‘Homeland’ and Hamas

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.

Cast of "Homeland" at Emmy awards 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)
Cast of "Homeland" at Emmy awards 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)
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 him.
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 vision.
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 uncanny.
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.
What right 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).
According to Mead, Jacksonian-minded Americans witnessing Israeli populations under attack believe in Israel’s unqualified right to respond, regardless of notions of proportionality.
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 Vinson.
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 luxuries.
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 military.
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 violated.
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 aftermath.
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 general.
Israel has to work the other way round, grasping a firmer notion of itself in order to understand its behavior in real-world situations.
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 terrorist.
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.
The Palestinian 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 deeper needs.
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 wrong.
The author is a writer who lives in Tel Aviv.