Israel’s Other War
In the past week I’ve seen and heard the popular statement “let the I.D.F. win” more and more frequently. It’s been posted on social media, spray-painted on walls, and chanted in demonstrations. Lots of young people are quoting it on Facebook, and they seem to think it’s a phrase that arose in response to the current military operation in Gaza. But I’m old enough to remember how it evolved: first formulated as a bumper sticker, and later turning into a mantra. Of course, this slogan is not addressed to Hamas or to the international community—it’s intended for Israelis, and it contains within it the twisted world view that has been guiding Israel for the past twelve years.
The first erroneous assumption it contains is that there are some people in Israel who are preventing the Army from winning. These supposed saboteurs could be me, my neighbor, or any other person who questions the premise and purpose of this war. All these weirdos, daring to ask questions or raise concerns regarding the conduct of our government, tying our military’s capable hands with nagging op-eds and defeatist calls for humanity and empathy, are allegedly the only thing separating the I.D.F. from a perfect victory.
The second, much more dangerous idea that this slogan contains is that the I.D.F. actually could win. “We’re prepared to receive all these missiles non-stop,” many southern-Israelis keep saying on the news, “as long as we can finish this, once and for all.”
Twelve years, five operations against Hamas (four of them in Gaza), and still we have this same convoluted slogan. Young men who were only first-graders during Operation Defensive Shield are now soldiers invading Gaza by land. In each of these operations there have been right-wing politicians and military commentators who pointed out that “this time we’ll have to pull all the stops, take it all the way, until the end.” Watching them on television, I can’t help but ask myself, What is this end they’re striving toward? Even if each and every Hamas fighter is taken out, does anyone truly believe that the Palestinian people’s aspiration for national independence will disappear with them? Before Hamas, we fought against the P.L.O., and after Hamas, assuming, hopefully, that we’re still around, we’ll probably find ourselves fighting against another Palestinian organization. The Israeli military can win the battles, but peace and quiet for the citizens of Israel will only be achieved through political compromise. But this, according to the patriotic powers running the current war, is something that we’re not supposed to say, because this kind of talk is precisely what’s stopping the I.D.F. from winning. Ultimately, when this operation is over and the tally is taken of the many dead bodies, on our side and theirs, the accusing finger will once again be pointed at us, the saboteurs.
In 2014, in Israel, the definition of legitimate discourse has changed entirely. Discussion is divided between those who are “pro-I.D.F.” and those who are against it. Right-wing thugs chanting “death to Arabs” and “death to leftists” on the streets of Jerusalem or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s call to boycott Arab-Israeli businesses protesting the operation in Gaza are considered patriotic, while demands to stop the operation or mere expressions of empathy about the deaths of women and children in Gaza are perceived as a betrayal against flag and country. We are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism, and lack of empathy mean love of the homeland, while any other opinion—especially one that does not encourage the use of power and the loss of soldiers’ lives—is nothing less than an attempt to destroy Israel as we know it.
At times it seems that there are two wars going on. On one front, the military is battling against Hamas. On the other, a government minister, who called Arab colleagues “terrorists” on the floor of the Knesset, and hooligans who intimidate peace activists on social media, jointly persecute “the enemy within”: anyone who speaks differently. There is no doubt that Hamas is posing a threat to our safety and to our children’s safety, but can the same thing be said about entertainers such as the comedian Orna Banai, the singer Achinoam Nini, or my wife, the film director Shira Geffen, all of whom were vilified in hateful and menacing ways when they publicly expressed dismay about the deaths of Palestinian children? Do the extreme attacks against them constitute another defense necessary for our survival, or are they merely a dark outburst of hate and rage? Are we really so weak and scared that any opinion that differs from the consensus must be muted, lest it provoke death threats against not only those voicing it, but their children as well?
Many people tried to convince me not to publish this piece. “You have a little boy,” one of my friends told me last night. “Sometimes it’s better to be smart than to be right.” I’ve never been right, and I must not be too smart, either, but I am willing to fight for my right to express my opinion with the same ferocity that the I.D.F. is now showing in Gaza. This war is not about my own personal opinion, which may be wrong or pathetic. It’s for this place where I live, and which I love.
On August 10, 2006, near the end of the Second Lebanon War, the writers Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman held a press conference in which they urged the government to reach an immediate ceasefire. I was in a taxi and heard the report on the radio. The driver said, “What do those pieces of shit want, huh? They don’t like the Hezbollah suffering? These assholes want nothing more than to hate our country.” Five days later, David Grossman buried his son in the military plot at the Mount Herzl cemetery. Apparently that “piece of shit” wanted a few other things than to hate this country. Most importantly, he wanted his son, like so many other young men who were killed in those last, superfluous days of fighting, to come home alive.
It’s an awful thing to make a truly tragic mistake, one that costs many lives. It’s worse to make that same mistake over and over again. Four operations in Gaza, an immense number of Israeli and Palestinian hearts that have stopped beating, and we keep ending up in the same place. The only thing that actually changes is Israeli society’s tolerance for criticism. It’s become clear during this operation that the right wing has lost its patience in all matters regarding that elusive term, “freedom of speech.” In the past two weeks, we’ve seen right wingers beating left wingers with clubs, Facebook messages promising to send left-wing activists to the gas chambers, and denunciations of anyone whose opinion delays the military on its way to victory. It turns out that this bloody road we walk from operation to operation is not as cyclical as we may have once thought. This road is not a circle, it’s a downward spiral, leading to new lows, which, I’m sad to say, we’ll be unlucky enough to experience.
Written by Etgar Keret, published in Hebrew in Yediot Ahronot.