Category Archives: Cinema

Remembering the Yom Kippur War by demanding peace

Scene from Amos Gitai's "Kippur" (2000)

Scene from Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” (2000)

Today (10/6/2013) marks the 40th anniversary of the 1973 October War fought between Israel on one side and Egypt and Syria on the other. The war is also known in Israel as the Yom Kippur war, because the Arab states launched a surprise attack on the Jewish Day of Atonement. At the time I was a 12 year old boy living in Manchester, England, and spent the day in Heaton Park Synagogue, a nominally Orthodox institution, most of whose members were non-observant. By 1973 I went to the club house of Habonim, a Labour Zionist youth movement, twice a week (along with my two older siblings), and after being a pupil at King David Primary school for seven years I was thoroughly immersed in a Zionist environment that resonated with my home life, where souvenirs from Israel adorned the walls and the Hebrew records played on the hi-fi. So, when Israel was attacked, I took it personally. If Israel was in danger, so was I.

I find it instructive to return to my feelings of forty years ago, because though now strange to me, they are familiar to so many others. Then, I felt an existential fear, a terrible dread on that day of awe. I should remind myself when I confront and engage with Diaspora and Israeli Jews, who say they are worried that the Arabs want to wipe out Israel, that they’re probably experiencing something close to those old emotions of mine. I should remember how tangible my worry was, how the terror of annihilation tasted dry like my fasting mouth, how the anxiety felt like my empty stomach. The news of what was happening that day filtered through the congregation slowly. Nobody was supposed to be listening to the radio, but Manchester City were playing at home against Southampton, and a few people had gone outside to hear the score (the match ended in a draw). Seated some distance from my father on this crowded day in the synagogue, I turned to the authority of the Rabbi, also my Hebrew school teacher, to confirm the rumours. The news we heard and watched when we all returned home was dismaying. Was Israel about to be destroyed? Were the Jews going to be thrown into the sea? Was this somehow God’s judgment? What sin had I or we committed that deserved such punishment?

The intense fear gave way to apprehension as the days passed, and the Israeli armed forces turned the situation around. Within days, our youth leaders in Habonim took us out knocking on doors to gather donations for some sort of medical aid for Israel. Soon, we had a new song to learn, Naomi Shemer’s Lu Yehi (Let it Be), which had been quickly rewritten when her husband came home from his military reserve duty, and was then adopted as Israel’s popular anthem for the post-war period. It’s a mournful song, a secular prayer whose chorus beseeches: ‘All that we seek, let it be,” and the final verse of which implores: ‘grant tranquility and also grant strength to all those we love’. Even today, the song feels comforting.

The terror passed, replaced by the relief of Israeli success on the battlefield, a cease-fire, and the beginning of disengagement talks that would eventually lead to the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, concluded in 1979. I should always remember my fear of forty years ago, but I should not forget that fear can be overcome. Fear is not a state to dwell in, not an emotional homeland, but an uninhabitable exile.

For Israel, the 1973 war was traumatic, not simply because of the surprise attack, but because of the series of military and political failures that led to the attack. The Agranat Commission (1973-75) looked into shortcomings on the military side, and by 1977, the Labour-led coalition that had dominated Israeli democracy since 1948 had paid the electoral price, paving the way for a government led by the right. The 1973 war is an unhealed wound that Israel is still picking at, and which it has barely begun to reflect on its public culture. One exception, Amos Gitai’s semi-autobiographical art-house film about the war, Kippur (2000) leaves the viewer with a sense of disorientation and detachment, its minimal action focused on a helicopter rescue unit that flies over muddy scenes of labyrinthine tank tracks as they ferry back the injured and leave the dead behind until the rescuers too become casualties, prey to the purposelessness of the war.

For the generation of Israelis who fought the war, their fear gave way not to despondency but to anger at the ineptitude and negligence of the country’s leaders. While for some the Labour establishment remained the focus of their frustration, others came to understand that as citizens they could no longer trust to their government to do what is best for Israel. Following President Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977, a group of the ‘1973 generation’ wrote to then Prime Minister Begin in the famous ‘officers’ letter’ to argue for a path of peace rather than settlements, and the Peace Now movement was born. That generation, also central to the civil opposition to Israel’s First Lebanon War in 1982, overcame their fear, and frustration, through activism. Their activism figured Israelis not as the inevitable targets of unfounded Arab hatred, condemned to fight one war after another, but as partners for peace who wanted “No more war, no more bloodshed’ and that ‘the October War will be the last war’, as Begin’s and Sadat’s words repeated in a jingle on the Voice of Peace radio station.

