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Home >> Essays >> After the Holocaust >> Martyrs or Survivors? Thoughts on the Mythical Dimension of the Story War

First published in: Partisan Review, 2003/2
In French, Les Temps Moderns, Septembre, 2003
In Hebrew: Hadarim, February, 2004

Michal Govrin

Martyrs or Survivors? Thoughts on the Mythical Dimension of the Story War

The war the Palestinians started in September 2000, right in the middle of the Barak-Arafat-Clinton talks, I spent in my city, Jerusalem, where Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, secular and orthodox, Armenians, Ethiopians, and pilgrims from all over the world live together in a complex and unique texture. In my apartment in a residential neighborhood, on mornings of writing, in hours with my daughters, I have lived in constant fear of terror for two years—years of damage to Israeli and Palestinian societies, years of watching the dream of peace turn into a nightmare. And I have followed with dread the “story war” in print, broadcast, and electronic media, exposing the global clash between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in a complex and unprecedented triangular arena. This ferocious war’s terms were sucked from the depths of the theological clash and its mythic precipitates; their extremism was preserved in disguised forms and repressed voices between violent outbursts.

The story war rewrites every single day, every single event, according to its needs. It turns one reality into a “story” and prevents another from turning into one. In fact, after two years, life in Israel at the heart of the war of terror has not yet been formulated as a “story,” despite the wave of global terror. It evokes worrisome comparisons, not only with the Gulf War of 1991—when, for strategic considerations, the story of Israelis sitting in sealed rooms, behind a ridiculous defense of plastic and masking tape, exposed to an attack of Scud missiles and chemical and biological threats, was trivialized—but also (in pessimistic moments of dread) with the hushing up of the Holocaust of European Jewry.

So, first of all, we must “bear witness,” despite the inevitable one-way blindness in all testimony, and despite the additional problem of testifying in a war in which the “witness,” in its Greek etymology, “martyr,” is central to the story war—imposing terms of suffering and martyrdom on all testimony. In this context, it is hard to describe the day-to-day struggle to survive.

***

How can you talk about two years of incessant fear? About the constant calculations? When is it least dangerous to go to the supermarket, that is, when doesn’t it “pay” to send a suicide bomber? Whether to go to the café where an armed guard sits at the door or to be afraid of a terrorist who’ll shoot from outside? Whether to go downtown, despite yesterday’s and last week’s attacks? Or whether the Arab approaching the bus in a puffed-up jacket is a suicide bomber? How did I start to suspect the innocent? And when I can’t bear it anymore and need some relief, do I dare go see the splendid blossoming in the valley, or will a terrorist lurk there, as well?

How can I tell about the fear when ambulance sirens split the street? One, two. On the third one, my hand reaches for the radio to hear the breaking news. Six, seven, ten killed. Then the nervous wait for their names. Maybe one of them is a relative, or a friend, or the friend of a friend—a plausible reality in such a small state. Reading the stories of the lives cut off. And already another “attack.” And then a quiet week. The fear recedes under a routine that immediately grips us. Sitting in the evening around the kitchen table, we enjoy just eating together. As in the cartoon of the babysitter wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest who joyously tells the children wearing the same protective garments: “Children, today we’re going out!” “Great. Where to?” “To the balcony!” And then, after a day or two, more scenes of horror. Talking with Aharon Appelfeld after one of the attacks, he remarks: “It’s like the ghetto, every day more people are killed.”

Constant fear. For yourself, and even more for your children. Ever since the outbreak of the war, our two daughters have traveled only by taxi, since busses, the popular means of transportation, have turned into the preferred targets of mass murder. There’s a cartoon that shows passengers getting out of a bus and falling on their faces to kiss the ground of the station, grateful they were saved. Our unlimited budget for taxis was an attempt to ward off this dread during the girls’ wait at the bus stop after school with a group of children—as an exposed target of terror—and to save the time of traveling in what can become an infernal machine. And the dread as soon as they’re late. It happened this summer. My older daughter was at the Hebrew University library when a bomb blew up in the cafeteria. Her phone call—“Mother, I’m fine”—reached my cell phone before the radio in the taxi blasted the news about the many killed. Nevertheless, at home, after she phoned again, I collapsed. The next day, when she learned that two of her acquaintances, American students, were killed, she broke down in tears. And only at the end of summer vacation did she reveal that her classmate, a new immigrant from Russia, was badly wounded and still paralyzed.

During hours of insomnia I agonize about whether I have the right to bring up my daughters here, in a war. Is this the last minute, when looking back we’ll be able to say we got away in time and those left behind were killed? I have imaginary conversations with my dead mother, who survived the death camps. And the next morning, I need to get up and smile as the girls go about their normal day.

I grow even more isolated at the sight of parades supporting “successful attacks,” row after row of inflamed masses dressed as shahids, calling for “Death to Israel.” There are parades in Gaza, Rafiah, and Jenin, in the Muslim world, but also anti-Israeli demonstrations in Europe. There are condemnations by Western politicians on the right and left, by intellectuals, artists, writers (including Saramago), boycotts of Israeli products, of Israeli intellectuals and academics, pressure on universities to withdraw their connections with Israel.

How to bear witness to the moral and emotional trap in the middle of a war of two populations that for two years have been pitted against each other, in a war that has (at least in the Israeli consciousness) no opposition between absolute good and demonic evil, especially in Jerusalem, with its complex texture of life? A moment of laughter with an Arab taxicab driver, and joy at the laughter itself as a victory in some essential way. And the despair upon learning that the members of the gang that carried out the attack in the university cafeteria had worked for years as plasterers in Jerusalem.

How to tell of a war of terror in a civilian population composed of old timers and new immigrants, foreign workers and Arabs, settlers and pioneers, leftists and rightists? A war that doesn’t distinguish between its casualties. Whose purpose it is to rip apart the fabric of life. And in what terms to talk about the persistence of individuals in defending the fragile fabric of their society? To open the stores downtown even after repairing them after explosions two and three? To go on studying or teaching. To play an instrument, to dance. Not to give up buying books, listening to music, going to the theater. To preserve what is precious, most private. It’s a long struggle for survival, as in London during the Blitz, a struggle for life.

***

I can testify to the depth of disappointment at the collapse of the peace process only in the first person, and from Jerusalem, where I settled after studying in Paris, to the amazement of my Tel Aviv friends. To leave the “sexy city” for the Eros of the “woman city”? I settled down in Jerusalem’s community of writers and artists, each of whom is giving his own expression to the unique reality of the city. And so, with my books and my theater work, I also raised generations of young theater directors, including Palestinians. As someone educated to believe in humanity and art in times of darkness, respect for the Arabs, and for the national aspirations of young Palestinians, was natural to me—like the belief (in the spirit of the Prophets, or with naïveté) that national stories can include respect for otherness. I helped my Palestinian students stage their stories and kept track of them in the theaters they founded in Jerusalem, Ramalla, Bethlehem. Even the everyday life of studying and creating together was a fascinating theater in itself.

