The Clenched Fist of the Phoenix
What made Israel burn Lebanon again? The decision to go to war hurled Israel’s economy into a wall, smashed the deterrent’ power of the country’s army, plunged its northern population into misery, and magnified the hatred felt towards it in the region – all without achieving Tel Aviv’s 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 the choice for war?
Some say it was 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 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 (see
Then, 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 growled. ‘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, perhaps, to live as rootless cosmopolitans.
Those who resisted learned how Moshe Dayan’s steel helmets and gun barrels provided their housing insurance. ‘If we try to search for the Arab it has no value, but if we harass the nearby village,’ Dayan 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 for most of the world that collectively punishing civilians is more of a provocation than a deterrent. But historically, the practice was effective in bowing the heads of one ethnic group: the Jews of old.
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 in Palestine because the only roles it offers them are stand-in victims in someone else’s psychodrama. The programme’s 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.
Soon, the memory of anti-Semitic persecutions will 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.
But on the bus stops of Tel Aviv, the posters bellowed a simpler message: ‘Together we will win’. The catch is that 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 journalist working in Tel Aviv. The first Jewish employee of Aljazeera.net and a four-year veteran of the BBC, Neslen has contributed to numerous periodicals over the years, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and Red Pepper. His first book, Occupied Minds: A journey through the Israeli psyche, was recently published by Pluto Press.
This piece originally appeared in Tikkun.