In 1973, the founders of Peace Now could not know as soundly as they do now that the disaster of the war was not only that Israeli forces were caught off guard but that the war happened at all. By October 6th, there was no choice but for Israeli soldiers to fight back, but leading up to that point there were significant opportunities for Israeli governments to negotiate over the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights which had been captured in the June 1967 war. The war was an example of politics fought by other means, when diplomacy would have been far preferable.

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Diplomacy seems to be breaking out all over the Middle East now – in the case of Syrian chemical weapons, and Iran’s nuclear programme. As several commentators have noted, this outbreak has made Benjamin Netanyahu anxious. In his UN speech on October 1st he referred to Iranian President Rohani as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, thereby directing not only Israelis but the whole world to be wary of the new mood blowing from Tehran. Netanyahu is a salesman in statesman’s clothing, a merchant of fear whose domestic political standing is directly proportional to the terror he induces. He is a political Mafiosi, promising Israelis protection in the form of armed might against a threat that he magnifies in order to sell his wares more effectively. He makes offers of ‘defence’ and ‘security’ that the voters can’t refuse. Netanyahu is a politician of fear, an orchestrator of powerful emotions who constantly builds them into renewed crescendos. It is not that there are no threats at all to be concerned about, but the politics of fear need to be confronted with a politics of different emotions, including hope. The fear of extinction that is shared by so many Diaspora and Israeli Jews is not unfounded but palpable. It cannot be dismissed, but nor can we remain hostage to it. The generation of 1973 found in Peace Now the best counter to the politics of fear in their activism, in giving voice to a demand for a better present. Their demand remains the best memorial to the Yom Kippur war.

World War Zion: or Trumpeldor’s Return

Zombies rush the wall in World War Z. Paramount Pictures

Zombies rush the wall in World War Z. Paramount Pictures

(spoiler alert)

By now word is out that the new Hollywood summer blockbuster zombie movie, World War Z, includes a controversial section about Israel/Palestine. In the rapidly paced plot, driven at the speed of an action movie, the world is overrun by a viral pandemic of fast-moving zombies. Gerry Lane, the hero of the film, an American former UN investigator (remobilized for the emergency), played by co-producer Brad Pitt, learns from a former CIA operative in a US military jail in South Korea that Israel knew of the outbreak and had time to quarantine itself behind a wall. Lane flies to Jerusalem, where Mossad agent Jurgen Warmbrunn dispels the hint of a global Zionist conspiracy by explaining that they had intercepted Indian military communications about fighting the zombies, then implemented their survival plan based on prior experience of persecution and attack. As Lane is shown around Jerusalem, the film shows scenes (filmed in Malta) of a huge wall on the edge of Jerusalem that clearly resembles the existing notorious separation wall that encloses and cuts off most of the Palestinian West Bank. As in reality, the film portrays an elaborate military checkpoint through which healthy people of any background may pass into the safe zone, apparently allowing Palestinian Arabs as well as Israeli Jews to enter. But the joyful survivors celebrate together noisily, attracting the zombies outside, who pile on top of each other to climb over the wall, bringing the safe haven of Zion to an end. Lane narrowly escapes by plane, taking with him one of the Israeli military escorts, a woman who calls herself by her rank segen (lieutenant) and whose left arm Lane amputated hastily after she was bitten by a zombie, thereby saving her. Segen becomes Lane’s lieutenant for the rest of the film, a heroine who assists him in discovering and obtaining the medical means to camouflage the survivors from the zombies, namely, injecting the healthy with terminal but curable pathogens.

Al-Jazeera reported that some viewers have interpreted the film (both critically and favourably) to be ‘pro-Israeli’ because it justifies the separation wall as a means to keep out an implacable enemy bent on the annihilation of the Israeli population. Others noted the irony of Palestinians as well as Jewish Israelis being admitted through the checkpoint in the film, while others pointed out that the wall failed to keep out the threat. In a piece published in the Washington Post, Jake Coyle noted the ambiguity of the film’s message about the wall, wondering if it might be a symbol of peace, a haven for Jews and Muslims, which unfortunately is not secure enough. In light of the film’s sympathetic treatment of Israel’s brief, militarized survival as the world’s last civilized state, Jordan Hoffman approvingly takes it to be ‘the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since Otto Preminger’s Exodus’, even while noting that it is the ‘joyous cherished vision of unity and peace’ – Israel’s admission of Palestinian as well as Jewish survivors who celebrate together – that leads to its downfall. Jesse Benjamin notes the same point in her critical reading according to which the audience is treated to a ‘not at all veiled justification of Israel’s current and widely condemned Apartheid Wall’ along with the usual (for Hollywood) racial and gender hierarchies.

