The death of Israel’s ‘shooting and crying’ soldierGabriel Piterberg is a professor of history and the author, most recently, of “The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel, London and New York.” This is a longer version of a comment that recently appeared in the London Review of Books.
Not heeding Hegel’s dictum that scholars, like Minerva’s owl, ought to await dusk before spreading their wings, I would venture that Israel’s ferocious onslaught on Gaza’s Palestinians might deliver a coup de grace to one of the most effective tools in its propaganda kit: the image of the morally handsome, “shooting and crying” Israeli soldier.
Three weeks after the 1967 Mideast war, the secular kibbutz member Avraham Shapira and Amos Oz, then a rising young author, were summoned to Labour Party headquarters. They were asked to make the demobilized soldiers from the kibbutzim break the wall of silence and discuss their war experience. Titled “Soldiers’ Talk” (“Siah Lohamim”), the collection of interviews they edited was a national and international success. It was translated into several European languages — never mind that the interviews were not infrequently manipulated.
The book, which forged the image of the handsome, dilemma-ridden, existentially soul-searching Israeli soldier, was a hymn to that frightening oxymoron — “purity of arms” and the ideal of an exalted Jewish morality. It was also a kind of central casting from which Oz drew many of his fictional protagonists.
Not surprisingly, the book became an invaluable propaganda tool. In a well-attended gathering in the United States, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (then ambassador to the U.S.) and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel read passages from the book “in order to present the Israeli soldier’s profile,” according to one account.
The book also elicited self-righteous and self-congratulatory pronouncements from some sanctimonious figures. “We are fortunate to have been blessed with such sons,” declared Golda Meir. “It’s a shame that no one has seen to its translation in all the languages of the world,” said Wiesel a year later. The latest version of “Soldiers’ Talk,” in terms of register and success, is Ari Folman’s 2008 Golden Globe award-winning animated documentary film “Waltz with Bashir.”
Given the might of Israel’s warriors and the vulnerability of their targets, now that the country no longer engages in wars against other state armies and has justified its nickname (Israel Occupation Force), the shooting and crying image is hard to keep alive.
At the same time, it no longer matters in the way it once did. For political and military elites in Israel, and the War on Terror constituency in the U.S., the killing of Arabs and Muslims no longer requires any weeping or soul-searching. It’s just something freedom-loving people do.
But there’s another reason for the image’s fading appeal. The Israeli social stratum for which the image was existentially crucial has not only lost hegemony, it has been severely marginalized. The war adulation displayed by pro-Israel demonstrators in Los Angeles recently is horrifying, but you couldn’t call it hypocritical.
Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, the attack on Gaza will be seen as the excessive viciousness of a colonial power running out of ideas – not unlike France in the final stage of the Algerian war.