Finally: We caught Abu Nazir. Or at least Carrie Mathison did on Homeland, the
Emmy-winning series (if you haven’t heard) based on the Israeli series, Hatufim.
Carrie had been desperately hunting arch-terrorist Nazir for months, and now,
after some cuts and scrapes and no shortage of tears, she finally got
Watching the episode, the relief in the room was palpable (though
possibly because I was the only one in it), and it was clear that the show’s
writers intended that relief: The fictional Nazir was a despicable character who
preyed on soldiers and civilians alike to advance his perverse Islamist
Coming just weeks after the “liquidation” (as it’s called in
Hebrew) of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari in Gaza, the episode seemed
weirdly timely, despite being written and shot long before last month’s events.
No doubt, Nazir is more a bin Laden-esque figure than Jabari, despite Osama bin
Laden’s existence in the show’s universe. But, still, the parallels are
It was, after all, Jabari who was responsible for kidnapping
Gilad Schalit and holding him in Gaza for five years, much as Homeland’s Nazir
kidnapped American Marine Nick Brody in Iraq and held him for eight years. As a
member of Hamas, Jabari also shared in Nazir’s belief in Islamic hegemony, both
regionally and globally.
But that’s where the similarities begin to end.
After the return of both Schalit in real life and Brody on the show, the
respective military and intelligence apparatuses of the real IDF and fictional
CIA hunt down the Islamist terrorist in question. In both cases, they eventually
get their man.
In the universe of the American show, however, there is an
unambiguous expectation that the viewer’s emotional response to Nazir’s death
will be relief. There is absolutely no room for remorse, navel gazing or
second-guessing. The man was evil and got what was coming to him, the show seems
to say, as it dusts its hands off.
In the Israeli universe, which is
often stranger than fiction, the situation wasn’t so clear-cut. Most Israelis
did express a sense of justice fulfilled regarding Jabari’s death. (Though one
would be hard-pressed to find anything that even came close to celebration.) But
in addition to the relief was a significant sense of lament that came in varying
shapes and forms.
One commentator, writing in The New York Times opinion
pages, anointed Jabari a “peacemaker.”
(Strangely, this particular
moniker had never been applied to the Hamas military commander responsible for
arming Gaza with civilian-targeting weaponry while he was still alive.) Others
regretted Israel’s return to targeted assassination, many of whom were abroad,
including in America, where the US president has undertaken what may be the
largest program of “targeted assassination” in recent memory.
does Israel have to eliminate a person living in another country (or canton, as
it were), commentators pondered, both in Israel and abroad. The killing of
terrorists will only breed more terrorists, strengthen their cause, raise money
for them, bring bad weather, cause the icecaps to melt, etc., and other
varieties of disaster forecasting were also triggered by the death of a man who
had been committed to killing Israeli civilians as part of a strategy to wipe
this country off the map.
So why the moral certitude expressed not by the
US military, in this case, but by a popular American TV show? And why the
hand-wringing, the nervousness, the regret, and the inability to follow a
certain, seemingly obvious course of action on the part of so much of the
Israeli public and intellectual elite? IN THE midst of the recent Gaza conflict,
Walter Russell Mead attributed a “Jacksonian” perspective not just to some
Americans today, but to much of American history to explain US public opinion on
Israel’s actions, especially in relief against European opinion. Jacksonians are
of the don’t-tread- on-me variety, believing that when under assault a victim’s
right to defense is so strong that an attacker should virtually expect to be
counterattacked, and that the victim’s necessary and ideal response is to
incapacitate the enemy, no matter what the cost (to the enemy).
to Mead, Jacksonian-minded Americans witnessing Israeli populations under attack
believe in Israel’s unqualified right to respond, regardless of notions of
But this doesn’t explain American support from both
sides of the political aisle for Israel’s actions against men like Jabari, nor
does it completely explain America’s unequivocal response to the killing of
terrorists like bin Laden (or Nazir).
