There is always an Israeli ‘massacre’

Although it is common to dehumanize enemies, in the Arab/Muslim world, attempting any non-negative presentation of Israelis is just not tolerated.

mavi marmara 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
mavi marmara 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
As I practice filmmaking, I’d like to give a cinematic introduction to this article. Here are five scenes:
Scene 1, 2010, Carnegie Mellon University campus, Pittsburgh: Shabbat dinner for grad students. Two young ladies at the ticket-selling desk, switching between English and Hebrew; I said, “Shalom” and smiled, they smiled back. I thought of joining in, but then what would the reaction be when I introduced myself to the kippa-wearing guys saying, “My name is Mohammad”?
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Scene 2, 2008, Jordan. Azmi Bishara, in a documentary about the Sabra and Shatilla massacre on Al Jazeera, noted how it was unlikely that Israeli soldiers would commit the crime; it would not fit their professionalism as soldiers in a regular army.
Scene 3, 2010, US, on the phone with a friend. Checking my following of homefront news, he asked: “Have you heard about the latest Israeli massacre?” referring to the flotilla incident.
Scene 4: 2004, Jordan, a rainy winter night. I was replaying a scene from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in which a little girl in red against a black-and-white background runs for shelter. So sad I wept a lot; I felt guilty – for weeping – especially as to the “Zionist” ending of the film.
Scene 5, can’t recall the time or place but definitely 21st century, planet Earth. In an academic, specialist discussion of literary criticism and philosophy; by way of concluding and at the mention of Marx, Freud and Darwin, one of our Arab colleagues exclaimed in a matter-of-fact tone: “They are all Jews... trying to lead humanity astray. You know, part of the Zionist Protocols.”
I have a large repertoire of similar scenes from everyday life, but those will do for now.
The first observation is how much our worldview in the Middle East, especially on the Arab side, is fraught with assumptions, misconceptions and stereotypes, all presented as historical facts. Those facts-in-disguise program us and interfere in all levels of our lives, even the most basic ones, like forming a friendship or taking interest in others.
The second issue is the centrality of the enmity toward Israel, which often takes an anti-Semitic nature. Recognizing Israel as the archenemy seems to have an ontological dimension. It is a way of defining ourselves in the world, a ritual of coming into political existence, a baptism.
An immediate consequence of this is that we end up having ready-made scenarios of how events go and, no matter what the facts are, we tend to accept and assign credibility only to our own story.
The general framework goes something like this: In an encounter between an IDF soldier and a Palestinian, or an Arab in general, there is only one of two outcomes: a murder (a massacre, a martyrdom) or a heroic victory. The soldier will do his best to kill, the Palestinian (or Arab) will do his best to struggle.
THIS MIGHT look like a simplification, but let me illustrate it with a recent example, the Turkish flotilla incident.
The popular interpretation in the Arab world about what happened on that May 31 morning and the interpretation now, after several months, are one and the same. How is that possible?
Before we had any facts, everybody “knew” what had happened – an Israeli massacre. As I said, this is the ready-made scenario. I had difficult times trying to offer an even slightly altered situation.
“Those on board the flotilla, who are they?” “Freedom fighters, heroes, mujahedeen.”
“Fine, are they willing to die for their cause?” “Definitely.”
“What do you think they will do if they spot an Israeli soldier?” “They will fight heroically.”
“So they will try to kill him.”
“Definitely, it is their duty”.
This is what everyone in the Arab world knew about the feelings of those aboard the ship. But they themselves panic when a more “realistic” scenario is suggested: The soldiers came for inspection. On spotting them, our friends did what they thought was their duty, and what they were prepared, at least mentally, to do. The soldiers acted accordingly, and since they were more professional and better equipped, they ended up with no casualties.
This scenario can in no way be accepted except as an attempt to defend the Israelis and “collaborate” with them. The other scenario, ready before and despite any facts, is as follows: The soldiers intercepted the Mavi Marmara with the intention of killing as many people as possible. They started shooting in all directions. The heroes had to fight back, and were able to hurt some of the enemy fighters, but many fell as martyrs. The soldiers might also have offered a villain-like grin at the end.
THE SABRA and Shatilla massacre is another relevant example. Like everyone else in my part of the world, I was raised to believe that the Israelis planned and committed that heinous crime – led by the ultimate butcher, Ariel Sharon. The involvement of Lebanese militia was a marginal, secondary issue. Of course I had to discover the facts through my personal research, and away from our mass media.
The unlikelihood of IDF soldiers slaughtering civilians is such an esoteric issue that it needs an intellectual insider to Israeli politics, like Bishara, to grasp.
The massacre is a good case in point also in that it shows how the reaffirmation of enmity to Israel is manipulated in the resolution of national and local conflicts. It is reactionary to accuse Israel. In Lebanon, it was easier and more useful for the national compromise after the Taif agreement to let the blame fall on Israel. Everyone is happy.
Although it is common to dehumanize enemies, in our case the process is overwhelming. Attempting any “humanized” presentation of Israelis is not tolerated, regardless of one’s ongoing enmity with Zionism and the “Zionist state.” This is what Mahmoud Darwish, the top Palestinian nationalist poet, tries to do in his poem “A Soldier Dreaming of White Daffodils” where he presents an “imaginary” dialogue with an IDF soldier and shows him victimized by the Zionist discourse.
The poem is always criticized, not esthetically, but due to the fact that the “humanity” of the IDF soldier is “beyond the norm.” In this context and to mention another work of art, the problem with Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, from our point of view, would be the “humanized” presentation of IDF soldiers, who seem to not act like butchers or killers all around.
This kind of prejudiced, ready-made thinking, besides perhaps Israeli preoccupation with security, is what made something like the flotilla incident possible both in the reality of the event and its repercussions.
It is becoming challenging to state that you need not be a Zionist or a collaborator to understand the flotilla incident was not a massacre, or to believe that the Israeli army would have prevented the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, or to argue that the Israelis are not after genocide in Gaza, but rather interested in a more pragmatic objective – blocking the traffic of weapons and missiles.
Sadly enough, it is still hard to see where in our discourse the boundaries, if any, exist between ending Israeli occupation and “wiping out” Israel and “the Jews.”
The writer is a PhD researcher at IUP and an independent