In the winter of 1991, the directing class at the School of Visual Theater continued, despite the Gulf War. One of the students, Khamal, a graceful actor from the eastern part of the city, portrayed an unforgettable Firs in Chekhov, and read in Arabic from the Koran the story of Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael. After the war, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed a high school student and an enraged Jewish mob took to the streets. Khamal had to go home, and the secretary and the worried students snuck him into their car. There also was Ibrahim, the young intellectual from Gaza, and Raeda, a Christian actress and director from Beit Jalla. In the theater milieu, we all felt a change taking place in the relations of the two communities. The popular nature of the first intifada (1987–1991) shook Israeli society. Despite stormy arguments about the Madrid talks and the Oslo Agreement—until they culminated in Rabin’s murder—and despite the continued settlements and violations of agreements, within Israeli society, Left and Right, there was a growing awareness of the rights of the Palestinian people and the need for a new “partition plan” instead of the one the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states rejected in 1947. No less complicated was the fast reversal in Israeli society.

In the spring of 1994, in days of hope for peace, Ibrahim painted the poster for Romeo and Juliet in a Jewish-Arab coproduction by the Khan and Casbah theaters in Jerusalem. The Palestinian leadership returned from exile, the Palestinian Autonomy in the Gaza Strip and Jericho were established, and Israeli society flourished, absorbing a million refugees from the former Soviet Union and almost the entire Jewish community from Ethiopia. But in March 1996, when I was invited to tape an Israeli television program devoted to Khamal, the clouds were already beginning to gather. That fall, Rabin was murdered, and Israeli society raged. The transfer of government from the Israeli army to the Palestinian Authority was accompanied by a furious mob in Jenin calling for jihad and the conquest of Jaffa and Haifa. Worried noises gradually came from Ibrahim about incidents of corruption in Gaza.

The taping was at ten. At 7:30 that morning, a bomb exploded on a bus in Jerusalem. A week later, another fatal attack in Jerusalem, as well as in Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv. Dozens were killed, hundreds wounded. From then on, the history is set, before or after the acts of terror that brought Netanyahu to power, with his immediate demonization in Arab lands and in liberal circles in the West. But that morning, we were still trying to preserve our mutual respect and belief in theater.

As the years of Autonomy passed, the distance grew. “We’re at a different historical moment,” voices tried to explain. “Israeli society is at a stage of self-criticism, of ‘post-Zionism.’ They’re still busy writing the Palestinian story, and they need simple terms of confrontation to create it.” I was perplexed. From now on, did I have to shut my eyes to speech slipping into propaganda? Or the manipulative mobilization of suffering? Did I have to justify the evasions of colleagues with the excuse that “cooperation with Israeli artists now doesn’t serve their agenda”? To accept the role of “the bad one” out of self-denial or “understanding,” which is necessarily paternalistic? As far as I’m concerned, a colleague is a colleague is a colleague. And without complex vision, irony, self-criticism, and empathy, there is no art, only propaganda, if not incitement. I waited for better times.

And in 1999, when Barak came to power in a massive vote of support for peace, the trend wasn’t reversed. Instead of a period of appeasement, the withdrawal from Lebanon brought buses full of Palestinian refugees from the camps in Lebanon to the northern border in order to throw stones at Israel—including the “refugee” Edward Said, who took the trouble to come from New York to throw his stone. In the Egyptian press, there were unbridled attacks against Israel, and information began to be published about incitement in the Palestinian educational system and about armed forces. Still, the financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority didn’t shock, nor did photos of children training as shahids, nor did the semi-official economic policy of stealing Israeli cars for the Authority. Once again we tried to explain away these events as due to the oppression of the population, the building of the settlements, and Israeli violations of the agreement. We told ourselves that all this was part of the story, that we had to be respectful, patient. You go with the Jerusalem bons vivants to jazz clubs in Ramallah, enjoy the pleasure of the approaching millennium, follow the hordes of tourists that fill the city with the Pope’s visit. I stayed in touch with Raeda, with the closeness of women artists, a partnership holding out against the attraction of victimhood—Raeda in her staging of “The Temple of the Valley of Hell” and I in the novel The Name. I kept track of the children’s theater she set up in Beit Jalla and of her flourishing career.

But in the summer of 2000, the pressure rose. In August, during the Camp David talks, and shortly before his death, Yehuda Amichai signed a petition against destroying Jewish finds in the archaeological digs on the Temple Mount. And in September, Sharon’s bombastic (but not illegal) visit to the Temple Mount served as a pretext for the beginning of the armed Palestinian attack, which was led by the military arms of the Palestinian Authority (Force 17, the Al Aksa Brigades, and the Tanzim) in cooperation with terror organizations (Hamas, Islamic Jihad). In October, Arafat called for a million shahids to descend on Jerusalem.

In the fall of 2000, Jerusalem, especially the southern neighborhood of Gilo, was one of the Palestinian targets. Forces of the Palestinian Authority from Bethlehem found cover among the houses of Beit Jalla to shoot at Gilo, and the Israeli army returned fire. The lives of the residents of both neighborhoods, separated by a green valley, turned into a nightmare. The residents of Gilo tried to minimize their fear and continue business as usual. “So what if they shoot?” went the joke. “There’s a problem only if the kitchen looks south and the refrigerator is next tro the window. Well, then you can bend down when you take something out. Of course, when you have to take schnitzel out of the freezer there is a problem. So who says you have to eat schnitzel?!” At my younger daughter’s school, where there are many students from Gilo, I heard a conversation between children. “How will you go home? They’re shooting at your street,” they asked one little girl. She tried to evade, to claim that the shooting wasn’t really on her street, and finally she shrugged and said: “So what? I’ll get off the bus and run. Anyway . . . I’m so skinny they won’t hit me.”

