The War Against Cliche

As William James noted, nations are not saved by wars but 'by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.'


The symbolism was dreadfully clear: a surprise assault on a sleepy Shabbat morning that was also a Jewish holiday, 50 years and a day after the October 6 attack by Egypt and Syria, which began the Yom Kippur War. The presumably “impenetrable” barrier separating Israel from the Gaza Strip, including a hugely expensive underground wall to prevent the digging of tunnels, semi-secretive monitoring and surveillance technologies, drones, human intelligence, and Fauda-style special units collapsed within minutes, faster than the Bar Lev Line, the infamous chain of fortifications along the Suez Canal, half a century ago. Only this time, the assailants were not members of a conventional army relying on Soviet MiG jets and SAM anti-aircraft missiles, but members of a militia who used pickup trucks, primitive boats, paragliders, and scooters. Within minutes, they flooded the nearby kibbutzim and several rural towns, aiming to indiscriminately kill civilians and, perhaps even worse, to abduct as many as possible and drag them into Gaza to create an impossible multi-hostage crisis and use them as human shields. 


The IDF’s response – or the lack thereof – was also frighteningly familiar. Most of the stories of courage from October 7 were those of the first responders: local policemen, medics, and firefighters who were first on the scene, often the first to be killed while trying to save lives, and a few cases where “standby squads”— small companies of armed residents, a kind of volunteer neighborhood patrol —were able to stop the attackers. These stories were eclipsed by the numerous reports of citizens trapped in their houses for long hours, calling desperately for help while watching their loved ones being killed or abducted. Despite Israel’s miniature dimensions, a state the size of New Jersey, it took military units over six hours to show up. Additional gruesome testimonies came from those who attended a music festival in an open field near Kibbutz Re’im that turned into a bloodbath. Thus far, 260 bodies have been counted from that open field, and numerous others are missing. Hideous “victory photos”, spread by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, show hostages handcuffed, beaten, and humiliated, including children and elderly. 


“What matters is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.” In the past, this Americanism was used to describe Israel’s small but efficient army, but no longer. The October 7 massacres turned the equation on its head. The giant once again revealed its feet of clay. Saturday’s savage attack was instantly compared to the October 1973 surprise offensive, which also met an Israel that was delusional about its military might and invincibility, but this time, it also met a deeply fractured and divided society ruled by a clique of Jewish supremacists and messianic settlers led by a smug, corrupt politician who, by this stage, looks like a caricature of himself. October 7 exposed the twisted priorities of a military that sent no less than 26 battalions to protect settlers in the West Bank during the Simhat Torah holiday, including five battalions stationed at Joseph’s Tomb on the outskirts of Nablus. It revealed that unlike 1973, when the IDF had its last experience of full-scale conventional warfare, what Israel has today is not a standing army but a modern air force with F-35 jets attached to a heavily armed militia protecting settlers. In such a climate, militants with no airplanes or armored vehicles can achieve a lot. 


This gruesome event also shows how hollow the pompous talk about the moloch of “security” is and how deadly the price of the politicians’ twisted priorities can be. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a racist settler who demanded the separation of Arab and Jewish patients in hospitals, already called at a cabinet meeting to “hit Hamas brutally and not take the matter of the hostages into serious consideration,” concluding his brief remarks with a quote from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: “If you want to shoot, shoot, don’t talk!” Smotrich never served in a combat unit. In 2005, he was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and blocking roads to prevent the disengagement from Gaza. But he sure wants us to shoot. The fact that he decided to quote Tuco Ramirez (Mr. Ugly) from the famous Spaghetti Western is tellingly appropriate, and it is no surprise that he is not a big fan of Immanuel Kant. For him, human beings are means, not an end in themselves. So, it is permissible to sacrifice them for the sake of “return” to Gaza as a prelude to the establishment of a Jewish theocracy. It is unclear if anything differentiates him from extreme Christian Evangelists, hoping for a Battle of Armageddon that will bring the second coming of Christ, or radical Islamists looking forward to a war of eschatological dimensions. The fact that this gregariously religious Jewish fanatic ignores the mitzvah to rescue and release captives shows that, as often is the case with religious beliefs, they are flexible premises to be used selectively, ex post facto rationalizations. The problem, as always, is not God but those who appointed themselves as his ground crew. 


