Quite a bit has been written about the physical becoming of "Israelis." I would like to devote a few posts to share my personal experiences on this subject. I realize the title "Israeli body" generalizes countless varieties of bodies of Israelis. Still, I believe my experiences represent in one way or another experiences that many Israelis share.
The questions that guide me here include: how does the individual's body become Israeli? What is written on the Israeli body? What are we, Israelis, writing on the bodies of our children? What does the Israeli body not know? What's not to know? What terrifies the Israeli body? What makes it shiver? How does the Israeli body detect an enemy? What are the enemy languages of the Israeli body?
I was in Berlin this past May at a workshop on memory and human rights. Of course, we discussed the memory of the Nazi regime. We were introduced to an exciting project called "Places of Remembrance" in the Bavarian Quarter in Berlin by Renate Stih and Frieder Shnock. Dozens of signs were posted in various places and each sign had two sides. On one was an image of, for instance, a dog or a loaf of bread. On the other a short sentence taken from one of the racist laws enacted by the Nazi regime at its beginning. Many of these laws directly relate to Jews and denied them rights. One thing that caught my eye was the image of a cat on one of the signs where on the other side it's written "Jews are no longer allowed to have household pets."
My horizon, through which I got involved with this memorial project, is the learning of the Nakba and my effort to construct it as Israeli history too. On the days I was in Berlin the Knesset approved the "Nakba Law," aimed at preventing learning and commemorating the Nakba in Israel by creating an atmosphere of terror against anyone who engages in it. These Nazi laws in Berlin, from the beginning of the racist regime in Germany, reminded me immediately of the Israeli racist regime. The Nakba Law is one of a series of racist laws that makes Israel even less democratic and accentuates its Jewishness. This is another law that exposes the lie called "Jewish and democratic state."
In Germany the racist laws enacted by the Nazis were not the Holocaust. They were the legal foundation upon which horror itself later occurred, when millions of people were exterminated by people who considered themselves chosen and special and terrible war victims that occurred in Europe some years before. This legal foundation did not necessarily lead to genocide of European Jewry but it is certainly made it possible, and in retrospect one cannot understand the Holocaust without understanding the racist regime that started it.
Here in Israel, the government initiated legislation bears the stamp of Lieberman, the most effective politician who rose here since Ben-Gurion. With all the justified rage against Lieberman and his various loyalty laws one have to admit that these laws are deeply intertwined with the Zionist logic. If Israel is the state of the "Jewish people," (also called "Jewish State") the Nakba - the ethnic cleansing of the natives for its establishment - was absolutely necessary. In such a Jewish state, even if it has democratic aspects, the laws are likely to reflect the Zionist spirit and block any significant threat to its foundations. It goes without saying that learning the Nakba undermines the Zionist narrative. In this sense, Tzipi Livni was right when she claimed that if the Palestinians want peace they should give up the memory of the Nakba. She's more honest than many of the Zionist leftists who argue that it's possible to remember and acknowledge the Nakba in depth in the framework of the Jewish state.
The Nakba law is, thus, the legal and updated manifestation of the fear to engage with the Nakba. But this law was written on the Israeli body a long time ago. As soon as the dust from the convoys of Palestinian refugees had settled, the Israeli propaganda machine started to explain and justify this human tragedy. What followed was an almost complete denial the Nakba until about the fiftieth anniversary of Israel when it became no longer possible to ignore the growing activity by Palestinians on the issue, even within the boundaries of the Jewish state. And since more and more Israelis – Kosher Jews, Sabra and kibbutzniks, soldiers in the IDF - are interested in the Nakba and understanding its importance as Israeli history—their own history—the government could no longer ignore it and passed a law that seeks to continue the deletion of this past of history.
So, what was written on Israeli body about the Nakba? The body does not know it; it had never happened and if it did, then it was their (the Palestinians) fault alone; not only the fault of the Palestinians but also that of all the Arab countries that started the war; After the Holocaust there was no choice but to establish a Jewish state in Israel; the world voted for the Jewish state and the Arabs opposed it and wanted to throw us into the sea. Recently, we have seen our Prime Minister claim that the Arabs started the violence in 1948. It was a little embarrassing (although perhaps encouraging!) that the head of the 63 year old state is required to justify its existence.
How was it (the Nakba) written for Israelis on the body?
The memory project I mentioned earlier in this text deals with the beginning of the Nazi regime. Naturally, the Holocaust jumps to the Israeli mind although this project does not deal with it. In the Israeli collective memory any mention of German history raises up what our bodies are burned with in very national ways. The Israeli body is entirely drafted for a sole purpose: to strengthen Israeli nationalism; Zionism. Its interest in the horror of European Jews remains instrumental to Zionist militarism and chauvinism. Our body is trained on it from about the age three. All Israelis are commanded to stand still in the same day and at the same moment for these purposes.