The residents of Beit Jalla, a well-to-do Christian minority who had already been under enough Muslim pressure for many to have left, now turned into hostages in the middle of gunfire exchanges. Raeda! I thought anxiously, but I was afraid to phone, to put her in a compromising position, to expose her to danger. When I finally did get in touch, I told her: “You’re like my relatives in the Soviet Union we were afraid to contact for years.” She laughed in embarrassment and said that her children’s theater had been hit by mortar fire, but they were continuing to perform. “We’re mobilized for hours to put on shows for the children. They’re traumatized,” she said. “Very good,” I commended her, with the pride of a teacher. I trusted her to maintain the obligation to humane theater, even if with national message, without incitement. I suggested that we work together on a children’s play between Gilo and Beit Jalla or that we put on a women’s reading. But she apologized: “That would be ‘collaboration,’” with an echo of double entendre, theatrically and politically. Raeda went to America, and meanwhile, the violence escalated. When we met in the spring, a few days after the mass murder of young people in the Dolphinarium Club in Tel Aviv, Raeda came to the Jerusalem festival with an Israeli ID. We hugged warmly. “Our children are traumatized; it’s awful,” she said emotionally. “I can imagine,” I said empathetically, and I tried to go on. “Ours too . . . .” But she wasn’t listening, wasn’t willing to empathize. “Our children are traumatized,” she repeated, and now there was the harshness of a slogan in her words. Backstage, she didn’t introduce her friends from Milan, who came to support Palestinian theater, to her teachers from Jerusalem.

But Raeda (attacked doubly as a Christian among Muslims and as a woman in a militaristic male society—at least as I saw her) was not operating in a vacuum or merely on a local stage. She would not have reached that point if not for the Palestinian policy and for the silence of intellectuals, without a peace movement, without any condemnation of violence, murder, suicide bombers. Only the inflamed accusations of Hanan Ashrawi or halfhearted declarations of appeasement exclusively for export to an Israeli audience and not for domestic consumption. Only when the violence of the suicide bombers started damaging Palestinian interests did they start issuing condemnations, and even then only in tactical terms. For the Western European audience, Raeda and the Palestinian children, especially the Christians, played the role of suffering and crucified victims. In that morality play, the Israeli, the Jew, had a set role that did not evoke empathy. Raeda’s studies and camaraderie with Israelis did not fit the desired image. Backstage, we returned to the simplified Manichean myth, without a trace of Brechtian estrangement, far from the complex sharing of fate while taping the show with Khamal.

***

In the winter of 2002, a Palestinian victory seemed possible. Arafat’s position was not damaged, despite the capture of the ammunition ship Karin A and the exposure of direct contact between the Palestinian Authority and the terrorists. In Europe, condemnations of Israel were ratcheted up by politicians and by boycotting organizations. Out of a Machiavellian trap, calls for appeasement—from the Israeli peace camp and the movement of conscientious objectors—were seen as weakness and at once were answered by an increase of terror.

In March 2002, now remembered as “the month of blood,” time after time, terror struck the heart of Jerusalem. One Saturday night, news of the suicide bomber who blew himself up in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Beit Israel exploded. Pictures of Jews dressed in caftans and streimels stirred fears of pogroms in the national subconscious. And the following Saturday night, an explosion rocked our house, and simultaneously, the sounds of sirens burst onto the screen, along with information about a suicide bomber in the yuppie café, Moment. Twelve young people were murdered. And the last cycle of calm we imagined in the streets of our quiet neighborhood was shattered. The next day, I went with my daughter to her violin lesson so she wouldn’t be alone when discovering the ruins at the site of the murder, the mob, the television cameras, the customers of the café, the mother of a barman who was saved because just then he had bent down to pick up a bottle of beer. The managers of the clubs, who go on making young people dance in the strongholds of Jerusalem secularism, were distributing stickers saying “This Moment Must Not Be Stopped.” Defending sanity in their own way, with coffee and a croissant, as Ari Shavit wrote in Ha’Aretz the next day. Immediately he earned hostility for self-indulgent whining, instead of protesting the “crimes of the army” or the “settlers.” The violence of silencing pain and empathy, silencing the self and silencing the other, is characteristic of the rigidity of the Left.

For Passover, we went to Paris, and the violence pursued us. Dozens of casualties in an attack on a Passover Seder at a hotel in Netanya, a fatal attack in a restaurant in Haifa, a woman suicide bomber in a supermarket in Jerusalem. In France, synagogues burned—incitement at its height, and the Jewish community in a panic. The plane was full of a French delegation in support of Palestine, who shouted slogans all through the flight. As we were disembarking, someone mentioned, in reply, the million victims in the French war with Algeria. After a moment of silence, they shouted in standard postcolonial guilt: “So you leave too, like the French!” “Where to? Auschwitz?” I exploded. They burst out laughing. “We know that answer, too.” In line for passport control, two Orthodox Jews whispered to me: “Madame, you shouldn’t make them mad.” And then, the day after the attack on the Passover Seder, a Parisian taxi driver delivered a speech of admiration about the “courage” of the “desperate” suicide bomber, of fascination with force that raised dizzying connotations. And while the Foreign Minister, Vedrine, was sharply condemning Israel, there were calls for putting Sharon on trial; there were anti-Semitic declarations, anti-Israeli demonstrations, and petitions against academics, Israeli leftists. They were reminders of how much hatred of the State of Israel and Israelis, like anti-Semitism, isn’t because of what the Jews do, but because the Jews exist. Only a (bold) handful of friends did not desert those who turned into pariahs, and expressed solidarity.

On our return to Jerusalem, we found a traumatized society facing a society sunk in a collective barbarity of suicide for the sake of murder. The number of Palestinians offering themselves for suicide attacks was higher than the rate explosive belts could be prepared. The martyr shahids became elite Palestinian fighters. Their families enjoyed financial grants, Palestinian leaders and intellectuals praised their acts of murder, and in a breach of Muslim tradition, women also became shahids. Mothers even blessed the deaths of their sons. In the ritual of sacrifice that was taking place, Hagar no longer lifted up her voice and wept, and Sarah did not die of grief at the moment of the Binding of Isaac, as described in the Midrash. The silence of the mothers removed the last barrier, and murder turned from deviancy into normality.

Only force could stand against the outburst of barbarity. And so, after seven years of autonomy and seventeen months of limited military response, the Israeli army again entered the Palestinian cities. A nightmare that seemed to be over was recurring! The peace process crumbled, and an army once again faced a civilian population, with tanks in the streets, soldiers in the houses, cities under siege. And the back and forth, day after day, between attacks and warnings of more attacks; between terror for the safety of Israeli soldiers and horror and shame for the suffering and death of Palestinians. And once again, bloody attacks and mourning the dead, day after day.

***

Simultaneously, “the story war” goes on. The mobilization of religious and mythic images was a deliberate strategy since the start of the Palestinian offensive in the autumn of 2000. The religious connotations of terms were activated in the triangular mythical arena according to the various target audiences—Palestinian, Israeli, or Western—and according to tactical considerations emphasized or disguised in national or humanitarian terms. Vis-à-vis the Western and Christian sensitivity, this armed, planned Palestinian offensive was presented as an outburst of popular revolt, led by stone-throwing children. But it soon became clear that standing behind the children were Palestinian armed forces exchanging fire with soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, and behind them were the habitués of cafés, who go on drinking and smoking, and with them television crews quickly transmitting pictures in live broadcasts (as described by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times). But even awareness of this careful staging does not minimize the force of the images. In national semantics: David is facing the warrior Goliath (reversing and appropriating the biblical story); in mythical and religious semantics: the innocent victim is once again crucified by the Jews. And in the mythical and historical semantics: the Palestinian child replaces the Jewish child as a victim of the Holocaust.

