This article was originally published in January 2003 in Robert Rosenberg’s Ariga.
by Roy Isacowitz
In his short story “Shooting An Elephant,” published in 1936, George Orwell depicts one of the ironies of colonial rule. The colonial power’s authority rests as much on how it is perceived as on its guns. Maintaining the perception of power and strength is paramount; losing face is the greatest failure. But perceptions exist only in the eyes of the beholder. So the colonizer becomes dependent on the reactions of the subject; the ruler becomes the puppet of the ruled It is an irony that shouldn’t be lost on us today .
The protagonist of the story is Orwell himself, a junior police official in colonial Burma who is called on to deal with a rampaging elephant that has killed a man and destroyed some property. By the time Orwell arrives on the scene, the elephant is grazing calmly, his attack of must (an annual frenzy that afflicts male elephants) seemingly over. He no longer poses a threat. But the huge crowd of Burmese that has gathered around Orwell expects action; a white man with an elephant gun in colonial Burma has certain obligations. Against his better judgment, Orwell shoots the elephant .
Describing himself standing, elephant gun in hand, in front of two thousand pressing Burmese, Orwell writes: “I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.” Further on, Orwell writes that the white colonial “wears a mask and his face grows to fit it.”.
Orwell’s point, as I understand it, is that colonial rule, by its very nature, petrifies the thinking and behavior of the ruler. His conduct solidifies into the narrow, restrictive modes that will perpetuate his rule. His ability to innovate is reduced to virtually nil. He becomes a fossil. That is Orwell’s mask. It is both the outward expression of power and omnipotence that he is compelled to present to those he rules and an iron constraint on his own capacity to see, think and act clearly .
The Oxford dictionary defines colony as a “country or territory extensively settled by migrants from a mother country and, for a time, controlled by it.” The Palestinian territories, which have been ruled and settled by Israel for the past 35 years, clearly fit that definition.
One of the most damaging aspects of the colonial mask that Israel has assumed is the imperative that “we don’t give in to terror.” Under the Sharon government, it has become a rule without exceptions, without nuances. In the absence of any diplomatic policy over the past two years, it has been the essence of our colonial existence. We have amply demonstrated to the Palestinians and to the world at large that Israel doesn’t give in to terror .
That is our mask. It is dictated by our need to appear tough to those we rule and it has substituted for any substantive policy because, diminished as we are by the colonial experience, we are not capable of formulating any policy. Deep down, in the hidden recesses of our collective consciousness, we know what it really means. We know that we should do what those wielding terror want us to do, namely, to end the occupation, but we can’t do it because to do so would be to reward the use of terror.
It was this behavioral straightjacket, this calcification of our capacity to think lucidly, that kept us in Lebanon for almost two decades, at enormous cost in Israeli and Lebanese lives. It is the same fossilized reasoning that is perpetuating the tit-for-tat killings of the intifada and the horrendous loss of lives on both sides.
To point this out is not to justify Palestinian terror. The murder of civilians can never be justified. Rather, it is to illustrate the extent to which we have lost the freedom to act rationally. The mask that we have grown to fit over the past 35 years has reduced our vision to an unwavering, uncompromising straight line, like blinkers on a horse. We are no longer able to comprehend where our interests as a nation truly lie. Economic growth, education and social equality all lie outside the reduced boundaries of our perception .
Orwell describes himself, the policeman, as a puppet, pushed into doing what he knows he shouldn’t do by the will of the Burmese crowd. “A sahib,” he writes, “has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his mind and do definite things.” The tragedy, of course, is that the definite things he does are definitely inimical to his own interests .
Take Sahib Sharon. The Israeli media has been grappling with the conundrum of how a leader as inept and as blood-stained as he can nevertheless retain such impressive public support. The reason, simply put, is that he is one of us; we are all sahibs. We have all lost the capacity to see reality and we are all infatuated with the illusory blessings of power and force. Despite an apparently widespread recognition that the occupation is the prime cause of our social fragmentation and economic disintegration we are unable to shake off the mask of the sahib. We would prefer to continue on our downward spiral than lose face in the eyes of the Palestinians. Therefore, we opt for the leader who most embodies the colonial ideal; the leader who appears most resolute in retaining our tattered, tainted prestige. He may not know how to run a country but he damn well knows how to teach the natives a lesson.
After 35 years of wearing the colonial mask, our faces are distorted beyond recognition. We have become callous and indifferent. We speak in the gruff, assured tones of the sahib generals, serving and retired, who pontificate ad nauseum about dismantling the terrorist infrastructure and contending with the strategic threat from all sides. The truth is, they don’t have a clue. They are like the British officers in the raj, the Belgian officers in the Congo and the French officers in Vietnam; men whose upbringing, training and experience in a colonial army left them woefully unprepared to deal with a war of liberation; with an entire nation fighting, and prepared to die, for its freedom .
History teaches us that colonial rule eventually ends, though it seldom ends peacefully. Colonized nations have invariably resorted to violence of one form or another to achieve their independence. That was true of India, of the Mau Mau in Kenya and of Frelimo in Mozambique. It is just as true of the Palestinians .
The colonial struggles that degenerated into all-out war, such as Algeria in the Fifties and Angola in the Seventies and Eighties, produced crippled, violent societies. Both Algeria and Angola remain deeply divided and homicidal. The same is likely to be the case with Palestine. We have bequeathed them a dismal inheritance, one that will scar their country for many years to come .
It is ludicrous for us to now argue, as we do, that Israel cannot tolerate a violent, corrupt and badly run country on its borders. That is the classical dilemma of the sahib; having run the place into the ground, he complains about the chaos. The product of a brutalizing, corrupt colonial rule is, by definition, going to be a brutal and corrupt society. Few colonizing powers bother to create strong, effective institutions in the territories that they rule, as the history of post-Independence Africa has graphically illustrated. By our own actions, we have ensured that the Palestinians do not have efficient, democratic institutions. It will take many years of self-rule for such institutions to evolve .
We can have few expectations of the Palestinians. When independence finally comes, they will have to cope with a lawless, desperate and violent society, a society that mirrors the final, cataclysmic intifada of its birth. We will have to find ways of contending with the terror, poverty and migration that will inevitable seep across our borders. That is the burden of the former colonist. Two generations after the end of European colonialism, Britain, France, Holland and other countries are still grappling with the profound demographic changes wrought by their colonial past .
The choice before us in these elections is stark. We can begin the process of regaining our freedom and repairing our country or we can remain the puppets of those we rule. A vote for Sharon is a vote for shooting the elephant, just because right now we hold the bigger gun.