Tag Archives: Judith Butler

When a child becomes a stone: the severity of ‘security’

Poster showing 'Aharanovitch is brave when facing children’. theatrical protest, June 27th 2013. Photo: Guy Butavia.

Poster showing ‘Aharanovitch is brave when facing children’. theatrical protest, June 27th 2013. Photo: Guy Butavia.

Last week my blog, ‘The Silliness of ‘Security’ and Puppets for Peace’, poked fun at  Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch for banning the 19th annual Palestinian children’s theatre festival by closing temporarily the El Hakawati theatre in East Jerusalem, where it was to be held. The minister’s repressive order exposed the ridiculousness of Israel’s security doctrine, showing how empty Israeli government claims are about acting in self-defence. A theatrical protest against the closure used the slogan ‘Aharanovitch is brave when facing children’.

Wadi Maswadeh being led to detention. No photographer credited.

Wadi Maswadeh being led to detention. No photographer credited.

There is a direct connection between his preventing the staging of children’s theatre for Palestinian children and the real-life drama that was documented earlier this week on video by Palestinian field researchers for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Israeli soldiers from the Givati Brigade stationed in Hebron detained Wadi’ Maswadeh, aged five years and nine months, after he allegedly threw a stone at an Israeli car. The soldiers remained impervious to Wadi’s tears and the pleas of onlookers not to arrest such a young child, who was crying as he was placed in an army jeep and while the soldiers waited in his home for his father to return. For a couple of hours, the boy suffered much distress, until the soldiers handed him over to the Palestinian police (who then released him), but only after his father was bound and blindfolded en route to the Palestinian police. The seven Givati boys were also brave when confronted with a child well below the age of legal criminal responsibility, which is twelve.

Hebron map. Source: Peace Now website.

Hebron map. Source: Peace Now website.

The ‘security’ that the Israeli soldiers in Hebron serve is certainly not the security of its Palestinian residents, nor of the State of Israel; it is the security of the several hundred Israeli settlers in the H2 area of Hebron. H2 was established by the 1997 ‘Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron’, a follow up to the Oslo II interim agreement in 1995. Under the terms of the complex agreement, Israeli military forces redeployed from much of the city, designated H1, but maintained military control of H2, then home to some 30,000 Palestinians, as well as much of the city’s commercial life, along with the handful of buildings in which the settlers live. Not surprisingly, there has been constant tension and periodic violence between the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian residents. Israeli security measures on behalf of the settlers, which severely restrict freedom of movement and entail  excessive use of force, in addition to lack of law enforcement in response to settler violence, have made life unbearable for the Palestinians, many of whom have abandoned the area. Hence, the videos documenting Wadi’ Maswadeh’s detention show almost deserted streets, while the solders’ behaviour partly explains why the area is so empty.

The latest incident is thus yet one more in a long series of events, by no means the most atrocious. Commenting on the detention, Mairav Zonshein remarked that:

what is most shocking about this incident – besides the very fact that soldiers detain a five-year old child, shocking and horrible in and of itself – is how calm everything is. There was no violence exerted by the soldiers … the soldiers, don’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with the scene they are actively engaged in; it doesn’t occur to them to question the actions.

Ami Kaufman, also writing on the +972 blog, adds that:

One has to be in an extreme state of apathy toward that child in order to treat him like that. And apathy like that can only be the product of racism.

We might expect racism to prompt hatred towards the Palestinians and Wadi’. Yet, calm and apathy prevail. How should we explain the absence of empathy or sympathy? Why do the brave Givati boys not treat Wadi’ as a child? American Jewish philosopher Judith Butler provides an answer in her book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Framed through Israeli security discourse, Wadi’ is not a child, but an extension of a stone, of a weapon. Operating on the principle of ‘defence without limits’ to protect Jewish Israelis and the settlers, the Palestinians are permitted no resistance to occupation, all of which is treated as offensive. The soldiers did not see Wadi’ as a vulnerable child because they have already made a prior distinction between people whose lives are deemed precarious and in need of security, and those whose lives do not count because they are instruments of war. On the same day that the story from Hebron broke, the Jewish News Service reported that:

Figures released by Hatzalah [Rescue] Yehudah and Shomron, a volunteer emergency medical response organization in Israel [sic], show that there were 5,635 attacks in the first half of 2013 against Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, and the greater Jerusalem region.

According to the framing of Israeli security discourse and occupation, it is the lives of the occupiers that are precarious, not the occupied. The settlers must be protected from all attacks, including stone throwing, and in pursuit of that goal, the lives of the Palestinians are made as precarious as possible. Former Israeli military Hebron commander Noam Tivon said as much:

Let there be no mistake about it. I am not from the UN. I am from the Israeli Defense Force. I did not come here to seek people to drink tea with, but first of all to ensure the security of the Jewish settlers.

To drink tea with Palestinians would be a step towards acknowledging that their lives matter too, and that they too deserve security and workable living conditions. But the occupation in general and H2 could not be sustained if the brave Givati boys and the rest of the occupation forces recognised that Palestinian lives are as grievable as Israeli lives, and that Wadi’s tears and fear should be felt as keenly as those of their own younger siblings.

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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.