That image, shaped at the beginning of the battles around the heartbreaking death of Mohammed Dura, who happened into the range of fire between the Israeli and Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip with his father, illustrates the process of mythicization, as analyzed by Shmuel Trigano in L’Ebranlement d’Israël. The seconds of torment of Mohammed Dura’s death were appropriated as “a spectacle,” broadcast over and over on French television, outside any context, without checking the source of the shooting, and affirming Israeli responsibility for a deliberate attack (which was later proved to be a lie). The horrifying pictures became both a Christian and Muslim icon and inundated the internet for months. A poem composed in his memory by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish appropriates expressions from the poem by the national Hebrew poet Bialik, “On the Slaughter,” which was composed in response to the Kishinev pogrom. The Hebrew translation of the poem, which appeared immediately and without any criticism, in the literary supplement of Ha’Aretz, was an expression of the ideological appropriation of death and the internalization of mythic violence out of an identification with the “Other” and a delegitimation and rejection of the “I” and its story.

Turning Christian Bethlehem and Beit Jalla into areas from which to shoot at southern Jerusalem, which brought the expected return fire, was staged for the Western audience. All it took was the setting of Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity to present the return fire as Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents.” In July 2001, the mythic mutation of the story was “baptized” by the Pope during his visit to the ruined church in Kuneitra. The host, Assad, President of Syria, called for jihad against Israel, the “agent of Palestinian suffering and the torments of Jesus.” The Pope did not protest, and the Vatican did not issue any objections. That August, at the Durban Committee, Israel was singled out in an outburst of hatred that derailed the entire committee from its objectives, which revealed that the values of human rights, postcolonialism, and anti-globalization (with their neo-Christian sentiments) are perverted when alloyed with anti-Semitic characterizations. (That was also a warning sign of the danger of spreading Western Christian anti-Semitism—including the rising popularity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the third and Muslim worlds—not only as a threat to Israel and the Jews, but in their clash with the West and the United States, which then turn into “Jews.”)

But the apogee of the story war in the “Intifada Al-Aksa” is the manipulation of the concepts of martyr shahid and suffering. Right after the war began, Arafat called for “a million shahids to march for the liberation of Al-Kuds.” To a Muslim audience, he declared that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a holy war, in which the national fighter shahid served as an archetype shaping and inflaming Muslim masses and intellectuals. To the media shaping Western public opinion, the suicide shahid was presented as a holy martyr. With a Manichean dichotomy between absolute good and evil, which is essential to the Christian notion of martyrdom, the martyr shahid instinctively evokes feelings of admiration and compassion, and the one “responsible” for his suffering and death (even if he is innocent) undergoes the process of demonization. The climax of the dehumanization and demonization was directed (in the West and in some Israeli circles) against the settlers. They were the scapegoats, bearing absolute guilt and fatality (independently of the existence of the settlements or of violence by some settlers). It was only the Palestinian “tactical error” of sending shahids to attack targets in Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Netanya that created a sense of shared fate in Israeli society, but in the world media, that blood was still permitted to be shed. Only the attacks by shahids in the West, beginning with the events of September 11, seem to shake their martyr’s halo, but the loaded omission of Palestinian shahids continues.

After September 11, the number of Palestinian shahids rose, and support for them in the Muslim world deepened. In Europe their position was not even dimmed after America outlawed several Palestinian terror organizations. The staging and manipulation of the martyr image culminated in the “libel of Jenin.”

In April 2002, Palestinian forces entrenched themselves in the crowded alleys of the refugee camp of Jenin, known as the “terror capital.” Its inhabitants turned into a “human shield.” Attempting to minimize the impact of attacks on a civilian population, the Israeli army refrained from shelling from the air, and fought from house to house. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in battle. But in the story war, the Palestinian refugees were cast as shahids, or as condemned to die as victims of a staged slaughter. The courtyards of their houses were mined, their doors were boobytrapped, and they were condemned to become “martyrs” created by public relations machines, the tortured celebrities in the story war. Right after the battles began, information was published about the “cruel slaughter of thousands of Palestinian refugees.” Such information continued during the battles, accompanied by detailed “descriptions of horror.” But even when the “information” was refuted, and of thousands of corpses there remained fifty-two, and even when “corpses” from the staged funeral processions stood up, the libel of the “Jenin massacre” continued feeding the media’s imaginary descriptions. Even the report of a UN investigating committee that confirmed the facts did not quash the libel. On the contrary, it only spread. The film Jenin Jenin made by Mohammed Bakri (an Israeli Arab star in Israeli film and theater) was a caustic propaganda film disguised as a documentary. Shots of corpses were arranged as if they “were cleared out of the ruins of Jenin,” nonexistent wings of a hospital were presented as destroyed by shells, and fabricated heartbreaking stories supplied the human dimension. In Europe, the film was enthusiastically received, and the Arab media were filled with it. Even the inflamed audience at the screening at the Cinemateque in Jerusalem routed a doctor off the stage who had been at the battle in Jenin and tried to refute the lies in the film. The accusation of blood libel, the “Jenin massacre,” let loose a wave of hatred and an impulse for sacrifice—the disguised explosive compound of the mythical and religious abysses—so powerful that no facts can refute it anymore. It became a symbol of Palestinian martyrdom.

***

Clearly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dimensions of tragedy. The attempt (seeking good will) to repress its religious and mythical roots (threatening as they may be), and to reduce it to an economic, territorial, national problem only increases the tragic blindness. It’s like pretending that the plot of Oedipus Rex begins with the outbreak of the plague in Thebes—ignoring the prophecy preceding the birth of Oedipus, his murder of his father, his marriage to his mother. Recognition or catharsis are only possible by exposing the roots of the tragedy and the resolution of all elements of the plot, onstage and off.

