[Marxism] Tel Aviv photography exhibit

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 21 13:54:41 MDT 2004


LRB | Vol. 26 No. 14 dated 22 July 2004 | Yitzhak Laor

In Hebron

Yitzhak Laor writes about an exhibition of soldiers' photographs in Tel 
Aviv and introduces some of the soldiers' memories of their military service

Israel's Independence Day fell this year on 27 April. For his homework 
my nine-year-old son had to interview me about my military past. Before 
giving out the assignment, his teacher had invited the father of one of 
the children, an IDF colonel, to give a talk in full military uniform. 
The children were fascinated. Urged to ask questions, they mostly wanted 
to know whether he was afraid, though they also asked if he had killed 
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, whose picture and the picture of his destroyed 
wheelchair were quite a hit on Israeli TV. The colonel said it was 
another unit, not his, 'but he deserved to die,' and he promised the 
children that 'we don't kill unless there is a really good reason.' He 
ended the talk by telling the children he hoped that they too would one 
day have the chance to become senior officers in the IDF.

Our life worsens, poverty is spreading, education and health services 
are deteriorating, the middle class is shrinking, and we are ruled by a 
junta whose money and power have increased to an extent people refuse to 
believe, even when they are confronted with the figures. A 45-year-old 
colonel who retires from the army gets a lump sum of close to two 
million dollars, in addition to a lifetime pension and a second career, 
usually as an executive of one of the huge corporations, or in arms dealing.

When the average Israeli wants to explain these privileges, he points 
out that 'throughout his career the colonel has been risking his life.' 
But that's been a myth for at least two decades now. The colonel hasn't 
been risking his life because there is no longer a serious enemy. There 
is only the Palestinian desire to live as a free nation which in the 
form of the terrorist campaign is represented as an existential threat 
to the state of Israel. But it doesn't threaten the existence of Israel. 
It never did, but it sure helps the military ride the wave of panic.

The real struggle in Israeli society today is not between doves and 
hawks, but between the majority who take for granted the IDF's image as 
the defender of our nation, with or without biblical quotes, and the 
minority who no longer buy it. If the army does something bad it is 
always an exception (harig, in Hebrew). Those who believe that we are 
fighting for our lives also believe that we do our best to be humane, 
and more or less succeed. This fragile complex of axioms depends either 
on foolish optimism ('soon everything will be resolved') or on images. 
Arguments don't work anymore.

The most effective images are those of dismembered bodies, screaming 
mothers and mourning fathers. But that is exactly why the BBC World 
Service is considered 'hostile' here. It isn't because of the Vanunu 
affair, but because of the images it broadcasts of everyday suffering on 
the other side of the road, a ten-minute drive from the safety of our 
homes, our swimming-pools, our happy lives. Even CNN was considered 
hostile as long as it 'misbehaved', bringing us pictures which 
contradicted the basic image of our existence. Atrocities are always 
perpetrated against us, and the more brutal Israel becomes, the more it 
depends on our image as the eternal victim. Hence the importance of the 
Holocaust since the end of the 1980s (the first intifada), and its 
return into Hebrew literature (David Grossman's See under: Love). The 
Holocaust is part of the victim imagery, hence the madness of 
state-subsidised school trips to Auschwitz. This has less to do with 
understanding the past than with reproducing an environment in which we 
exist in the present tense as victims. Together with that comes the 
imagery of the healthy, beautiful, sensitive soldiers.

This is the context, at the crossroads between the expanding (slowly, 
and maybe too little and too late) refusenik movement and the ever 
growing despair, evident at an exhibition called 'Breaking the Silence' 
('Shovrim Shtika') which opened in early June in Tel Aviv College: an 
exhibition of photographs taken by mostly unnamed conscripts who served 
in Hebron. (Their brigade commander was the colonel who gave the talk to 
my son's class.) Sixty of the 90 photos record aspects of the conflict 
between the Palestinians and the settlers, but 30 show the soldiers at 
their daily routine - and the routine tells all. Indeed, towards the end 
of June, the IDF's military police raided the exhibit, 'confiscating', 
as Haaretz put it, 'a folder containing newspaper clips about the 
exhibit, as well as a videotape including statements made by 70 soldiers 
about their experiences in Hebron'. Four of the young men who organised 
the exhibition were called in for interrogation. What were they 
interrogated about? Well, they are suspected of having committed the 
crimes they documented on their video - abusing Palestinians, destroying 
property etc.

Every once in a while opposition arises from within the monster. Hence 
the Courage to Refuse movement, the letter last September signed by 27 
pilots who refused to attack civilian populations in the Occupied 
Territories, the letter in December from an elite commando unit that 
refused to fight, and so on. A society living in the past as if it were 
the present is vulnerable: the past/ present becomes a double-edged 
sword. You may be sued if you call anybody here a 'Nazi', but one hears 
it a lot. It would be more appropriate to compare Israeli brutality with 
the French in Algeria, or the British in Sudan or Malaysia, but we are 
taken up with the notion of 'our past turning into our present'.

Moral repulsion isn't the only factor, however. Young men who join the 
army want to fight in the most sophisticated tanks, to fire the most 
frightening cannon, to fly the brand new jet fighters, to operate the 
Apache helicopters, to conquer the most heavily fortified enemy 
positions, to parachute behind enemy lines. Then, after all their 
extremely difficult training, after all the suffering and ambition, they 
find there is no heroism, no glory, no diving as marine commandos under 
the waters of the Persian Gulf. Instead, all they do is throw families 
out of their homes in the middle of the night, demolish their houses, 
bomb a six-storey building in Gaza, starve a town, harass women at 
checkpoints, watch Shin Bet torture detainees, bring more misery to the 
refugee camps.

What the Israeli army (like the Israeli state) needs to reproduce in its 
soldiers is either sheer racism - that is, faith in 'the murderous 
nature of the Arabs' - or a brand of religious messianism, neo-Nazi 
ideology wrapped in Judaism. One of the photographs in the exhibition 
shows a piece of settler graffiti in Hebron which reads: 'Arabs to Gas 
Chambers'. This kind of discourse has its weakness: it needs soldiers to 
fight for it. There are a lot who won't.

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n14/laor01_.html
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