Friday, December 27, 2013

A Spirit of Absolute Folly. By Ari Shavit.

A Spirit of Absolute Folly. By Ari Shavit. From My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2013. Pp. 331-334. Originally published in Haaretz, August 11, 2006, here, here.


In the difficult summer of 2006, the State of Israel is declaring in astonishment: They surprised us. They surprised us in a big way. They surprised us with Katyushas and they surprised us with the Al-Fajr rockets and they surprised us with the Zelzal missiles. They surprised us with anti-tank missiles. And they surprised us with the operational skill of the anti-tank squads. They surprised us with the bunkers and the camouflage. They surprised us with the command and monitoring. They surprised us with strategy, fighting ability and a fighting spirit. They surprised us with the astonishing power that a small death-army with low technology and high religious motivation can have.
However, more than they surprised us in Summer 2006 with the strength of Hezbollah, they surprised us this summer with our own weakness. They surprised us with ourselves. They surprised us with the low level of national leadership. They surprised us with scandalous strategic bumbling. They surprised us with the lack of vision, lack of creativity and lack of determination on the part of the senior military command. They surprised us with faulty intelligence and a delusionary logistical network and improper preparedness for war. They surprised us with the fact that the Israeli war machine is not what it once was. While we were celebrating it became rusty.
Generally it is not right to conduct an in-depth investigation of a wartime failure during a war. However, at the end of the most embarrassing year of Israeli defense since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Israeli government is not drawing conclusions. It is not reorganizing the system, there is no evidence of a real learning curve and it is not radiating a new ethos. On the contrary: It is adding another layer of folly onto a previous one. Its slowness to react is dangerous. Its caution is a recipe for disaster. Its attempt to prevent bloodshed is costing a great deal of bloodshed. So that now of all times, just when the forces are moving toward south Lebanon, there is no escaping the question of where we went wrong. It is so that Israel will be able to achieve a last-minute victory and so that the troops will be able to achieve their goals and so the soldiers will be able to return home safely, that we must ask already now: What has happened to us? What the hell happened to us?
First and foremost, we were blinded by political correctness. The politically correct discourse that reigned supreme over the last decade was disconnected from reality. It focused on the issue of occupation but did not address the fact that Israel is caught in an existential conflict fraught with religious and cultural land mines. It paid too much attention to Israel’s wrongdoing, and too little to the historical and geopolitical context within which Israel has to survive.
Israeli political correctness also assumed that Israeli might is a given. Therefore, it was dismissive of the need to maintain this might. Because the army was perceived to be an occupying force, it was denounced. Anything military or national or Zionist was regarded with contempt. Collective values gave way to individualistic ones. Power was synonymous with fascism. Old-fashioned Israeli masculinity was castrated as we indulged ourselves in the pursuit of absolute justice and absolute pleasure. The old discourse of duty and commitment was replaced by a new discourse of protest and hedonism.
And there was something else: Israelis were besotted with the illusion of normalcy. But on its most basic level, Israel is not a normal nation. It is a Jewish state in an Arab world, and a Western state in an Islamic world, and a democracy in a region of tyranny. It is at odds with its surroundings. There is a constant and inherent tension between Israel and the world it lives in. That means that Israel cannot lead the normal European life of any EU member. But because of its values, economic structure, and culture, Israel cannot but attempt to lead a normal life. This contradiction is substantial and perpetual. The only way to resolve it is to produce a unique, positive anomaly that will address the unique negative anomaly of Israeli life. This is what Zionism accomplished in the three decades leading to the founding of the state, by formulating unique social inventions such as the kibbutz and the Laborite social economy of the Histadrut. This is what Israel did in its first three decades, by striking a delicate balance between Israel’s unique national requirements and its inhabitants’ need for personal space and a degree of sanity. But after 1967, 1973, and 1977, this balance was lost. In the 1980s and 1990s, Israelis went wild. We bought into the illusion that this stormy port was actually a safe harbor. We deluded ourselves into thinking that we could live on this shore as other nations live on theirs. We squandered Israel’s unique positive anomaly, all the while chipping away at our defensive shield. Ironically, those who wished Israel to be normal brought about a chaotic state of affairs that could not but lead to the total loss of any normalcy whatsoever.
Both political correctness and the illusion of normalcy were strictly phenomena of the elite. The public at large remained sober and strong. Middle Israel did not forget Israel’s existential challenge. In times of trouble, it was tough and resilient. But the Israeli elite detached themselves from historical reality. Business, the media, and academia dimmed Israel’s vision and weakened its spirit. They did not read the geostrategic map. They did not remember history or understand history. Their constant attacks on nationalism, the military, and the Zionist narrative consumed Israel’s existence from within. Business inculcated ad absurdum the illusion of normalcy by initiating sweeping privatization and establishing an aggressive capitalist regime that didn’t suit the needs of a nation in conflict. Academia instilled ad absurdum a rigid political correctness by turning the constructive means of self-criticism into an obsessive deconstructive end of its own. The media promoted a false consciousness that combined wild consumerism with hypocritical righteousness. Instead of purpose and promise, the Israeli elite embraced self-doubt and cynicism. Each sector undermined Zionism in its own way. They misled Israelis into believing that Tel Aviv was Manhattan, that the market is king, and that mammon is God. By doing so, they didn't give young Israelis the normative tools needed to fight for their country. A nation with no equality, no solidarity, and no belief in its own cause is not a nation worth fighting for. It’s not a nation that a young woman or a young man will kill and get killed for. But in the Middle East, a nation whose youngsters are not willing to kill and get killed for it is a nation on borrowed time. It will not last for long.
So what we see now, as rockets pound our cities and villages, is not only a failure of the Israeli Army to defend its citizens, but the grave outcome of the historic failure of the Israeli elite. This Israeli elite turned its back on reality, turned its back on the state, stopped leading Israel, and stopped holding Israel together. With every fiber of its being, Israel wished to be a modern-day Athens. But in this land and in this era there is no future for an Athens that doesn’t have in it a grain of Sparta. There is no hope here for a life-loving society that doesn’t know how to deal with the imminence of death. Now we must face reality. We must reconstruct our nation-state. We must restore the delicate balance between forcefulness and normalcy. And we must rebuild from scratch our defensive shield. After years of illusions, delusions, and recklessness, we must recognize our fate. We must live up to our life’s decree.