The return of the Jews to history is a unique phenomenon, which demands no less than a revolution in the relations of the three Abrahamic religions. The return of the Jewish protagonist as a national and political entity to the Land of Israel, for the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple, and, simultaneously, the return to the area of the Western and Christian protagonist, for the first time since the fall of the Crusader Kingdom, are reestablishing the Land of Israel, the historical source of the triangular religious clash. Hundreds of years of common history created mutual influences and fertile relations between the three religions, with an infiltration and assimilation of concepts and values from among them. But at the same time, the principle of uniqueness and universal appropriation led to a history of struggles, wars, and persecutions: Jewish isolation vis-a-vis Christianity, which established itself as a replacement of Judaism (Verus Israel), and later on, Islam, which supercedes both Christianity and Judaism. But unlike the ancient binary clashes, the present one takes place in the triangular arena where, at one and the same time, all the three protagonists take part. Traditional patterns of clashes are once again activated in a contemporary incarnation: mythic terms are appropriated, denying their source, and their transformation projects fear and guilt, and aspirations to conquer and convert. But temporary collaborations are also created between two traditions against the third. Because of their indirect nature, these mythic “mutations” avoid the self-criticism and toleration developed by the individual traditions and turn into the most disguised and threatening aspects of the conflict. Thus, what could have turned into mutual tolerance among the three monotheistic religions (a process whose global urgency today is clearer than ever) is directed to the rejection of the other, to violence, and to a triangular and tragic “Rashomon” story war.

The West plays a double role in the conflict as both spectator and interested protagonist (with the neutral image of the first camouflaging the second). Among other things, the global stage, ruled by the hegemony of Western terms, dictates that the story war use the notion of the victim-martyr, which is originally Christian.

***

In the context of ancient cultures used to the ritual of human sacrifice, Judaism instituted a radical revolution with the Binding of Isaac. The raised knife was not lowered, Abraham did not slaughter his son, and instead of Isaac he sacrificed a ram. In this establishing event, the impulse to sacrifice was blocked. Instead, the principle of exchange and symbolism between man and God was inaugurated. The sacrifice of the oldest son, the beautiful daughter, or the youth of the community were substituted with animal sacrifice; the first born is redeemed by offering a prayer to atone for sins, express faith, and be close to God. But, as Shalom Spiegel shows in “From the Legends of the Binding of Isaac,” the impulse to sacrifice, buried deep in the human soul is reawakened despite the explicit ban. The struggle against it has been present throughout the history of Judaism. In fact, the clash with sacrificing cultures led to assimilating the impulse to sacrifice, as a kind of effort “to cope with the rape.” The Sanctification of the Name of those slain by decree was the Jewish response to the Roman persecutions in the arenas of public tortures and crucifixion. But unlike early Christianity, martyrology did not become a norm in Judaism. Indeed, the notion of sacrifice and suffering has been the focus of tension between Christianity and Judaism. During the Crusades, entire communities committed collective suicide in response to pogroms and demands to convert to Christianity. Christian violence was internalized by its victims, and they experienced their response as acts of Sanctification of the Name, and this time the sacrifice was completed. Those slain by decree and during the Crusades reverberate in midrashim, liturgical poems, and prayers as mythic trauma—anticipating future waves of persecution, pogroms, or annihilation.

The Crucifixion of Jesus restored to Christianity the human sacrifice who atones by his suffering and death. This atonement is a testimony to the grace of God, who, unlike the God of Abraham, did not have mercy on His son. The martyrs are witnesses of faith, as stated by Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers: “The blood of the martyrs constitutes the seeds of the Church.” Suffering and death, borne with humility and love and as a sign of the grace of God, evoke feelings of compassion and grace and establish it in the observing community. The holy position of the martyr does not disappear from Western culture in its secular manifestations, and it serves as a central stratum in the writing of the Western Christian myth. It is even renewed in the holy status recently granted to those murdered on September 11, especially to the members of the fire department (as Elizabeth Castelli emphasized in Sacrifice, Slaughter, and Certainty: Reflections on Martyrdom, Religion, and the Making of Meaning in the Wake of September 11).

Islam, like Judaism, rejected sacrifice and adopted the principle of exchange, and in the Koran, Abraham binds his son and saves him. (The identity of the son is not Isaac, but a Muslim son, and begins the quarrel of the first-born between Islam and Judaism.) Shahada basically defines an act of faith and self-sacrifice in mortifications and prayer, and shahid is the term for the believer. Only with the death of Hussein, Mohammed’s grandson and the founder of the Shi’ite dynasty, in a battle against the khalif of the Omayia family, is the aspect of war and martyrology added to the term shahid (among other things, with a Christian influence). Annual Shi’ite memorial rituals in Karbala that restore Hussein’s torment of death in battle on a mass scale have preserved the tradition of suffering and conflict, and have even shaped the Muslim revolution against the regime of the Shah. Ever since Islam came to power in Iran, the terms shahada and shahid have moved to the center of theology and become the model of self-sacrifice in a holy war, jihad, against corrupted Arab regimes and non-Muslim sinners. (A discussion of the process of radicalization of the term in Iran and in the teachings of the Ayatollah Khomeini is in Minoo Moallem’s “Transnationalism, Feminism, and Fundamentalism.”)

But, the story of the Binding of Isaac indicates another, perhaps even deeper abyss—the impulse of sacrifice. The self-sacrifice of Abraham is supposed to be realized in the sacrifice of Isaac. The test of faith demanded of Abraham gains its realization by means of harming another. The Binding of Isaac exposes the hidden perversion of the sacrifice as self-sacrifice. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b), Abraham’s attempt is described as an act of Satan (As discussed by Stephane Moses in: Sacrifices). He pushes Abraham to kill for his faith and demands that Isaac be willing to deliver his soul, in a “competition for sacrifice” (even then!) with the torments of circumcision that Ishmael has undergone. By stopping the knife, the story rejects the impulse of both “the binder” and “the bound,” and the idea of faith and holiness through killing, whether by the hand of a human being or by the hand of God. At the same time, the term martyr (defined by the dictionary as “death or torments for a purpose”) exposes the core of exactly what is being santified. Here, too (as opposed to the sweeping sanctification of torments in Christianity), the Talmud (Brachot 5b, echoing the Book of Job, formulates the struggle between indulging in torments or suffering and rejecting them. Rabbi Yohanan rejects the definition of “afflictions of love” as “an altar of atonement” and declares that these afflictions are not dear to him, “neither they nor their reward!” But, also, without denying the force of their attraction and aware of the difficulty of escaping from them, he states: “A captive cannot release himself from prison.”

The revolution in the impulse of sacrifice did not produce the desired revolution in the human soul. The sanctification of the slain and the tormented in religious context, and in national or ideological contexts, even now produces a blood-soaked history. (more in: Bartov and Mack, ed.: In God’s Name)

***

In Zionism, whose principles are in accordance with European nationalist doctrine, the national sacrifice, on the altar of redemption of the nation and the Land, appeared at the start—from the “Memorial” books (which already evoked concern in the young Gershom Scholem) to the status of the fallen soldiers of Israel’s Defense Forces. A few stories of Sanctification of the Name (the story of Hannah and her seven sons or the story of Masada) were moved from the periphery to the center, repressing the traditional dissension surrounding them. They now served as a base for writing the renewed myth (See Yael Zerubavel: Recovered Roots). Appropriation of the victim for ideological needs resounds (based on the double meaning in modern Hebrew between victim and sacrifice) even in the wretched term “victims of peace,” given by the Left amid the euphoria of the Oslo Agreements to those murdered in terrorist activities in the 1990s. At the same time, rightist groups also attempt to turn those who were killed by terrorism into national martyrs. Only in recent months has the term, “casualties of terrorism” come into use and blocked the linguistic erosion.

