David and Goliath

[I am a posting some autobiographical blogs, I hope towards writing a book about how my ideas and beliefs about Israel-Palestine and the conflict have evolved over the years. I might start here.]

“When David killed Goliath it was God’s doing. When Israel won the War of Independence, it was God’s doing.” That is how I remember the start of the essay I wrote about Israel in 1972, aged eleven, for which I won the Leon and Bertha Gradel Israel essay prize at King David Junior School in Manchester. My good memory at that age plays an important role in the story of the prize, which I was invited to read out an evening dinner for the school governors. I was terrified by the prospect and rehearsed a lot, carrying the essay around with me in the days leading up to the event. On the afternoon of the dinner, I realized when I arrived home that I had left the single copy of my text at school. When my father came home from work, he took me to the school in the hope of finding the caretaker to let us in, but there was no sign of him. So, I sat down to rewrite the essay, drawing as best I could on memory, filling in the gaps with equally florid prose where there were gaps. I spent the evening stuck as closely as possible to my two peers – both girls – who were also at the dinner, so closely that they went to the toilet to shake me off for a while. Needless to say, I made no mention that I was not reading out the actual prize-winning version when called up to the stage to speak. The following day our class teacher, the inspiring and much-loved Mrs. Abrahams, asked me how the reading had gone. When I told her and the whole class about forgetting the text in my desk, she was prompted to call one of the two local Jewish weekly newspapers [check cutting at Dad’s] , which published the story. We omitted just one detail, which was that my father and I had found an open outside door at the school but my classroom door was locked, my desk frustratingly close to it. There was no need to embarrass the caretaker.

On the left is Osmar Schindler’s 1888 painting “David and Goliath.” On the right is 15-year-old Faris Odeh throwing a rock at an Israeli tank during the Second Intifada. He was killed by the Israelis ten days after this picture was taken. Source: Beirut Today

The opening trope of the essay, of Israel as the David to its aggressive and monstrous Arab, non-Jewish neighbours, indicates how deeply I had absorbed a religiously-framed mythical Zionist narrative about the righteousness of the birth of the State of Israel. According to that narrative, Israel was. like David, relatively small and ill-equipped, the young Jewish underdog bravely standing alone against the might of the states of the Arab League, standing in for the Biblical Phillistines, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who invaded the newly-declared state on May 15th 1948. So outnumbered and overwhelmed was Israel that it was miraculous that it not only survived but triumphed over its enemies, just as in the First Book of Samuel David accredits his victory to the living God, not to the “sword and spear.” So, it was not just any sort of Zionism with which I had been inculcated, but a religiously-tinged version that saw the hand of God at work in the creation of the State of Israel, just as in the Biblical stories. There could thus be no question about the justice of Jewish nationalism, any more than of the Israelites victory over the Phillistines, achieved “in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” (Book of Samuel 1, 17, 45).

The trope of Israel as David and the Arabs as Goliath is still current and potent. A book published in 2012 that posits Israel as the aggrieved party in the conflict, the victim of outrageous global media bias, uses the trope for its title. A blogger in 2019 similarly targets the “Goliath Arab propaganda machine” and bemoans its efforts to rob Israel of its victim-status as David: “we cannot let the Arab Propaganda machine steal the truth, including our very history and identity, and take Israel from the real David back to the evil Goliath.” Another similarly-titled recent book laments that Israel has lost its David status not only because of the size of the Arab and Muslim Goliath but also because of a new paradigm on the Left, a “race-consciousness in which the struggle of the third world against the West … replaced the older Marxist model of proletariat versus bourgeoisie.” Some people are just sore winners, oblivious to the immense power disparity between Israel and Palestinians. I could say more, but it’s not worth the trouble.

Not that I thought of my childhood essay at the time, but my experience of living in Jerusalem throughout the first intifada thoroughly dispelled the mythology of Israel as the small David and Palestinians as the giant Goliath. The uprising pitched mostly unarmed Palestinians in the Occupied Territories against Israel, the regional military superpower. Frequently, Palestinian youths – the Shabab – throwing stones or using catapults confronted and harried Israeli troops whose commanders were ill-prepared for handling a mass civilian uprising.  Although I had no television at home at the beginning of the intifada, I did not need to see live pictures of slingshots pitched against rifles and armored vehicles to understand that the typical media framing of the conflict had shifted and even been reversed in Israel as well as abroad, even in the USA, as noted by Ella Shohat in 1991. Palestinians became David and Israel Goliath. Perhaps the Palestinians did not have God on their side, as did David, but they certainly had justice on their side as the rebelled against illegitimate and unrelenting military rule.

2 thoughts on “David and Goliath

  1. Pingback: The trauma of October 1973 | Picturing Peace

  2. Pingback: David and Goliath, Part Two | Picturing Peace

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