Terra Incognita: Where is the banality of the Jews?

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The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall reminds us once again of the theory of the "banality of evil." It is important to explore the way in which contemporary thought views the actions of the East Germans and their Nazi forebears as "banal" and yet many of those who see their actions as dull, tend to judge the IDF harshly. A discussion of the subject should begin with celebrated filmmaker and Israeli intellectual Eyal Sivan. Sivan is primarily famous for The Specialist, a 1999 film about Adolph Eichmann. Sivan's main themes in his work have been that Israel has created a national Holocaust cult; that Israelis are capable of becoming more and more like Nazis in their dealing with the Palestinians and that Eichmann, one of the greatest Nazi organizers of mass murder, was "banal" or dull, therefore merely part of a system, and not particularly evil. Sivan's work follows in the footsteps of philosopher Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who had an affair with the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger before fleeing to New York in 1941. She resumed the affair after the war, defended her philosopher-partner at his trial and then defended Eichmann's "banality" in her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Both Arendt and Sivan are well-known, respected intellectuals whose ideas influence contemporary views on the Holocaust. Many have challenged Sivan and Arendt by trying to prove that Eichmann was far from banal; that he was a crusading individual, a unique person who excelled at his work and was thus evil, not merely part of a larger bureaucratic "machine" that was Nazism. But perhaps the question shouldn't be whether Eichmann was banal, but whether the Jews are banal. Arendt blamed the Jews for their deaths, claiming that the Judenrat and their part in Nazi bureaucracy was a driver of the Holocaust. For Arendt, the culprits were the far-from-banal Jewish collaborators, not the Nazis who ran the thing. For Sivan, the Nazis are also colorless banal fools, the Jews are the culprits, in this case the Zionist regime for daring to memorialize the Holocaust and for supposedly erasing the Palestinian memory of the "nakba" of 1948 and continuing to suppress Palestine. ALL OF this leads us back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. During anniversary celebrations to mark the event, groups of European activists, along with their Israeli and Palestinian friends, staged an especially violent and loud protest at the security barrier near Nil'in in the West Bank, the site of a weekly anti-fence protest. They wanted to connect Israel's wall with the Berlin Wall. The New York Times obliged them with a photo captioned "this wall still stands". How is the Arendt-Sivan philosophy of banality connected to the fall of the Berlin Wall? Many who write about the East German regime and its Stasi secret police tend to portray the soldiers who manned its wall as banal. When they obeyed the "shoot to kill" orders against those trying to flee the East, they are inevitably excused. A program on the National Geographic channel claimed they had to 'wrestle with demons' and it must have been "terrible" for them to shoot their own people. One feels the shooter was as much the victim as those he shot. But for all the wrestling and inner struggle of the East German border guards, one might have forgotten that they carried out criminal orders. And yet with the fall of the Berlin Wall, none of the leaders of the Stasi were put on trial. Banality triumphed. The system in East Germany was bad; no individual had committed any crimes. The reunification of Europe was replete with such amnesties for murderers. With the exception of a few cases, most of the Communist criminals were forgotten. The idea was, as in South Africa, Spain after Franco and Northern Ireland, that bygones should be bygones. No show trials. No revenge. And yet the same European judicial system that forgets the Communist and Franco past is the one, in Belgium, Spain and the UK, that allows itself to investigate IDF "war crimes" in Gaza. How did it come to be that a judicial system in the UK that can't investigate Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, when the British paratroops shot 14 people dead in 1972, can investigate far-away Israel? England waited 30 years to convene an inquiry into Bloody Sunday; Israel is expected to do so tomorrow morning. The central theme that runs all the way through is that the Jews, as a people, are not perceived as banal. As such they are perceived as individually evil when they do things that are perceived as wrong. A Jewish IDF soldier who commits a crime while on duty is not having some sort of internal moral wrestling match; he is especially inclined to do bad. His crime is part of a system that is portrayed as uniquely evil. When statistics showed that the IDF has almost no instances of military rape, an MA student at Hebrew University, supported by influential faculty, penned a thesis arguing that Israeli soldiers aren't raping Arab women because of the IDF's "racist" nature. The thesis was feted because even in Israel people are convinced that Jewish actions are so uniquely evil, that even inaction (for example, not raping) comes from a pernicious instinct. The problem is an absence of banality. Philosophers, intellectuals and commoners alike have turned the most satanic regimes into banal bureaucracies, with soul-searching SS men and border guards. The least they could do is use the same standards when judging the IDF. The writer is a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.