Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Arthur Neslen: The Clenched Fist of the Phoenix

I subscribe to Tikkun’s print edition and heartily recommend it. One of many things that stands out in this article is the reminder than Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, sabotaged peace negotiations for a prisoner exchange in July. Neslen is adept at capturing the Israeli national psyche and his book Occupied Minds is well worth looking out for.

The Clenched Fist of the Phoenix

Tikkun | 26 August 2006

What made Israel burn Lebanon again? The decision to go to war eviscerated the Israeli economy, smashed the ‘deterrent’ power of its country’s army, caused misery to its northern population, and magnified the hatred felt towards it in the region – all without achieving its stated goals.

Mishandled, the July 12th Hezbollah raid that seized two Israeli soldiers could certainly have brought down the government. But the incident was no unprecedented failure of Israeli deterrence. Hezbollah had been trying to capture Israeli soldiers in cross-border raids all year. Israel’s government had a choice in how they responded this time.

Why did it choose war?

In part, it was probably responding to a message from its sponsor. Charles Krauthammer, the doyen of U.S. neo-cons wrote in the Washington Post of Israel’s ‘rare opportunity to demonstrate what it can do for its great American patron’. Washington’s ‘green light for Israel’ was no favour, he said. ‘America wants, America needs, a decisive Hezbollah defeat’. But why pursue this objective by force of arms, at the cost of hundreds of lives, before even considering the diplomatic option that was available from day one?

Partly because Israeli society holds a longstanding inclination towards employing overwhelming force – preferably involving collective punishment – whenever an Arab force militarily defies it.

But where does this prejudice come from, and why has it proved so pernicious?

A hint of the answer came on June 26th, a day after the Shin Bet brutally squashed a religious peace initiative aimed at resolving Israel’s other ‘existential’ crisis in Gaza. Shabak officers detained Hamas MK Muhammed Abu Tir and Palestinian Minister for Jerusalem, Khaled Abu Arafa and warned them off attending a press conference with a delegation of senior Rabbis, where they had been due to issue a joint call for a ceasefire, prisoner release, and negotiations.

The following day, Amir Peretz, Israel’s Defense Minister, explained why a military response to the seizure of Corporal Gilad Shalit in Kerem Shalom was needed. ‘I will not permit the blood of our citizens to be shed,’ he said. ‘Our hand is open for peace, but closed into a fist in the face of terror.’

Peretz’ use of the ‘clenched fist’ metaphor was telling. In Jewish lore, it traces back to a song the Jewish Partisans sang as they marched through the forests towards Warsaw:

‘We strike like the wolf strikes,
We come like the wind and are gone,
And the fascist feels our clenched fist,
Our clenched fist, our clenched fist…’

The clenched fist allegory evokes two defining characteristics of Israeli Jewish identity, eternal victimhood and its Zionist riposte, the ‘new Jew’. Early Zionist leaders such as David Ben Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Arthur Ruppin were anxious to construct Israeli national identity around this unyielding and aggressive prototype. Nordau called it ‘muscular Judaism’.

Revulsion at the victimhood of the ‘trembling ghetto Jew’, weak, stooped and debased by two millennia in exile, fed its modish alter-ego: a robust and virile Israeli, implacable, resolute, and tied to the soil by blood.

Zionist groups had not been distinguished in their physical resistance to anti-Semites in Europe but they were gladiatorial in their assaults on Palestinian communities. Moshe Dayan was frank about it: ‘We are a generation of settlers and without the steel helmet and gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house.” The settlers’ houses and allotments mushroomed – at the expense of a people without a land who, forced from their homes and denied civic rights, were to be holed up behind ghetto walls or else exiled into an Arab Diaspora, there to live as rootless cosmopolitans Ironically, the new Israelis who hitched tents in their place dispensed with the cultural and religious roots that had sustained them for two millennia in exile. Outnumbered by a hostile and undifferentiated Arab mass at every border, they increasingly shed the universalist traditions of Hillel that nourished those roots too.

In the 1950s, for example, Dayan described how his army reacted to Palestinian mine-planters: ‘If we try to search for the Arab it has no value, but if we harass the nearby village,’ he said ‘then the population there comes out against the [infiltrators]. The method of collective punishment so far has proved effective.’

Today, it is a common sense notion that the collective punishment of civilian populations is more of a provocation than a deterrent. But historically, it was effective in bowing the heads of one ethnic group: the old Jews.

During the 1648 Chmielnitzki pogroms, which claimed around 250,000 Jewish lives, for instance, the Jews of Tulczyn refused to even attack the Polish nobles who had betrayed them to the Cossacks. Their community elders had told them: ‘We are in exile among the nations. If you lay hands upon the nobles, then all kings of Christianity will hear of it and take revenge on all our brethren in the exile.’

