Cary Boudin

Twice as hard

It is perhaps noteworthy that a number of contemporary observers, including Mr. Jan Egeland of the UN, have noted the "excessive" force used by Israel's armed forces in reacting, we are told, "against Hezbollah attacks." For those critical of Israel, this excessive use of force has been observable for long. The spiralling development of violence triggering violence triggering more violence, in the context of a conflict pitting "Israelis" against "Palestinians," is well-known. 

From one perspective, that of Israel, a persecuted people, seeking shelter and a safe haven in their original "homeland," their country of origin or "promised land," "given to their forefathers by God himself," has been permanently attacked. And it has grown strong in self-defense, applying the hard lesson learned during the Shoah: "Never again!" "Let us never again be peaceful victims led to their doom like sheep are led to the slaughterer's bench."

From the Arab perspective, the perspective of those who lived in this land for centuries, in fact as long as they can remember (and they are as deeply rooted here, historically, as the "old Jews" of Roman times ever were), the refugees from persecuting Europe were perhaps for a short moment people who deserved compassion. But it seems that they were never seen as "Jews," at least not as people somehow like the "Jews" that had always lived among Arabs as second-class citizens, side by side with other second class citizens like the Coptic minority, the Druse minority, and others. 
They were soon seen as intruders, colons, coming from Europe, acting like Europeans, thinking like Europeans, pushing them off their land just as Europeans had pushed Native Americans off their land.

Generalizations are always wrong. No man, no woman is like every one else. And still, historical experiences are suffered and/or produced by "collectives." No one "Jew" from Europe could have retaken the land "given to Abraham" and "promised to Moses." It took hundreds of thousands of them and, in the long run, millions of newcomers. It was a collective event, a collective experience. For those who arrived, as much as for those who saw these masses of immigrants arrive in their land.

Collective experiences leave a mark on individual, individually differing human beings. Perhaps because of their individual differences, the mark may be more or less definite, it may affect them in this or that way, in a deeper or more fleeting fashion, etc. In the case of the arriving immigrants and their offspring, the Shoah, as it is called in Israel, the millionfold genocide committed by Nazi German rulers and their willing helpers, left the deepest of marks.  No doubt that in view of the collectively inflicted wounds, the inherited memories (kept acutely awake, or vaguely suppressed) are still at work.

Collective traits are often described as "innate" and "permanent" by racists. The Nazis and other racists in Europe created lots of stereotypes - regarding "Jews," "Slaves," "Africans," and others. The fact is that as an individual you may feel "Jewish" or not; you may be a secular citizen or consider yourself "pious;"  you may be aware of belonging to a social group with a common history of persecution, or you may try to forget that and hope to live carelessly, "scot-free" of sorts. The collective socio-cultural experiences that leave their mark on people throughout history persist. 

Do we not all remember gentle and peaceful friends suddenly exposed for a number of years to severe mobbing? They may turn bitter; they may turn more introvert and withdraw from the world. And still, in some victims of such experiences an overly aggressive way of reacting to trivial matters and small "torts" can be observed. Wounded deeply in the past, they hit back, overreacting in the eyes of others. 

Examples taken from "individual psychology" cannot be transposed easily to group experience, to "collective phenomena." But a grain of truth may be included in them, or should we say, a small particle that stimulates insights into non-individual processes?

The American film-maker Woody Allen, in his recent film, 'Anything else,' provides a look at the particular roots of "Jewish humor." It is the humor of deeply traumatized people who in this way downplay, vanquish or compensate their Angst. There is one key episode in 'Anything else' where the protagonist, somebody who feels constantly terrified, frantically comments that the other guy acts like a Fascist. But the protogonist has simply been slower than the other driver when trying to park his car, contesting the one vacant space left!  Much later on, when the movie is nearly over, we face the protagonist (played, as is the case so often in his films, by Allen himself) in the Central Park of New York where he is apparently hiding from something or someone while he is letting us, the audience, know that he shot an "anti-semitic cop." It's the typical, Angst-based overreaction that is subtly criticized in the movie as a sad condition humaine of some of his contemporaries while it is at the same time unmasked as basically psychopathic.

If you like, such observations are irrelevant for you, and don't explain political and economic contradictions and the clashes they produce. But do they explain the excessive and irrational fury which becomes apparent in the acts of some key actors on the political and military stage? Perhaps it is permissible to ask this question.

Uri Avneri once noted that Ariel Sharon, as a military officer (or commander?) never made a single prisoner, in combat. This is reminiscent of widespread US practices in Vietnam, and of Nazi methods practiced widely in World War II. Have the victims of Nazism learned the wrong lessons? Are they victims even in their specific deformations that were produced as a result of "what was suffered"? This is no insight that can comfort victims of Israel's military violence. Neither does it contradict the insight that the "other side" has been capable of inhumane and cruel acts, as well. To send teenage kids as suicide bombers into Tel Aviv buses and bars, no matter how well it is explained as a "legitimate act of resistance against the occupation," is no admirable act. Those kids need to live, not die, regardless of how justified the demands of the occupied may be.

But the "Palestinians" have been wronged, too; they have suffered the trauma of expulsion from their land and of decade long occupation and humiliation while most of them have been living in terrible misery. Their "not so admirable" acts crave for an explanation and understanding as well. This does not mean that either party's acts are beyond criticism and should be continued.

 *      *      *

Today we have become careful to look back at the past and the devastating effect of cultural and ethnic stereotyping. If epithets like "un-American" or "un-Islamic," "un-Jewish" etc. are highly questionable, so are stereotyped concepts like "typically American" or "characteristically Islamic" or "Jewish."