When Gal, my second son, was four, he returned from the kindergarten on the Holocaust Memorial Day and I was very concerned for his mood. He confirmed my apprehension and was sad and angry. "They made me to be sad," he told me, "I did not want to be sad." He told me how the teacher has trained them to stand at attention during the siren, reminding me of what my body remembers so well. "You should lower your head so chin almost touches the chest and lower the gaze down. You should not laugh of course." Which Israeli does not know these physical operating instructions? With children, the learning of these physical gestures gets some twists, but apparently no new ones, as Naom, my seven and a half years old son, told me after this past Holocaust Memorial Day, saying "one child was tricking with all of us, even the teacher (!) When he created a sound of siren and made us all stand attention, a few minutes before the real siren. He laughed and we all did but the teacher did not like it. Later, at the ceremony the school principal said again and again that we all should grow as Zionists in Israel. At the end we sang the national anthem, Hatikvah"
"How is the Israeli anthem associated with the Holocaust?" I asked angrily without following the parent guides' instructions not to involve children with their own troubles. He was silent and didn't know what to say. Indeed, how can one answer this question? The only answer is that of the Zionist: Israel as a Jewish state is the response to the Holocaust and we'll do anything to preserve it intact, including wars forever. The school headmaster, as usual in Israel, does not make any distinction between Jews and Israelis or Zionists. Israeli children grow up without the ability to distinguish between the terms Jews and Israelis. Teachers adopt well the Israeli propaganda according to which opposition to the policy of Israel is a new form of anti-Semitism. They teach our children that the Holocaust was against us, the Israelis.
The Holocaust functions as the ultimate victimizer for Israelis who embody the answer to the Holocaust. It justifies any Israeli atrocity inflicted on the Palestinians. It is also not comparable to any other human atrocity. So, any mention of it in Israel, not in the "right" context that justifies the continued oppression of the Palestinians, immediately leads to an emotional and self-righteous response that prevents rational discussion. If someone offers a comparison between something done in Israel to something done to the Jews in Germany (even when it comes to the mindsets, or laws, rather than physical destruction itself) the usual body reaction is a noisy protest, abandonment, and profanity.
This happened when I dared to suggest, at that seminar in Berlin, putting up a sign in Tel Aviv on Israeli Independence Day, where on one side it would have citation from the Nakba Law in German stating that: it's not allowed to mourn at the state founding day. Israel 2011. Like the German memorial project signs, the other side of the sign would be an iconic image of the Nakba, for example, a Palestinian refugee holding his house key.
Before I could even finish writing the sentence on the board in German, an Israeli participant, who reads German, erupted in angry protest. "How dare you compare the Holocaust to the Nakba Law?" She snapped. "It's not comparing the Holocaust to anything, but the laws of the Nazi regime at the beginning to the Nakba Law" I tried to defend the idea, but it was hard for me to hide my embarrassment.
"You are promoting your political agenda and you have no right to do so. I expect you as Israeli to represent Israel well." "And representing Israel is not a political agenda?" I asked. "Well, yes ..." She honestly admitted.
How can we discuss this memory without politics? The right question is rather what politics are embodied in the act of remembering? What does the memory dictate on our bodies? What does it make us do? And, what does it forbid us from doing?
The answer depends on the ideology that guides the act of remembering. Ideology is written on our bodies as citizens and in a sense “run” them. Parents are important ideology agents as they imprint ideology on their offspring's body. From the moment of birth parents in Israel tend to cut off part of the son's body and soak their children in their ideology. Also, those who reject this crop (referred to as circumcision) embed their sons' bodies with ideology, by rejecting it. So, the question is not whether we, as parents, drown our children in an ideology, but what is this ideology? What does it mean?
I wanted to demonstrate, as father, the imprinting of my ideology on my children’s bodies by actually writing on their bodies. Three of them refused to do it, thus demarcating the limits of my sovereignty on their bodies. Only the elder agreed. Why did he agree while his brother and sister refused? Norma Musih, my friend, offers an interesting explanation. He had learned the language of resistance and expressed it by his own refusal to serve in the Israeli army and therefore felt more confident. Or, maybe he's just more forgiving to his father's weird ideas.
The sentence is almost an exact quote from the Nakba Law passed at the Knesset: It is not allowed to mourn at the state founding day. Israel 2011.
The prohibition to learn about the Nakba in Israel is ingrained in our body from infancy. Nakba is not taught in almost any context in Israel. So, Jewish Israelis are detached from their own and very recent past, the one that established the Jewish state.
This law also ingrained in our body in German as it is the language of an enemy for many Israelis. Although many in Israel were brought up within an environment of the German language and the Yiddish, which is very close to it, it's perceived as a constant threat. That's why a caption in German of an Israeli racist law inflames Israelis so much.
Arabic is also the language of the enemy in Israel, and, like German, for many Israelis Arabic is mother tongue. It's interesting to compare the attitudes of Israeli toward German and Arabic. It seems that more Israelis return to Germany and see it as desired destination. Only few Israelis see the Arab Region and language as home. The Israeli attitude toward the Arab Region is essentially colonial, requiring an obedient body, ready to combat and sacrifice himself.
English editing: Lubna A. Hammad