Today is Yom HaZikaron. It is the day when Israelis remember those who were killed while on active duty for Israel’s armed services and Israelis who were killed in terrorist attacks.
The mis-match in how people think about Israel’s armed services is huge. Most good people in Europe and America think of Israel’s armed forces as racist machines designed to sustain an unjust system of imperialist domination. People have strange ideas about Jews. They have had for thousands of years. The practice of defining their own goodness in relation to the evil of Jews is an old one.
Israel was built by refugees from European antisemitism; by the undead Jews of the Shoah; by the Jews terrorised out of their homes by states which defined themselves as ‘Arab’ or as ‘Muslim’; by Jews who the USSR constructed as rootless cosmopolitan enemies of the working class. Of course it was also built by Jews whose families had lived in Jerusalem for hundreds and thousands of years.
There are about 15 million Jews in the world. They are not powerful but vulnerable yet they are constructed as having huge, evil, dishonest and threatening power.
Established armies invaded Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973 to try and destroy it and to try and kill the Jewish minority in the Middle East. As recently as 2014 we saw what can happen to minorities which do not have the means to defend themselves, but most people paid little attention to the genocide of the Yazidi people.
I think people who live in democratic states tend to under-value the ordinary practices and principles of democracy, rights, freedom and law. People imagine the democratic state is supposed to make everybody happy. But most people in the world would fight hard for a situation in which they could struggle for happiness and justice without much risk of being murdered.
People in Europe and America find it difficult even to imagine the danger of genocide. They can’t imagine what it would be like to have their state smashed. And if they imagine it, they imagine themselves as the killers, not themselves as the victims; and that frightens them more. Maybe not themselves precisely but ‘us’. ‘The Jews’ sit nicely between ‘me’ and ‘us’. They’re ‘us’ but not quite ‘us’.
And so they can’t imagine a situation in which our mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, have to learn war and put themselves at risk of killing or dying, to preserve the ordinary, imperfect state which enables our ordinary, imperfect lives.
It’s lovely that we’re able to be so complacent and decadent. It’s a genuine achievement. But it is disorienting and it puts us at risk. Our safety is made by the human beings who went before us. It’s not magic, it’s not the system, it’s not some kind of ‘-ism’. It is ironic that there is such a prohibition in our age against imagining ‘others’ to be inferior yet it is so normal for us to imagine our ancestors as inferior in every way. The past is another country and it is a country for which it is normal to have complete contempt.
But the democratic state was built by our ancestors, it didn’t appear by magic. Yes, fascism in Europe was defeated by people like Prince Philip, Winston Churchill, George Orwell and your gran. Get over it. In Israel people have a clearer understanding of what it’s like to be at risk. They’re descended, and in living memory, from victims of racism so effective that its victims were killed or expelled.
Every family in Israel has people who were in the wars of survival. Everybody knows somebody who’s died. Everybody has been close to attempts to kill them. Everybody knows that the world is not divided nicely into oppressors and oppressed, good and bad.
Israelis don’t want to rule over other people, they just want to be left alone. They don’t want utopia, they don’t need to love or to be loved by their neighbours; they just need ordinary lawful relationships. In fact everything good can follow from that.
So take one day off from thinking of Israel as an imperialist outpost, as the vanguard of militaristic surveillance; as the symbol of everything you hate and in contrast to which you perform your own goodness.Remember those Israelis who died so that their families could live. Just for one day. Just for one day, don’t be an asshole about it. Don’t say: “Yeah, but what about the Palestinians!” Just for one day. Just for one day think about this, not that.
My mum had 3 cousins who survived the Shoah. That was a lot for one family. 3 out of maybe a hundred.Those three, who were also supposed to die in the gas, died in warm beds in Israeli hospitals surrounded by children and grand children who loved them; children and grandchildren who spent part of their lives carrying guns and preparing to fight for their lives. One of them had a lovely wife, Irina, who told me the story of her brother. I’m sad that I don’t even remember his name.
He left Lodz, in Poland, where they lived, because he could see danger coming. He went east, because he was a leftie, and he joined Stalin’s Red Army. I wonder what the odds of surviving the whole of WWII in the Red Army were. But he did. He fought and defeated fascism.
And then he found a boat to Palestine. And on the boat they asked him what he could do. He said he couldn’t do anything, he said he had only ever been a soldier. They told him they needed soldiers. And he joined the Haganah, the Israeli army before there was an Israel. He died in 1948, strafed by a British imperial Spitfire, fighting to keep the Jews from putting themselves in a position where they could defend themselves.