To be sure, there are good reasons for people’s blood to be boiling. To say that the horrible images streamed from Gaza show that Hamas are not signatories to the Hague Conventions would be an understatement. The deliberate killing of civilians is a heinous crime. Kidnapping civilians is an unforgivable crime. Abducting defenseless children and the elderly is an inhumane and unfathomable crime. Abusing and humiliating hostages and POWs is an unforgivable crime. It is a crime to prevent families of abductees from receiving information about the condition and fate of their loved ones. The use of civilians as human shields is a crime. What unfolded before our eyes was a massive crime against humanity committed with a grin of sickening pride by Hamas terrorists. When you see evil, call it by its name. As I never shy away from criticizing Israel for its settler-colonial policies, its dangerous slide towards apartheid-like policies, and its extreme right-wing government, I have no hesitancy in this case: What we saw was pure evil. Given such monstrosities, it is difficult not to lose faith in the humanity of such people.


The problem is that vengeance is neither a strategy nor a tactic. The Israeli government doesn’t have the right to defend its citizens but the duty to do so. And it failed miserably. At these critical hours, it has the responsibility to act for the immediate release of the captives and abductees. It must do whatever it takes to assist in locating those who are missing and remove civilians from harm’s way. Sending tanks into the Gaza Strip, or damaging the infrastructure required for humanitarian needs and targeting Gaza’s civilian population, is not a solution but will only exacerbate the already catastrophic situation. One does not need a sick imagination to envision ISIS-style televised executions of hostages nor to see how a military reaction might flare up Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Recent events give us good reason to fear that tensions within Israel’s mixed cities could reach a boiling point; The delicate, already scarred tissue of cohabitation might be finally torn apart. With an extreme right-wing government in power, one can trust any large-scale military maneuver will be accompanied by draconian emergency laws and a denial of basic civil liberties. This would not save lives – neither of Israeli citizens nor of approximately 2.2 million Palestinians who have been suffocating for years in Gaza’s refugee camps and have nothing to lose besides their chains. Hamas planned the October 7 attack, expecting an Israeli retaliation and preparing for a potential land invasion. It would be a disastrous walk into a death trap. 


About 200 Israeli citizens were violently abducted to the Gaza Strip and are now being held there, alive, including women, children, and elderly needing medical assistance and care. At the time of writing, dozens of media outlets report that the Israeli government is refusing a humanitarian prisoner exchange deal brokered by Egypt and Qatar under which Israel would release about 30 Palestinian women prisoners in exchange for the release of the Israeli women and children captured by Hamas. Rejection of such a proposal is unthinkable. Instead, we see an exceedingly long line of politicians, pundits, and ex-generals sermonizing the need to “dismantle Hamas” and “flatten Gaza.” For an Israeli, this choreography is familiar ad nauseam: if only those ex-generals would have been as eager to do their job of defending civilians as they are eager to storm the TV studios; if only those propagandists would stop being a caricature of Herr Kantorek, the nationalist teacher from Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, full of bravado and talk about the bruised national honor, happy to send others to be killed in the trenches. They will talk about the need to restore Israel’s “deterrence” – as if deterrence is a human being that needs to be saved and not the captives that are held hostage – and they will call for revenge. As a Jew, this rhetoric makes me sick: open calls for lynching and widescale population transfer, “gloves off” genocidal violence against modern Amalek. It echoes the darkest moments in Jewish history. 


I plagiarized the title of this piece – The War Against Cliché – from the late Martin Amis. In a similar spirit, I call upon us to free ourselves from fixed, ready-made forms of thought and expression, to think rather than surrender to atavistic Pavlovian conditioning. After 40 weeks of political and social turmoil, many Israelis feel that, in addition to physical security, they are grappling with a total breakdown of trust and a state apparatus that cares very little about their wellbeing. At such times, they do not need a hysterical speech from an incompetent defense minister, ordering a complete siege on the Gaza Strip with no electricity, food or water that would create a humanitarian disaster because “we are fighting human animals”; nor do they deserve a president who embodies the Peter Principle, climbing the ladder by failing every previous job he had, incapable of saying a single sentence that does not contain an overused phrase. Israelis cling to stories of the incredible bravery of ordinary citizens who found themselves in impossible situations, like Rachel Edri, a working-class Mizrahi woman from Ofakim, who did not lose her cool and conversed with her kidnappers in Arabic, offering them coffee and cookies, while the police SWAT teams surrounded the house. Israelis need the gregarious valor of those who would negotiate with enemies to save lives. The gap between the generosity and magnanimity displayed by Israel’s civil society and its politicians’ pettiness and poor thinking has never been as great as it is today. If we want to save lives, the only war we should launch now is a war against deadly clichés. If someone will cry “humiliation” at you, answer: “humility.” Both derive from the same root, the first a sign of indignation, while the other – a virtue. 


If Israel learned anything from the Yom Kippur War, perhaps the most painful and traumatic war in its history, it is that its power has limits. A half-century ago, thousands of lives were lost so that a rigid paradigm of thought would be scrutinized, without which one could not have jump-started the process that ended in a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel’s previous archnemesis. Ultimately, as William James wrote, nations are not saved by wars but “by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.”

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