An IDF officer places new Israeli flags on the graves of IDF soldiers. © Israeli Defense Forces | Flickr
An IDF officer places new Israeli flags on the graves of IDF soldiers. © Israeli Defense Forces | Flickr

One of the most depressing aspects of the current war in Gaza is the repetition of images in discourse about the conflict. “Defensive Edge,” “Pillar of Defense,” and “Cast Lead” all bleed into each other. Images of death and destruction recur across patriotic monikers that stand as a monument to the limited inventiveness of the national copy writers. Nothing much seems to change. And yet, with every iteration of death and destruction, Israel’s political culture turns more and more to the right.

This is felt most acutely by Israeli Arabs, but is also being increasingly felt by left-wing Jews in Israel. There are, of course, striking differences between the two experiences. For Arab Israelis, the situation has become increasingly scary, especially in Jerusalem. Recently, two Arabs from Jerusalem were attacked, and both are now hospitalized in serious condition. They were asked for a cigarette in the tram station, and when the predators recognized their Arabic accent, the two were attacked by about twelve men with bats and crowbars.

Nothing like this has happened to my leftist-Jewish friends. One narrowly avoided being beaten up in a rally in Tel Aviv, but this was pretty minor; the barrage of anti-left calls such as “death to the leftists,” “leftists to the gas chambers!,” etc., are yet to be realized. Again and again, when I talk to leftist Israeli-Jews, I hear a very different story than the one I hear about Israeli Arabs, one that is surely less threatening than crowbars: they are not taken seriously.

Demonstration against Operation Protective Edge by Arab Israeli and political left Israeli youth in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 12, 2014 © Guy Butavia | Wikimedia Commons
Demonstration against Operation Protective Edge by Arab Israeli and political left Israeli youth in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 12, 2014 © Guy Butavia | Wikimedia Commons

When leftist Jews talk about the situation, people look at them as if they are delirious, as if they were speaking an unintelligible language. I am not speaking, mind you, about reactions from extreme right-wing home-grown fascists, but rather from regular run-of-the-mill Israelis. They cannot fathom how my friends think Israel should enter negotiations with Hamas (“They all want to kill us,” “every truce is a ruse”), and while they note that Gazan children dying is a sad thing (they say so with detached empathy), they are convinced that it is obviously Hamas’s fault and, therefore, that there is not even a relevant argument.

Obsessing over Facebook posts, I have seen some of my outspoken Israeli friends being mocked, and not knowing how to answer, opting for relatively safe clichés such as “we must hope.” I suggested to a friend that Hamas’s attack tunnels, while horrific, are politically convenient targets, as they allow Israel to proclaim it had “achieved its goals” whenever it chooses to withdraw. In response, he stopped the conversation and said I was “a radical” and that there was no point talking to me. A left-voting colleague told a friend that although “this is a tragedy,” she decided not to demonstrate against the operation, since “one should not do so in a time of war.”

Gideon Levi in 2011 © Hanay | Wikimedia Commons
Gideon Levi at The Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater in 2011 © Hanay | Wikimedia Commons

These are small things. Each one by itself seems minor. But they are crucial. A political culture is, partly, the horizon of the things one can say and remain considered a legitimate voice in an ongoing conversation. One of the things that is happening in Israel, deepening from year to year, is that the horizon of the intelligible shifts to the right. There are still left wing journalists — notably, Amira Hass and Gideon Levy — who are being heard. But they are being heard by fewer and fewer people. For most Israelis, their writing is no longer a political threat by a legitimate political voice; it is simply the ranting and babbling of irrelevant lunatics, self-hating Jews, auto-Anti-Semites.

Hamas, as others have noted here, is a convenient enemy for the Israeli right wing. Enough of its leadership iterates that any peace is illusory and that the goal will always be the destruction of Israel. With such enemies, it is easy to forget that a large chunk of the Israeli right-wing ruling coalition would deny Palestinians any sort of statehood, easy to overlook the increasing power of the settlers’ messianic vision, and easy to minimize what is happening to Israeli political culture even beyond the avowed right-wing. But with every round of conflict, a new taken-for-granted is etched. It is a taken-for-granted that shrugs off the death of Palestinian children while it transforms the left from a viable political opponent to a pitiful group of madmen. It may not be very useful to prognosticate, but the intensification of this new political culture does not bode well for the future.

One thought on “Death, Destruction, and the Israeli Turn to the Right

  1. An excellent description of change in a culture. The obvious and implied broader point is that political cultures are not static. There is no “essential goodness” or “essential evil” that is unchanging over time. Germans are not a transcendent evil, as can be seen with Germany today- but we had the Nazis. Israelis/Jews are not a transcendently good people, thus immune from criticism. There is no reliable way of predicting how brutal (or the opposite) Israel could become if current trends and conflicts continue. What we are now has to be seen in the context of what we are becoming.

    To go beyond the article, I think that one danger arising out of the horrors of the Holocaust (and Jewish history in general) is the tendency to define ourselves (yes) as forever victims- past, present, and future. This allows for a multitude of sins, with no reflection or responsibility needed. But victims can become victimizers, and vice-versa. Currently there are statements about the tragedy of innocent Palestinians killed, but I hear this less and less (and more from the older generation), with, as the author puts it, “detached empathy,” while “death to Arabs” becomes tolerated, if not spoken in polite society. What will tomorrow bring?

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