The Shifting Face of Heroism in Israel
By Dr Yoram Bilu
It should not come as a surprise that Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights (Hag Ha-Ourim), looms high among the Jewish traditional holidays which the Zionist movement embraced and cultivated. For a revolutionary movement seeking to transform the powerless Jews of the Diaspora into a new breed of settlers and warriors, Hanukkah's narrative of national redemption could serve as an inspiring model for action.
Freedom and national liberation are themes strongly emphasized in Passover too, but Hanukkah is exceptional in celebrating national independence and political sovereignty achieved through a popular uprising and a subsequent sequence of military operations. Together with the zealots of the Great Revolt in the first century C.E. and the Bar Kokhba rebels some 60 years later, The Hasmonean fighters were selected as exemplary figures that the young pioneers in or on the way to the Land of Israel could and should emulate. In this heroic triad only the Hasmoneans managed to realize their national goal successfully: while the two clashes with the Roman Empire ended in catastrophic defeat, the revolt against the Hellenized Seleucians gave birth to a politically sovereign Jewish entity – fragile and short lived yet independent for the first time since the Biblical kingdoms of Judea and Israel. This historical precedent became a trailblazer in the Zionist struggle to create a national homeland for the Jews.
It is no wonder then that a direct link was stretched between the Jewish combatants of Yehuda Ha-Maccabee and soldiers fighting for the Jewish state. The recurring idiom in referring to these soldiers, Ninei Ha-Maccabeem, the great-grandchildren of the Maccabees, is illuminating not only in what it emphasizes – the direct continuity between old and contemporary fighters for independence – but in what it ignores, the mediating links of "fathers" and "grandfathers," the humiliated Jews of the Diaspora. The Zionist reading of the precariousness of Jewish existence as a defenseless minority in the Diaspora, nightmarishly substantiated in the Holocaust, and the threats posed to Israel’s existence during its formative years, gave birth to strong pressures for hardiness and heroism among Israeli men. The consensus that the IDF was an indispensable safeguard of individual and national survival has created a cultural ethos valuing stamina, toughness, self-assurance, stoicism in the face of danger, and self-sacrifice. The heroic struggle of the Maccabees was appropriated as an inspiring myth for inculcating these values.
One intriguing implication of espousing this heroic model inspired by the Maccabees has been the sweeping denial that Israeli soldiers were vulnerable to psychological problems in battle and the corollary stigmatization of those exceptional cases who did succumb to stress under fire. In the 1948 War of Independence, despite the imminent threat of destruction and high number of casualties, psychological casualties were marginalized. This was propelled by an ideologically-informed reluctance to acknowledge the possibility of a psychological breakdown among Israeli soldiers. Psychological casualties who could not be disregarded were treated in well-insulated psychiatric units, shrouded in secrecy, and were irrevocably released from service upon recovery. Those who remained traumatized found it hard to be officially recognized as handicapped war veterans.
The idealized image of IDF soldiers as resilient and invincible became all the more pronounced in the 1967 War. The dramatic trajectory of the 1967 War – an alarming waiting period followed by a blitzkrieg which ended with overwhelming victory – created a climate of national euphoria that bolstered the myth of heroism and marginalized combat stress reactions.
The myth of heroism, and with it the disregard and denial which had hidden combat stress reactions from the public eye in the preceding wars, were extensively corroded in the 1973 War. Following the utter surprise and confusion at the onset of the war, and the heavy toll of casualties, the war was inscribed in the national consciousness as a massive trauma, despite the military victory that sealed it. The ensuing sense of disillusionment and vulnerability instilled in the Israeli public a stronger readiness to face the dire psychological consequences of the fighting.
In the First Lebanon War (1982), a confluence of factors made the psychological toll of battle further visible. The heated controversy over the necessity, scope, and outcome of the war, the intensive contact with noncombatant population, and the introduction of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to psychiatric classification and public discourse, contributed to a growing awareness of psychological problems in battle and their long-term aftermath. It is no wonder that the psychic wounds of this war have found ample expression in literary and cinematic creations. The successful movie Waltzing with Bashir is perhaps the most noted example of the attempts of Israeli creative artists to cope with the delayed repercussions of the Lebanon War.
The first Palestinian Intifada in 1989 and Intifada Al-Aqsa in 2000, while not escalating into full-fledged wars, have further sensitized public opinion in Israel to security-related trauma. The factors conducive to this process included, primarily, the widening circles of Israeli civilians caught in the spiral of violence, but also the escalating controversy regarding the moral justification for military control of the territories and the violent clashes with Palestinian civilians. The psychological cost of the Intifadas became an oft-discussed subject in Israel’s public arenas, from political institutions and the media to artistic creations and professional conferences. The Second Lebanon War (2006) and the recent violent clash in the Gaza Strip (2009), have further amplified this process. Here too large civilian populations on either side were exposed to the harmful effects of war.
The growing visibility of combatants’ psychic scars resonates with the global ascent of the trauma discourse and the rising dividends yielded by the politics of suffering and victimhood. On the local level, it is related to the changes in the image of the Israeli soldier, viewed today as more dependent and emotionally vulnerable. This change in mood clearly informs much of the public debate in Israel regarding the release of Gilad Shalit, the abducted IDF soldier. Thus, the ethos of heroism and collective sacrifice in Israeli public discourse is replaced by a more psychologically oriented approach highlighting the emotional vulnerability of soldiers. Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of this transformation in Israeli society has been the establishment in 1998 of NATAL, “The Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War.” This non government organization of mental health professionals has been propagating the notion of "national trauma" as a comprehensive category of suffering related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Implied here is the notion that no Israeli is immune from the accumulating toll of this conflict.
Contemporary Israeli society is far removed from the early models of unyielding heroism and sacrifice embodied by the Maccabees. Critics bemoan the "softening" of the once invincible soldiers, the sense of vulnerability and weakness that the hegemonic trauma discourse conveys, and the dangerous consequences of the erosion of the myth of heroism. It might well be that the pendulum has swayed too much in the direction of emotional vulnerability – so much so that now "Israeli society is supposed to protect its soldiers rather than the other way around," as one critic blatantly commented. But it could also be argued that this transformation is a timely corrective for making the face of heroism in Israeli society more humane and less idealized.
Dr Yoram Bilu is a professor of anthropology and psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently the Schusterman Visiting Professor for Israel Studies at Brandeis University in Boston. He will be visiting scholar at Encounters@Shalom in March 2010.
Comment re above:This theme was the subject of a very powerful 2007 Israeli movie called "Resisim", or fragments about the interaction of the shellshocked and fragile in a recuperation centre, and the fragments of their lives that they must bring together.
Sadly I think that, as a result of Oslo, Israel has taken on an untenable burden. The idea was a good one, that each side would teach about the issues of the other in order for future generations to acquire an understanding of the other and move the sides together. The reality is that it is Israeli schools and they alone, who teach about Palestinian history, trauma and suffering. Then we send them out as 18 year old children in an environment where they are accused of causing that suffering, where they are no longer sure of the rectitude of what they do, and we wonder at the heightened psychological damage. If our soldiers are "soft" it is because we have softened them, if they are traumatised it is because we have generated their trauma. Thanks to a string of ideologically extremely left Education Ministers, teachers and educators, Israeli education has turned into highly politicised propaganda. I think that when this changes and an accurate (not simply a more Zionist version, but a historically accurate one) history is taught in schools, Dr Yoram Bilu will have less to write about. At the very least we owe our heroes a level playing field.