In this context, the Jewish response to the Holocaust (during and after) again exposed the rejection of sacrifice. The tension between victimization in Jewish and Israeli culture and the profound rejection of the impulse to sacrifice in the Holocaust has not been emphasized enough, nor how much it formulates the core of modern Jewish myth. Despite the unprecedented dimensions of suffering and death, the Holocaust is not shaped in Jewish consciousness as a myth of sacrifice. Facing the machinery of destruction that deprived men, women, and children of the right to exist as human beings, that turned them into refuse to be removed as efficiently as possible, most Jews responded with a struggle to survive—from the armed and organized uprisings in the ghettoes and camps, to a teenage girl’s diary, to those who came to cope with the divine rift in the shadow of the crematoria and the task of the human being to repair it. Above all, it was the solitary physical and emotional struggle for survival, in the depths of Hell, of women, children, and men from all groups and of all ages, as echoed in the words of Rabbi Isaac Nussbaum, who was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto: “This is the hour of the Sanctification of Life and not of the Sanctification of the Name in Death. Once, the foes demanded the soul, and the Jew sacrificed his body for Sanctification of the Name. Now, the enemy demands the Jewish body and the Jew is obliged to defend it, to preserve his life.” In the Holocaust, there were no martyrs, but only the slain and the saved. Death was not surrounded by a halo of holiness. And even those who took their own lives acted out of despair, and not as testimony to faith. That devotion to life also characterized most of the survivors of the Holocaust, who contributed to building the State of Israel and to prosperity in the countries to which they immigrated. They, as well, did not sanctify death, suffering, or victimhood, but only the struggle to survive. Or, as Primo Levi put it, the struggle to be among the saved and not among the drowned—not an evident struggle, as his own death testifies.

***

The traditional Jewish-Christian tension surrounding the status of sacrifice, guilt, and atonement resonates in the whole history of relations between Europeans and the Jewish people up to the Holocaust. Only in its wake—with recognition of the State of Israel and with the decision of the Second Vatican Council to exonerate the Jews for the Crucifixion of Jesus—was the Jewish people relieved (at least by decree) of its mythic role as pariah and as bearer of a sin whose punishment was eternal wandering or destruction. But in contrast with the change in the position of the Church in Western Christian myth—and with it the hope of changing the Jewish people into a “people like all others”—continues the myth’s political and ideological metamorphoses. It also participates in writing the present chapter of the story war.

One way of formulating the Holocaust in Western Christian memory was in terms of martyrdom, beginning with the term holocaust—a burnt offering to God. Transforming the Jew from the accused to holy martyr was ostensibly a gesture of grace. This granted a dimension of holiness to the event and to the slain, and according to belief in the power of suffering and death to atone and redeem, it also allowed for the hope of changing European guilt into atonement, mercy, and compassion. But, in fact, the martyrological formulation preserved a grain of violence. Appropriating those murdered in the Holocaust as martyrs constituted a rewriting of the self-definitions of those who were murdered and who survived. In addition, formulating genocide in terms of sanctification and sacrifice was a capitulation to the violence of the impulse to sacrifice—by perpetuating the numinous quality of human sacrifice and extending its terms into the political arena. As Lacan hinted in his remarks on “the profound hypocrisy of the criticism of history,” it was capitulating to “the fascination of human sacrifice to the dark gods.”

The implications of the sacrifice resonate in much of post–World War II Western culture, as well as in Jewish and Israeli culture, which is molded by dialogue with and dependence on the West. It started with arguments about forming the memory of the Holocaust in Israel and in the American Jewish community, with demonstrations against accepting German reparations in the 1950s, and with criticisms of the political exploitation of the memory of the Holocaust, and went on in the public storm stirred up in Israel in the 1990s by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s attempt to interpret the Holocaust in terms of reward and punishment. Their reverberations touch on the internalization of the sanctification of the martyr in the concepts of “hostage” or “marrano” in the philosophical writings of Levinas and Derrida, on the struggle against the impulse of the victim in Spiegel’s study, which was written right after the Holocaust, and on the rejection of female victimhood in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, among others. Perhaps it was also the traditional recoil from the public exposure of torments and their sanctification that precludes presenting the Israeli population as a sacred victim in the current story war.

Moreover, the (forced and appropriated) identification of the Jew as martyr violently collided with his traditional role in the Christian myth and produced impulses of rejection that fuel many relations between the Jewish people, Israel, and the West. One of the manifestations is “envy of the victim.” On the one hand, the Jew who wants to live despite the threats to his life (especially in the State of Israel, with its strong army) deviates from the characterization of the weak martyr, threatened and tortured to death. But, on the other hand, the open wound of guilt seeks a substitute victim. So the martyrological appropriation of the murdered Jews grew deeper, and in the mythic consciousness they left their saved brothers and their offspring far behind. The sanctification of Edith Stein, who was murdered as a Jew and sanctified as a Christian, the posthumous baptism by the Mormon Church of four hundred thousand slain in the Holocaust, including Anne Frank, and the counterfeit suffering of Wilkomierski serve as examples. The halo of holy suffering granted the former SS woman in Schlink’s The Reader is an example of another shift of the object of holiness. But mainly it is the conflict in the Middle East that is exploited to shift both repressed guilt and martyrology. Thus, the Palestinians have been cast in the role of weak and suffering victims, and the State of Israel is cast in the role of the strong conqueror and torturer, in the Manichean dichotomy of good and evil. The apogee of the process was the reverse use of the Holocaust and its terms in the story war, turning yesterday’s martyr into today’s Nazi. The fact that the martyrological re-mythicization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is counted as a double return of the repressed, both of the guilt and of the myth, explains the force of its manifestations, its complexity, and the free movement of its terms in the story war between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim consciousness. Under their influence, the State of Israel and its institutions undergo a process of delegitimation—once again counted as pariah, stigmatized outside the family of nations and states.

***

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the mythic struggle for the status of victim plays a central role in the demographic and territorial processes of the clash. From the beginning, Zionism was the need to respond to the problem of Jewish refugees, victims of pogroms and waves of European anti-Semitism, which created the impulse for Jewish migration and its national recognition. Molding the Palestinian population as a nation occurred in response to the waves of Zionist immigrants. The increase of Jewish immigration as the Nazis rose to power deepened the conflict until it culminated in the Arab revolt of 1936–1939. Right after the Holocaust, the humanitarian pressure and the growth of Jewish settlements, accompanied by European guilt and recognition of the Jewish people as victims, led to the establishment of the State of Israel. With the declaration of the State, refugees from Europe, from Displaced Person camps, and from British internment camps in Cyprus came to its shores, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews who were uprooted from their homes in Arab countries.

