident which it exploited in order to destroy a country, with the
      overwhelming support of Israelis, including the members of what the
      European press calls the "peace camp".

      Amos Oz, on 20 July, when the destruction of Lebanon was already
      well underway, wrote in the Evening Standard: "This time, Israel is
      not invading Lebanon. It is defending itself from a daily harassment
      and bombardment of dozens of our towns and villages by attempting to
      smash Hizbullah wherever it lurks." Nothing here is distinguishable
      from Israeli state pronouncements. David Grossman wrote in the
      Guardian, again on 20 July, as if he were unaware of any bombardment
      in Lebanon: "There is no justification for the large-scale violence
      that Hizbullah unleashed this week, from Lebanese territory, on
      dozens of peaceful Israeli villages, towns and cities. No country in
      the world could remain silent and abandon its citizens when its
      neighbour strikes without any provocation." We can bomb, but if they
      respond they are responsible for both their suffering and ours. And
      it's important to remember that "our suffering" is that of poor
      people in the north who cannot leave their homes easily or
      quickly. "Our suffering" is not that of the decision-makers or their
      friends in the media. Oz also wrote that "there can be no moral
      equation between Hizbullah and Israel. Hizbullah is targeting
      Israeli civilians wherever they are, while Israel is targeting
      mostly Hizbullah." At that time more than 300 Lebanese had been
      killed and 600 had been injured. Oz went on: "The Israeli peace
      movement should support Israel's attempt at self-defence, pure and
      simple, as long as this operation targets mostly Hizbullah and
      spares, as much as possible, the lives of Lebanese civilians (this
      is not always an easy task, as Hizbullah missile-launchers often use
      Lebanese civilians as human sandbags)."

      The truth behind this is that Israel must always be allowed to
      do as it likes even if this involves scorching its supremacy into
      Arab bodies. This supremacy is beyond discussion and it is simple to
      the point of madness. We have the right to abduct. You don't. We
      have the right to arrest. You don't. You are terrorists. We are
      virtuous. We have sovereignty. You don't. We can ruin you. You
      cannot ruin us, even when you retaliate, because we are tied to the
      most powerful nation on earth. We are angels of death.

      The Lebanese will not remember everything about this war. How
      many atrocities can a person keep in mind, how much helplessness can
      he or she admit, how many massacres can people tell their children
      about, how many terrorised escapes from burning houses, without
      becoming a slave to memory? Should a child keep a leaflet written by
      the IDF in Arabic, in which he is told to leave his home before it's
      bombed? I cannot urge my Lebanese friends to remember the crimes my
      state and its army have committed in Lebanon.

      Israelis, however, have no right to forget. Too many people here
      supported the war. It wasn't just the nationalist religious
      settlers. It's always easy to blame the usual suspects for our
      misdemeanours: the scapegoating of religious fanatics has allowed us
      to ignore the role of the army and its advocates within the Zionist
      left. This time we have seen just how strongly the "moderates" are
      wedded to immoderation, even though they knew, before it even
      started, that this would be a war against suburbs and crowded areas
      of cities, small towns and defenceless villages. The model was our
      army's recent actions in Gaza: Israeli moderates found these
      perfectly acceptable.

      It was a mistake for those of us who are unhappy with our
      country's policies to breathe a sigh of relief after the army
      withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. We thought that the names of Sabra
      and Shatila would do all the memorial work that needed to be done
      and that they would stand, metonymically, for the crimes committed
      in Lebanon by Israel. But, with the withdrawal from Gaza, many
      Israelis who should be opposing this war started to think of Ariel
      Sharon, the genius of Sabra and Shatila, as a champion of peace. The
      logic of unilateralism - of which Sharon was the embodiment - had at
      last prevailed: Israelis are the only people who count in the Middle
      East; we are the only ones who deserve to live here.

      This time we must try harder to remember. We must remember the
      crimes of Olmert, and of our minister of justice, Haim Ramon, who
      championed the destruction of Lebanese villages after the ambush at
      Bint Jbeil, and of the army chief of staff, Dan Halutz. Their names
      should be submitted to The Hague so they can be held accountable.

      Elections are a wholly inadequate form of accountability in
      Israel: the people we kill and maim and ruin cannot vote here. If we
      let our memories slacken now, the machine-memory will reassert
      control and write history for us. It will glide into the vacuum
      created by our negligence, with the civilised voice of Amos Oz
      easing its path, and insert its own version. And suddenly we will
      not be able to explain what we know, even to our own children.

      In Israel there is still no proper history of our acts in
      Lebanon. Israelis in the peace camp used to carry posters with the
      figure "680" on them - the number of Israelis who died during the
      1982 invasion. Six hundred and eighty Israeli soldiers. How many
      members of that once sizeable peace camp protested about the tens of
      thousands of Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian casualties? Isn't the
      failure of the peace camp a result of its inability to speak about
      the cheapness of Arab blood? General Udi Adam, one of the architects
      of the current war, has told Israelis that we shouldn't count the
      dead. He meant this very seriously and Israelis should take him
      seriously. We should make it our business to count the dead in
      Lebanon and in Israel and, to the best of our abilities, to find out
      their names, all of them.


      Yitzhak Laor lives in Tel Aviv.

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