The ‘message’ of the film regarding Israel goes deeper than whether the wall failed because it was not mighty, high or exclusive enough, or because the survivors were too noisy in their celebration, or because the wall is a failed strategy for security. The real wall itself is often credited by the Israeli government with preventing terrorist attacks, especially suicide bombers. ‘Zuicide’ bombers appear akin to zombies in that they are implacable, irrational, inhuman, and are already dead, or committed to death. Yet, the wall is neither complete yet, nor hermetically sealed, and the Palestinian Authority’s security force’s sustained cooperation with their Israeli counterparts, along with changes in Palestinian attitudes towards such violence, probably explains as much about the reduction in suicide bombings as does the wall itself. Nor is it one wall that encloses Israel, but a series of walls, fences, barriers and checkpoints built around Palestinians in the West Bank, in addition to being a target of protest and resistance itself.

Less significant than the portrayal of the wall in the film is its very character as an action drama infused with the terror of human annihilation by the mouths of the insatiable zombies. If, as I did, viewers suspend all disbelief, mortal fear is rarely more than 30 seconds away. Such existential anxiety in the film has been carried over from the books by Max Brooks on which it is loosely based, who explains in an interview that his books are not horror that conjures up fear but instead a vehicle for ‘a baseline level of just anxiety about the world I live in’ (emphasis added). The child of anxious and protective parents, Brooks enables his readers to ‘metabolize’ their fears about the world – HIV/AIDS, post 9/11 instability, natural disasters – into science fiction. The zombies are not real, but the grounds for fear are.

In the case of Israel and Zionism, such existential fear for survival is rarely far from the surface. For many, probably most, Jewish Israelis, fear of collective annihilation by a ferocious, implacable enemy underlies their felt need for security embodied in armed force and high walls. Zionism’s first military hero was Joseph Trumpeldor, a decorated former officer in the Russian army, who lost his left arm in battle (like Segen in the film), emigrated to Palestine in 1911, and died as the legendary defender of the Tel Hai settlement in 1920. Given Trumpeldor’s fate, I was relieved that Segen survived the movie, but by now Trumpeldor is very much a faded legend in Israel, as much a target of satire as a heroic figure, as Yael Zerubavel explains in her book Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Segen, self-identified only by military rank, is always serious. With her shorn head, she appears in the scene in which she and Lane survive a plane crash wrapped in a blanket, looking every inch like a death camp survivor. The connection between near annihilation in the Holocaust and survival through military might is blatant. In the face of such inhuman hostility, much Israeli policy operates under the conviction that ‘the whole world is against us’, and ‘there is no partner for peace’. In World War Zion, Israel faces the zombies alone, and there can be no peace with zombies, or zuicide bombers.

Segen (Danielle Kertesz) with Brad Pitt in "World War Z" (photo credit: Courtesy)

Segen (Danielle Kertesz) with Brad Pitt in “World War Z” (photo credit: Courtesy)

The fear is real, but the zombies are not. The Palestinians are not zombies, but people who want what Israelis have: civil rights, independence, and so on. Not all Israeli Jews see the Palestinians and other Arabs (and Muslims) as zombies, and Israeli perceptions and policies change over time. But the upper hand is with those who see zombies everywhere, build walls to keep them at bay, and disregard the value of their lives. The lives of the Palestinians do not count. Their lives are not, as the American Jewish philosopher Judith Butler puts it in another context, grievable when Palestinians are framed in Israeli discourse as zombies.

The ‘zombies’ that many Jewish Israelis fear came from elsewhere, from another time and place. Like the fears that Brooks channels into science fiction, these Israeli Jews displace their just fears of former persecutors in Europe and other places onto Palestinians and Arabs in general. It is a fear that I carry too, a fear that also allowed me to feel, for a while, in the movie that if only Israel survived, that would be good enough. But in order to avoid the injustice of treating Palestinians as zombies, as ungrievable lives, I and other Jewish Israelis need to understand – and feel- that we are not the only ones who are afraid, whose lives are lived in the shadow of existential anxiety, whose lives are, as Butler says, precarious. Out of concern for own precariousness, we have imposed it on the Palestinians. We have sought to be exclusive and pure in our precariousness, yet in the film it is not purity that immunizes human beings against the zombie threat (by camouflaging them), but self-contagion with pathogens. So long as we seek to be utterly secure at the cost of the insecurity and precariousness of Palestinian existence, we will not be secure, nor will we be at peace. Acknowledging the shared human condition of precariousness, and the unjust imposition of it on those we frame as zombies, is a precondition for a future peace.