It has been a month since the war began. On October 7th, 2023 squads of Hamas insurgents breached the dividing wall and invaded settlements and kibbutzim in the territory of Israel. The terrorists murdered, tortured, raped and kidnapped civilians — men and women, children and elderly people. Throughout its history, Israel has never known such high numbers of killings and kidnappings, especially among the civilian population. In response to this, the state of Israel started a mass bombing of Gaza. Israel also introduced a total blockade of Gaza, cutting off the supply of food, water, electricity and fuel to the city. Since then, Hamas has been ceaselessly attacking Israeli cities with rockets. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from their homes. But the Gaza Strip also suffered vast destruction. The northern part of the city is completely ruined. Thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands became refugees.
The government of Israel immediately implemented martial law in the country. The military operation of the Israel Defence Forces was officially qualified as war [even though the war was not declared]. However, modern war, as we are used to perceiving it, presupposes an armed conflict between two or more states. Is it a (bitter) irony of fate, that Israel finally does recognize that the other side is a state? Or is the enemy undefined, and any group and individual may be classified as Hamas, used as a general name for terrorism and evil? It is also unclear why this war was given one of those phallic names, usually reserved in Israel for special operations. It’s well known that all military operations of Israel received their names retroactively, and the names referred either to a period or geography. In this case, for some reason, the need instantly arose for a resounding belligerent name. “Iron Swords” (חרבות ברזל) — what does this symbolize?
In Hebrew the word “sword” (חרב) has the same root as the word “destruction” (חורבן). Whom are these iron swords meant to destroy? Should this remind the public of Biblical wars, for example, of the conquest of the Promised Land by Israeli tribes under the command of Yehoshua bin-Nun? Or perhaps of Samson, who did of course fall bravely, albeit being a captive of the Philistines. Or of the anti-Roman Bar Kokhba revolt that was brutally suppressed? Or of the story of Hanukkah, unclear as it is, whether it was a war of independence or a civil war, and whether the Maccabees defeated the Greeks or the Hellenized Jews. Is the Israeli propaganda trying to paint for us and for the whole world a tragicomic picture of a Jewish Don Quixote, a soldier in an iron kippah (כיפת ברזל) with an iron sword, or that of a fanatical and violent defender of Masada, prepared to kill himself and his comrades in case of defeat?
There will be songs composed about this war, films made about it, books written and memorials built. Sometime in the future. The question is — who will remember, what and how? Memory is a privilege, which is not to be taken for granted. The future depends among other things on the image of the past, which the generation alive now creates for the generations to come. Collective memory is the sum of memories of everyone who lives in a given place at a given time. It’s an ensemble of opinions, feelings, convictions and knowledge about the past. That is to say, it’s an attitude, a relation to the past, with regard to which there is a consensus in a given society. This attitude is transformed into works of art, university and school courses, rituals and memorials, in other words, it assumes various symbolic forms so as to be preserved and reproduced. The past is not what we remember, it’s what we know. That’s why it’s located in consciousness and not in memory. From which follows: collective memory tells more about the present than about the past and exerts great influence on the future.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the state immediately activated the mechanism of antsach (הנצחה), eternalization. The Hebrew dictionary defines antsach as an action aimed at preserving the memory of an event, a person or a group of people. The semantics of the morphological form allow us to understand the word literally as “activation of victory (in consciousness)”. The propaganda is focused on doing three things: 1) emphasizing the pain and suffering of the identity group while simultaneously downplaying the level of suffering of the other side; 2) representing the military actions as a sacred war, as a collective act of heroism; 3) consciously applying the historical lexicon of the past (“Shoah”, “Bar Kokhba revolt”) to ongoing events.
It is worth noting that in Hebrew there is no term that would adequately designate the process of creating a remembrance. The word antsach refers to eternity, netsach (נצח) and victory, nitsachon (ניצחון), and some might also hear here tsanchanim (צנחנים), paratroopers. Miraculously, this gap in language unveils a hidden and unsettling aspect of Walter Benjamin’s thesis about history being written by victors. This aspect is existential. Only those who will survive will be able to write history. Eternity and victory are interconnected, and this interconnection defines the Israeli ethos. Victory is imprinted in the historical consciousness of the Israelis as the promise of eternity, that is, the promise that existence will continue. A sense of safety is always a sense of victory,and vice versa. Defeat means not only oblivion but also extinction, death, physical disappearance. But the fact is, over the course of history, whole Jewish communities were destroyed numerous times. So we need to add a third element to the equation – “Eternity = Freedom”, namely, trauma. It justifies and animates any war,as each and every Israel’s war according to this logic is a war for existence.