Unlike in Israel, where Jabari’s
death was met with the merest expression of relief, Americans from across the
political spectrum literally celebrated when they learned that the body of the
al-Qaida leader had been dumped over the rails of the USS Carl
But Mead’s explanation does offer some direction on this, though
it’s in some sense a negative one. Americans believed absolutely in their right
to find and kill bin Laden because, believing inherently in their own right to
exist, as well as in their individual rights to life, liberty, etc., an attack
on themselves amounts to a negation of their attacker’s rights. It’s an
essential utilitarian calculus of positive and negative rights in a country
where the underlying national principle is liberty.
In the Israeli case,
the American’s complete certitude regarding his own right to exist, as both an
individual and as a citizen of a country, is not quite there. Israel’s battle
today is primarily one of legitimacy, and only secondarily one of physical
defense. Forty years ago, Israelis did possess a more concrete concept of their
own legitimacy. When it came to making war, they were able exercise their power
in order to decisively incapacitate their enemy. Today, that “luxury” of
self-belief has been supplanted by other, sometimes more tangible
BUT THERE’S also a deeper element at play. Israel’s existence
is not based on the principle of liberty. The defining, elemental question is
not how to legislate and adjudicate rights in a country where the individual
should be as free as possible. In Israel, the defining question is about how to
be a Jewish nation that’s incorporated as a state and empowered by a
In this sense, the question of killing has less to do with the
abrogation of one party’s rights when a second party’s rights have been
Rather, the question in Israel is much less functional (and
thus, much less clear) and is much more concerned with the dictates of two
harshly opposing forces: the vagaries of historical experience and moral
absolutes. Israel’s questions, both theoretically and on a daily basis, are more
along the lines of: When is it right to kill? How does our history of Jewish
victimhood translate to our role as we deal with a potential victim? Why should
our enemy be sacrificed rather than us? And how, given our nearly endless
history of suffering, can we end or ameliorate suffering in the long term
without causing more of it in the short term? They are pressing questions, and
not resolvable in the heat of a crisis, much less in its messy
Unlike the US, we can’t look to the circumstances of a given
situation to understand our moral role in that situation – or in the world in
Israel has to work the other way round, grasping a firmer notion
of itself in order to understand its behavior in real-world
With this in mind, it’s not such a great mystery that in the
idealized fictional world of an America at war the killing of a terrorist is a
very straightforward affair. The man is, in the minds of Americans, a
His actions are and only ever will be destructive. Thus, his
death will result in a positive outcome.
In the all-too-real world of
Israel, the killing of a terrorist doesn’t have the self-affirming reflexive
values it has in America. In Israel the man is a man, and a terrorist. He’s a
potential peacemaker because with our memory of constant suffering, any act
outside the norm of responses might present an avenue to peace. His death is a
liability because, unsure of the right to our national existence, we can never
be totally sure we’ve done the right thing.
On one account, those who
lamented Jabari’s death (possibly just weeks before they celebrated Nazir’s
death on screen) are right: Israel’s path is not America’s. The US can bomb a
country “back into the stone age” or, more subtly, decimate the male populations
of villages abroad, and the problem can be at least temporarily managed. But the
Israeli problem can’t be managed. It must be solved.
But this is where
the discussion too often drifts into shallower waters.
conflict is not the root issue for Israel, but yet another effect. The questions
that must be addressed (if not answered) are the ones above, about Israel’s
identity in the 21st century, about its relation to Jewry and its Jewish past,
and the kind of future it doesn’t just want for itself but understands as both
its right and its obligation.
Unfortunately, Israel’s culture and public
persona are allergic to questions like these. This country was built in the
midst of crisis, when institutions were cobbled together according to the
utilitarian standard of gaining the most value for the least resource. This
ethic, which has also blessed Israel with advantages like its risk-loving
start-up culture, calcified over the years and has become Israel’s default
national skeleton. It exists today very much in contradiction to the country’s
Israelis, who often negate Israel’s ability to pursue
long-term solutions by complaining that “Israel is not America,” need to take a
cue from America’s establishment and its very prescient founding fathers, and
begin by sitting down at tables to do the long, hard work of understanding just
who we are and what this country means. Only armed with the kind of legitimacy
that stems not so much from these answers, but from the dialectic created by
asking the right questions, will Israel truly be able to understand right from
The author is a writer who lives in Tel Aviv.