We do not know what "Jews" are like, or "Arabs."
We know there exists no eternal "Jewish" or "Arab" or even "human" nature. And we know "the Jew" or "the Arab" does not exist: People are individually different, thanks to many factors: enhancing, deforming, and braking influences, questionable ones and very positive ones that encourage the creativity and social "competence,"  the emotional and intellectual development of human beings.

And still, just as social classes tended to develop characteristic features in history, so did groups exposed to a commonly shared history of suffering. It would be stupid to assume that all Israelis, or even all Jews, regardless of who they are, where they live, what they do, and what they believe in, ARE ALIKE.

But is it completely mistaken to assume that the trauma of millionfold genocide committed against women and men bureaucratically "stamped" as Jews did not leave a deep impact on subsequent generations, in view of oral family history and the general history they learned about?

*      *      *

People who have been wronged can either become very mild and wise, or they can "learn from experience" and strike back "twice as hard," the next time. But probably there are even more ways to act and react than the two ways mentioned here. Reality is rarely structured according to a merely binary logic. And what's more, it is risky to draw conclusions from individual behavor, from "individual psychology" when trying to understand political processes.

Still, while we watch the "July War" go on untamed and extend into August, adding more innocent victims on both sides of the "fence" (the vast majority obviously on the Arab rather than the Israeli side), psychological considerations come to mind. Why do people "strike back" twice as hard? Or even, more likely today, ten times as hard. Certainly, with individuals, this is no particularly "Jewish" phenomenon. It seems to occur with people in very different cultures.  Helplessly and bewildered, we see, in the sphere of politics and war (and war, somebody once said, is political struggle continued by way of other, military means) that there are such terrible parallels in history. Feudal lords who killed scores of peasants when their administrator or a son was slain by an enraged and embittered serf. The German Nazi Reich's SS  who set the population of an entire village aflame in the parish church when resistance fighters operating in the area had killed one or two soldiers of the occupation force. US army tactics, from Vietnam to Iraq. And now the perhaps typical reactions of the Israeli armed forces to what they see as "Arab aggression" against Israel.  It's always the same method, one is tempted to say.  "Make them pay with 10 or more deaths for every man we lose." This was the obvious "method," a rather inhumane method - especially when civilians were made to pay for the acts of resistance (of armed fighters! ) -  in Oradour, in the Greek villages that became places of Nazi massacres, in Italy, in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. And now again, in Gaza, the West Bank, in Lebanon. Why?

In wars, there is no side that can claim to be saintly. Who would like to be in the position of the young US kids sent to Iraq by their cold-blooded superiors? Aren't they more than afraid, more than bewildered to be possible targets of rebels when they thought the war was over? Is not everybody they see, of the Iraqi population, a potential rebel, a mortal danger to them? And then, the internecine strife. It doesn't make the Iraqi side look good. Certainly, it is even plausible to ask whether provocateurs from the regime installed by the US or US special forces have triggered the absurd sectarian strife between Sunnite and Shiite Iraqis. But that question may be self-deceptive; too much hate and irrationality has been caused among the occupied population to allow us to simply exclude that such weird acts as indiscriminately blowing up civilians in a crowded market or a mosque are "freely committed" by politically blind and desperate groups of people. To say "Freely committed" is a joke, in  this case; it merely is to indicate that perhaps they are on no one's payroll but simply driven (all but "freely") by their own destructive urges. Urges that have been caused! And to exclude an analysis of the underlying causes may well serve to exonerate many "third parties," including the dictatorial Saddam Hussein regime, the US which once supported him and then produced pretexts to attack Iraq, and last not least, some (all but enlightened?) "religious" ideologues in the area concerned. It is a tentative, simplified picture, as we all know. The fact remains. The US make "them" pay "ten times" their own "price" - paid in terms of human lives. But the "Others" have blood on their hands, as well. And what's more, let's not forget the "prologue" to it all. If an aggressive war brought chaos to Iraq, this does not mean that Iraqi society, before the US onslaught, did not suffer from its own unbearable contradictions. No peaceful land, no "paradise" that was destroyed (no matter what gentle and lovely memories individual Iraqis may have, of their village, their parents' house, their childhood days).

Is it correct or not that the Israeli government and armed forces learned from what the US did in Iraq? If we see how they are destroying the essential civilian infrastructure in Gaza and Lebanon, starting with the destruction of the centrally important Gaza power plant at the beginning of this rapidly escalating war, they have learned well. During their intervention in former Yugoslavia, NATO forces did the same: target power plants, water works, hospitals, radio and television stations, schools, streets, railroads, bridges. Perhaps the list is too long.  In Iraq, it grew longer.  That's what the Americans accomplished. If tens of thousands of Iraqi babies died of malnourishment during the embargo, even more will have in all likelihood have died when, during and after the last Gulf War, they could no longer get safe & clean drinking water, and when hospitals had ceased to function. Avoidable misery, unnessary suffering. Crimes of war, committed in cold blood, in a premeditated, calculated fashion. If the pilots who bombed the essential infrastructure are responsible, the generals and the President as supreme commander of the armed forces are even more responsible. 

Israel's political and military leadership has learned from the US. And while they copy the US kind of war waged to a large extent against innocent civilians (and not so innocent civilians, for we are all implicated in the continuing injustice that marks our times), the US president and his secretary of state all to clearly give their blessing. 



documenta eleven:
as a permanent,

Intercultural Studies


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