Friday, October 30, 2009

We're All Israeli Now

...and it has nothing to do with the easy availability of good falafel.

I just watched Waltz with Bashir (an excellent movie, by the way), and was struck by the contemporaneity of the depiction of Israel's 1981 invasion of Labanon. The catch-all extension of "terrorist" was central to this feeling, I think. But I would go further and say that Israel is now, in many respects, the exemplar of the West, in the way that the US used to be, and Britain was before that. The striking difference is that previous exemplars have also been military hegemons, even if exemplarity and hegemony have not been completely synchronous. Israel remains a client state of the US militarily, but nonetheless articulates in the sharpest way the experience of being Western at the current moment. It is ideologically hegemonic without being militarily or economically so.

What I mean is that the Occupied Territories, the terrorist, the border wall, the settlements, the car bomb -- all originally Israeli phenomena -- are now archetypes of Western life in the same way that cowboys and Indians, the frontier, and the goldrush used to be. What it is to be European or American now takes its reference, to some critical extent, from what it is to live in the midst of enemies who are at once akin to you and alien, and whose mode of life and struggle confound the partitions between secular and religious, military and civilian, national and international, which confounding leads us to question the very reality of those seemingly foundational distinctions in our own societies.

One of the fairly explicit lines of thought advanced by one character in the movie is that Israel has such a hard time remembering and facing up to its role in the Sabra and Shatila massacre because the whole complex of mass murder and camps is overwhelmed by the memory of the Holocaust. According to this argument, there is among Israelis a massive psychic investment in seeing themselves as the victims of the camps, an investment that makes it impossible to see and recall their complicity with anything that resembles the camps in any way.

Regardless of whether this is a good or bad descriptive account of the Israeli psyche, it suggests to me in the context of the present that one of the reasons for Israel's new centrality to Western consciousness is the liberal repudiation of violence. To whatever extent liberalism cannot acknowledge its own complicity --not an accidental or mistaken involvement, but an essential and necessay participation -- in the violence of the past, neither can liberal Westerners see or recall the violence of the present as their own.

"Conservatives" -- bad liberals, authoritarians -- are thus so far necessary for the Western liberal psyche that if they didn't exist they would have to be invented. Conservatives do the things that liberals can then repudiate as merely accidental to Western liberalism. This sort of point is made by liberals about conservatives all the time: that no failure of conservatism is possible, since failure can always be attributed to insufficient conservatism. But this is just one more sign that "conservatives" are liberals in the broad sense; the same structure of repudiation is endemic to liberalisms left and right. Every liberal liberal says they wouldn't bomb Afghanistan, wouldn't invade Gaza, wouldn't target Hamas leadership with missile strikes, wouldn't build a wall, wouldn't hold people without due process, etc. But every liberal liberal who has the chance to do otherwise ends up doing all of these things -- perhaps with greater circumspection than would a conservative liberal, but doing them nonetheless.

To be Israeli, in this sense, means to struggle with self-recognition in this way, to hate and condemn what one does, and yet not be able to do otherwise.