In the winter of 1926–1927, approximately 10 years after the October Revolution, Walter Benjamin wrote in his Moscow Diary that the young generation in Soviet Russia, born after the revolution, doesn’t experience the latter as a living event, but relates to it through slogans: “An attempt is being made… to store up the revolutionary energy of the youth like electricity in a battery” (Benjamin 1985: 53). Benjamin notes that as a result, many young people develop a sort of a revolutionary smugness. Something similar happened to the Israelis. The creation of the State of Israel as a foundational event is no longer a living event. Zionism (at least its left-wing version, which was predominant in the early stages of the state-building) wasn’t at first a national-liberation movement. It was an outright utopia in search of its proper place. It was a titanic project that could only be realized on the ground of democratic principles of equality and social justice (with complete disregard for the Palestinian population, of course). Everyone was meant to be an equal proprietor of the new national home. Associating into kibbutzim implied a collective ownership of land and equal distribution of rights, duties, goods and profits, and this association was supposed to be the foundation of the new state (therefore, privatization of land is still banned in Israel). Racial emancipation went hand in hand with class emancipation.
Unfortunately, soon enough, free collective labor was replaced by wage-labor of new migrants from the Arabic East, and after 1967, also of Palestinian and foreign workers. In the 1990s, with the arrival of a large number of skilled workers from the former USSR, the Israeli economy became fully integrated in the global neoliberal regime. Kibbutzim over the course of the 90s basically became capitalist enterprises, whose prospering relied on cheap labor of Palestinians and migrants from Thailand. Unsurprisingly, after the war began, when Palestinians were locked up in Gaza, and Thai workers escaped in panic, the Israeli agricultural sector became paralyzed. Zionism, which emerged once as a revolution in consciousness, as a movement in both a social and a mechanical sense, degraded into a national-religious state ideology.
And still, scientific and technical advancements, primarily in medicine and armed forces, as well as high quality of life are mistakenly perceived by Israelis as a victory of Zionism. Perhaps, it is this historical conformism and the frozen memory of the revolutionary origins of Zionism that constitute the root of typical Israeli arrogance with regard not just to enemies but to all those who do not belong to the Israeli ethos. For example, Israeli society as a whole remains largely indifferent to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to the war crimes committed by the Russian army, to the fate of the refugees. Such indifference comes as no surprise considering the fact that Israeli society has been ignoring the crisis of the occupation for decades.
It is precisely this “stubborn faith in progress”, to quote Benjamin (1969: 258), that is the cause of the deep crisis in which Israeli society finds itself. The defeat cast a black shadow on Israelis’ faces. Everyone suddenly feels vulnerable and helpless, a refugee in one’s own country. As early as 1940 Walter Benjamin wrote in his “On the Concept of History”: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable” (Benjamin 1969: 257). The concept of victory involves not just military victory, but also victory of progress, of democracy, of humanity. The firm belief in such victory used to surround the consciousness of Israelis like a wall. And this wall didn’t only protect, it also concealed the occupied world, that is, it concealed the side that had already been defeated: inequality, poverty, hatred, racism, oppression. That’s why breaching this wall now causes so much pain.
These feelings of shock, confusion, anxiety, loss of sense of safety, very much conceivable in the current circumstances, can lead Israeli society in two opposite directions. On the one hand, they can make for a national awakening, open a possibility for a reconsideration of the course Israeli politics has been taking for generations, for putting an end once and for all to the war and occupation, to the politics of racial, political and economic oppression. On the other hand, these feelings can become fuel for resentment and light a fire of hatred which will no longer be extinguishable. Alas, it seems, Israeli society is opting for the second way.
Benjamin, Walter. “Moscow Diary.” October, vol. 35, 1985, pp. 9–135
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. NY: Schocken Books, 1969