In the triangular arena, the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel demanded a theological and mythic revolution from the Muslim nations, a recognition of both the right of the Jewish people to return and establish itself as a political entity (beyond its status as a protected community, a “dimmi,” under Muslim rule) and its right to reestablish a state in a place that, since the Muslim conquest in the eighth century, had become a “land of jihad,” where there is no place to establish a “state of infidels,” either Jewish or Christian. (This is beyond the understandable fear of a massive immigration of foreigners.) The mythic revolution did not take place and did not produce the processes that would enable a profound Muslim Arab recognition of the right of the State of Israel to exist. Instead, the destruction of the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel under the Muslim conquest in the eighth century and the expulsion of the Crusader Kingdom by Salah-ah-Din, still fresh in Muslim memory at a mythic level, allowed Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel to be perceived as a new Christian-Jewish attack on the soil of Islam. (The Balfour Declaration of the British Mandate, which came about at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, was a crucial incentive for the establishment of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.) The Jews are seen alternately as agents of Christian expansion in its modern form (colonialism, capitalism, global economics) or as an “export” of the Jewish-Christian problem to the damaged and exploited Arab world that now has to pay the price of European guilt (while repressing the emigration of Jews from Arab countries). Beginning with the invasion of the armies of seven Arab states right after the State of Israel was declared in 1948—and with the rejection of the UN partition plan of 1947—the Arab states have conducted most of the military struggle against Israel. In that struggle, the Palestinians turned into the tip of a spear.

But beyond the demographic and territorial struggle, identifying Jews as victims in the Western Christian post-Holocaust discussion constituted a new kind of ethical and religious threat to the demands of the Palestinians. In the mythic triangle, they tried to oust Jews from the role of the victim, competing for it themselves. Hence, the systematic and prolonged denial of the Holocaust in the Arab world, and the metamorphosis of the war of 1947–1949 into a substitute Holocaust (in its Arabic name, Nakba, destruction). Beyond the trauma of destruction and uprooting, Palestinians were cast as the real victim (Verus Martyr) of the real Holocaust, ostracized and holy pariah. This role is at the root of the tragedy.

The manipulation of the status of victim climaxed in the Arab states’ immortalization of the fate of the uprooted of the war of 1947–1949. The war in which one percent of the inhabitants of the State of Israel were killed resulted in a victory that saved the young state from destruction. As a result of the battles, six hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians were uprooted from their homes; about sixty percent of these left voluntarily with the encouragement of the Arab states, and about forty percent were expelled. Arab villages were destroyed in battles; Jewish settlements were occupied and destroyed and their inhabitants uprooted. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from transit and Displaced Person camps, and from Arab states, were settled in an effort at absorption, their humiliation and death are still present in Israeli society. The uprooted Palestinians were left in internment camps, sometimes only dozens of kilometers from their original homes, for three generations now. In the twentieth century, of the hundreds of millions of uprooted immigrants and refugees, the Palestinians are the only group still penned up, “refugees” for fifty years. In Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan (which has a Palestinian majority), they are not granted citizenship or any other identity, not allowed to leave the barbed wire of the camps for another life and future. In the words of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), “Arab armies entered Palestine to defend the Palestinians from Zionist tyranny, but instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and leave their homeland, forced on them a political and ideological siege, and put them between prison walls.” What was a trauma as a result of war turned into eternal forced suffering, and the “right of return” became the basic credo and the focus of the national identity of the Palestinian people. Realization of the “right of return” for the uprooted and their children, a mass of four million people today, to the State of Israel, which has six million citizens, including more than a million Arabs, means its dismantling as a Jewish state and its becoming a Jewish minority within a Muslim majority of two hundred million Muslims stretching as far as Indonesia. The refusal to settle the problem of the refugees by means of reparations or exchange and the turning of the refugee camps into a harsh scene of martyrdom became the most loaded subjects in the Israeli-Arab conflict. The conquest of Egyptian and Jordanian territories in 1967 exposed the million refugees living in camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to direct contact with the Israeli army, and turned them, especially since the first intifada of 1987, into the central targets of violent clashes.

In the decade of the Palestinian Authority’s existence, despite the understandings in the Oslo Accords and the amounts of money it accepted, it has not dismantled even one of the fenced refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and has not offered their inhabitants any future or any hope. Nor did it relieve them—and Palestinian society—of the role of the forced victim. Instead, the conditions for residents of the camps have grown worse, the budgets allotted to them have been shifted, independent initiatives for welfare programs have been rejected by UNRWA authorities—all of which immortalizes the status of the refugees. (The residents of the camps have even been forbidden to populate the few neighborhoods that have been built for them, according to Palestinian activists at a symposium at the Yakar Institute in November 1999.) Even the spontaneous offers of peace activists to improve the conditions of life in the camps, to plaster, paint, remove the “splendor of the garbage,” encountered a firm refusal. On the contrary, one of the first decisions of the Authority in 1994 turned the demand for “the right of return” into the central slogan and closed its eyes to the continuation of the extremist Islamic incitement to shahid-ism among the residents of the camps. The devotion to “the right of return,” more than the territorial dissension, is also what blew up the Camp David peace talks.

I believe that, along with territorial and security arrangements, all negotiations will have to settle the problem of the Palestinian refugees as a condition for accepting the complexity of reality, of mutual injury and loss, and as a genuine expression of freedom, hope, and human dignity. But first of all, there must be an opening in the physical and emotional prison fence for millions of human beings. Giving up “the right of return” and settling the refugees would constitute a basis for Palestinian independence from the prison of victimhood and fanaticism. Cooperation of the Arab and Muslim world in settling the refugees would constitute recognition, in actual fact, of the establishment of the State of Israel as a national home for the Jewish people. Recognition by the State of Israel of its share of responsibility in uprooting the Palestinians from their homes, and its participation in restoring them, will extricate Israeli society from sediments of guilt, and the manifestations of fear and violence stemming from them, and will realize her aspiration for justice. The Christian world also needs to recognize its share in the story and its responsibility for the solution, and the ways of love and grace that do not need the spectacle of the martyr to evoke them. 

