In the preface to his wonderful book of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, the late Tony Judt wrote of the “perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas … on seeking actively to forget rather than to remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion.”
I was reminded of these words while watching the interminable Israeli self-justifications on TV during the recent bombing of Gaza. Neither the missile-weary residents of southern Israel nor the representatives of the army and government were able to frame the conflict in any but the most context-less, self-serving and solipsistic of terms. The Palestinians of Gaza were launching attacks on Israel without provocation and Israel was well within its rights to respond as massively as it did. Period.
Is that really all there is to it? Is that the full and only truth? Is there no history to what is going on here – no context?
Judt, of course, was not referring specifically to Israel (though he was the author of a number of penetrating essays on the conflict here), but to the West as a whole, particularly the post-communist arrogance that lead directly to follies such as Fukuyama’s The End of History and Bush’s blind march into Iraq. But Israel, as it happens, is the archetype of the forgetfulness of which Judt wrote; the mother lode of national obliviousness.
Israelis have, by and large, swept the past 45 years under the carpet – at least the parts that have to do with the Palestinians. Every act of resistance comes out of nowhere; every rocket from Gaza is unprovoked. There was no ethnic cleansing in 1948, no occupation in 1967 and no invasion of Lebanon in 1982. There are no roadblocks in the West Bank, no Israeli buffer zones on what used to be Palestinian farming land in Gaza, no gunboats preventing Gaza fisherman from fishing in international waters, no nighttime raids on Palestinian homes. Nothing. Tabula rasa.
Israelis are able to demonstrate against the cost of living without making any logical connection between the economy and the crippling expense of the occupation and the enormous army that maintains it. Party leaders run on election planks in which the occupation barely features. Politicians threaten to cancel agreements that they themselves made redundant years ago. Military spokesmen speak of Hamas provocations without mentioning the Israeli actions that precede virtually every round of firing.
The point is that it’s not simply a question of hypocrisy or callousness, though both certainly have their place. The reality is even more disturbing. After decades of lying, myth-making, propaganda and auto-suggestion, Israelis are in a deep state of denial. We don’t just pretend to forget; we don’t register in the first place. We know that there were wars in the past but we don’t remember what they were about. We read about the occupation and the depredations of the settlers in the occupied territories, but it doesn’t sink in. We’ve wrapped our consciences in some sort of impermeable cling-wrap and nothing gets through.
Most of the time, we are simply unaware of the Palestinians; blissfully heedless of what is happening 10 or 20 or 50 kilometers from our homes, coffee shops and shopping malls. And when they do manage to get us to focus our myopic attention on them for a brief while, usually by bombing a bus or firing some missiles, we’re totally surprised. Where did they come from. What possessed them to do what they did? It must be the animal inside every Arab.
I guess that’s what happens when you build a national narrative on biblical fairytales repurposed by Zionist myth-makers. When your public discourse is a broth of self-serving lies, half-truths and an aversion for any sort of honest self-reflection. With history replaced by propaganda and critical thinking reduced to self-congratulation, it’s no wonder that we are taken aback when Palestinian dissonance penetrates the rarified atmosphere of our self-delusion. We have already absolved ourselves of any responsibility or guilt, so what do they want from us?
This inability to acknowledge the past, never mind learn from it, is not a passport to any sort of tolerable future. As a shrink once told me, the issues that one doesn’t deal with are the ones that cause the most anxiety. Israel is not doing itself any favors by ignoring those aspects of its history that are shameful or difficult to resolve. The more intransigent the problem the more important it is to deal with it.
We can spend another 45 years denying our history and struggling to maintain an unsustainable status quo, but will we really be better off?