Eventually, the Zionist movement placed the blame for such catastrophes on the lack of any European territory from which to organise self-defence. But no Arab can get with their liberation programme because the only roles it offers them are stand-in victims in someone else’s psychodrama. Its mitigating plea, the narrative of a Phoenix state rising from six million ashes, came at a heavy price – for Jews too.

As successive waves of migrants arrived in the holy land, the “new Jew” trope required them to prove their worth as Israelis. Holocaust survivors became the most merciless warriors of 1948; Arab Jews, the most fearful anti-Arab racists. The meek Orthodox establishment won their spurs as gun-toting hilltop bigots, while Russians today flock to Avigdor Liebermann’s Yisrael Beitenu party of ethnic cleansing. They marched there all with fingernails piercing their palms.

The fruits of their labors, as in the Balkans, fed a circular culture of self-righteous justification for further aggression. As Misha Glenny once wrote of young nationalists in Croatia: ‘All of them had the ”look,” which one encounters all over Eastern Europe and particularly in the Balkans. Translated, the ”look” means: ”We are the most oppressed nation in Eastern Europe, but the time has now come to display our superior cultural values. By the way, we know you are a subversive Western liberal determined to slander us with accusations of anti-Semitism and neo-fascism.”

Substitute ‘Middle East’ for ‘Eastern Europe’ and ‘anti-Arab racism’ for ‘anti-Semitism’ and you will find a similar visage etched on the huddled youths of Haifa’s bunkers who, once transformed into IAF pilots, pulverise inferior Arab hordes from the air. These are the new Israeli soldiers that would ‘never again go like sheep to the slaughter’ as Ariel Sharon put it the last time Israel invaded Lebanon. Instead, they sheepishly followed their leader to Sabra and Shatila.

Almost no one in Israel has been allowed to remain innocent. When uniforms provide the last line of existential defense, who wouldn’t identify with military aesthetics? ‘Here, soldiers are not just private people, like those blown up on a bus, each one to himself,’ Yossi Sarid wrote in Ha’aretz. ‘Soldiers are also the collective that sheds blood from the national reservoir. When soldiers are killed, it’s as if our protective gear has come undone and we are all more exposed. Soon there will be no one to protect us.’

Soon, the memory of anti-Semitic persecutions will also dim. In Israel they have already merged with 1948, 1967 and the country’s subsequent wars as battles for the survival of the Jewish people. Together they now form a powerful assumed collective memory, with its own tabloid shorthand that can be invoked at will.

On July 12th, for example, the mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Maariv compared Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to Hitler, saying that it left Israel with ‘one choice: To respond with might, in one fell swoop, unless it does not wish to live!’ The resonance with Menachem Begin’s justification for carpet bombing Beirut in 1982 was unavoidable. Then, Begin had compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler, hiding in a bunker surrounded by civilians.

For most of the 34 days of war, Israel’s political leadership was sophisticated enough to speak the lingo of US soundbites. As torn bodies were pulled from the Lebanese wreckage , Ehud Olmert talked of a national moment ‘of transcendence, of purification’ while the chief of the Northern Command, Major General Udi Adam, suggested not counting the dead.

On the bus stops of Tel Aviv, the posters simply bellowed ‘Together we will win’, while the bar for ‘winning’ was lowered by the hour. But even victory would not staunch the pain of the new Jew, whose raison d’etre is a misplaced fight against terrifying ghosts that remind him from whence he has come.

Safer to say the phoenix will prevail, and each time more barbaric. For the poisoned bird of prey feeds on the hatred it creates as it hovers above the ruins, unable to fly, its talons clenched and bloody, its screech of ‘a nation’s right to self-defence’ an agonised cry for help that might better translate as ‘Stop me before I kill again’.

Washington listens, and sends more bombs.

Arthur Neslen is a freelance journalist and author based in Tel Aviv. The first Jewish employee of Al-Jazeera and a four-year veteran of the BBC, Neslen has contributed to numerous periodicals over the years, including The Guardian, The Observer, Red Pepper and The Independent. His first book, Occupied Minds: A Journey Through the Israeli Psyche, is available from Pluto.

One comment on “Arthur Neslen: The Clenched Fist of the Phoenix

  1. ressentiment
    2 December, 2006

    President Carter says that it is a small minority of Israelis who are interested in keeping the territories for Israel. I wish that were true. What Israeli Jews want has much less impact than what American Jews want. They are the ones who are ensuring that Israel has the financial means to perpetrate this crimes and who encourage American politicians to keep quiet about it. Lobby or no lobby the results are the same. Palestinian kids are being killed by American gunships and American tax dollars. And the root cause of it is quite clear. It is America’s inability to make a distinction between Judaism and Zionism and to thus to call a spade a spade.

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"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
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