***

Clearly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dimensions of tragedy, but its settlement can only come from daring to face all its components, and progress can be made only in stages. Now, two and a half years after the outbreak of the war, Egypt is attempting to have the Palestinian organizations declare an end to terror. This is the necessary breakthrough for a truce, for getting the Israeli army out of the areas of the Palestinian Authority and returning to the negotiating table. But it is just as much of a breakthrough for escaping from the impulse of sacrifice, victimhood, and murder, and perhaps also for their rejection from the triangular arena of conflict.

The story of the Binding of Isaac involves, in the name of Jerusalem, the profound revolution from sacrifice to exchange, and from fanatic faith to concession. Settling the problem of the refugees by giving up “the right of return to all of Palestine” demands a similar revolution of myth and consciousness—from the fanaticism of direct realization to the principle of symbolization and exchange. Not an eye for an eye, a tree for a tree, a sacrifice for a sacrifice, but a ram instead of Isaac—accepting a substitute sacrifice and reparations in exchange for grief, harm, and shame.

This is also the condition for territorial compromise, which demands that each society formulate terms of ownership, beginning on the mythic level, that allow a lack of exclusivity. The Jewish notions of the Sabbatical year and the Sukkah served as my inspiration in writing the novel Snapshots. A parallel Muslim move would allow giving up the Arab notions of tsumud (clinging to the land) and jihad. Returning the mythic triangular arena to Jerusalem, the woman city, desired by the exclusive fanaticism of monotheism, and in a male voice, which has governed all three versions of the story and turned her into an arena of wars of possession, will demand moving from the fanaticism of ownership to a principle of exchange and hearing the female voice in the mythic and political revolution that is required.

***

My words, like all personal testimony, are personal—like the swing of my feelings about the Palestinian people, between empathy and hope, fear and despair. My words are sealed by the experience of a woman and mother who lives in Jerusalem. But I am also the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, one of the “second generation of the Holocaust.” A person’s suffering can never be fully described through the suffering of another. But maybe the lesson of survival can be communicated. Confronted with the tragedy that binds us, I read the lesson I got from my late mother, while turning to the Palestinians, companions in fate, children of the “second and third generation of the Nakba.” It was mostly a silent lesson, told briefly, a constant lesson in the long struggle against the role of victim. With a group of women, she survived Auschwitz, the death march, and Bergen Belsen after she lost her first husband and her son. Among human skeletons afflicted with typhoid fever and covered with lice, they succeeded in preserving freedom by clinging to the Hebrew calendar, singing, even laughing—the most anarchic force. And after the Liberation, despite her exhaustion, she volunteered to work as a nurse and then as an activist in the illegal immigrant organization. She came to the Land of Israel in 1948 with a children’s transport. She immediately had plastic surgery to remove the number tattooed on her arm. She refused to be a victim, refused to be a refugee. As a child, I didn’t even know that my mother was in the Holocaust, the most awful thing they talked about in kindergarten and school. I was never afraid when Mother walked around with bare arms in summer dresses; I never averted my eyes when she took off her blouse in the dressing room at the seashore. I never saw the number tattooed on her at the gates of Auschwitz and never was haunted by it in dreams. I didn’t even know what it was. The shadow of the Holocaust was passed on to me, as to the other members of the second generation, as a legacy. But along with it, in a special silence, was also the lesson about the strength needed to choose a life of dignity. Not to live in Displaced Person camps as refugees, and not as martyrs. It’s a lesson about the struggle to survive day after day, an ashen, persistent struggle, without a halo of sanctity.

Fear of the prison of victimhood returned to me recently when I read the story of a Tel Aviv bus driver who got out to help a person who was hurt as he tried to board the moving bus. The driver bent over the wounded man with the aid of a nurse whom he approached to help. They took off his shirt to let him breathe. After the third button, the ammunition belt on his body appeared. At that moment, they turned from a first aid team into a terror-fighting one. They clasped the hand of the wounded man so he wouldn’t activate the explosive and shouted to the passengers to run away. Simultaneously, the driver tried to persuade the terrorist in his fluent Arabic, to save his own life now that all his victims had fled. But the man was silent, imprisoned in the impulse to commit suicide and murder. The driver and the nurse decided to save themselves, counted to three, released his hands together, and escaped. The terrorist got up, dragged himself to the bus stop, and blew himself up, along with a great-grandmother who hadn’t managed to flee.

***

And meanwhile? How does one survive in an ongoing war in the heart of two societies filled with threats of terror? How does one stand against violence, against fear, against a fragility of the fabric of life more present than ever?

Recently, my admiration of the subversive genius of Jewish humor has increased—its anarchic freedom, its power to cut the tragic maze from within, to dismantle both the righteousness and the vain accusation, with a twist of self criticism. There is a blend of despair and hope in jokes, a power to accept the incomplete relativity of reality. But to yearn today for that Jewish humor is an admission that Zionism did not “redeem” us from the Jewish fate, that we are not “a nation like all other nations,” and that we’re stuck deep in the mud. Amid false accusations and fanatic beliefs, impulses to deny and reject sometimes can be pierced only by jokes. And maybe the legacy of humor has been transformed into the continuing vitality of Israeli society in the last two years, despite the despair and fear and economic distress—with festivals, concerts, and performances which draw masses, with pubs that attract young people to dance. Café Moment has reopened, with a stainless steel and glass design and a memorial plaque for the dead. This stubbornness of survivors, not with British understatement, but with a Jewish temperament, is responsible also for the internal debate, the scandals and the ongoing fights even in the middle of the war.

I can only hope that the Arab sense of humor, headed by the poor, shrewd, anarchical Jukha, will soon be resurrected. That would be the most lethal weapon against the self-pity, the sanctification of suffering, and the abomination of self-sacrifice and murder. Humor can also be an effective instrument of struggle against occupation or against corrupt governments and a source of vitality in the heart of despair, needed today just as much for the Palestinians as for the Israelis. The day we will again be able to trade jokes between these two vehement peoples, those possible-impossible neighbors, will be the beginning of reconciliation. And then perhaps the European jester will once again emerge and, jingling his bells, will mock the media’s fascination with martyrdom, and its sanctified mendacity.

At my last meeting with Raeda, we exchanged descriptions of suffering on both sides and, beyond a mutual admission of despair, we dreamed of a theater, and we laughed. On my mornings of writing in the midst of the war, when I finished writing, I fantasized with the architect heroine of Snapshots about renewing the flow of water in the ancient aqueduct that led the spring waters from Hebron to the Temple in Jerusalem. As the war intensified, so did the imaginary flow between the square of the mosques to the Saint Sepulchre, in a continuing cascade next to the Western Wall, cutting across borders of holiness and hatred in a gushing of life. In Jerusalem at the beginning of the millennium, this no longer looks like utopia, but almost like a joke.

 

Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav

French translation in: Les Temps Modernes, Mai-Juin-Juillet 2003
Hebrew in: Hadarim 15, Winter 2003/4

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