Dubai: the warrior-victims strike again?

Israel’s policy of assassinating its enemies springs from its culture of victimhood rather than any political strength.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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Western commentators seem to have found it hard to decide how to react to the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a founding member of the Islamist Hamas movement, in a Dubai hotel room on 20 January.

It is widely believed that Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, was behind the killing. For some it showed admirable Israeli daring. For others it was an outrage that Mossad agents allegedly used foreign passports to travel to Dubai to carry out an assassination. In Germany, which had been acting as a mediator between Hamas and Israel over the fate of a captured Israeli soldier, state prosecutors are considering pursuing a murder charge.

Although Israel has not officially claimed responsibility for the assassination it is widely accepted, even inside the country, that Mossad was behind it. Israel has a long-standing policy of assassinating its enemies, a policy which goes back to the aftermath of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Israel’s hit squads were even the subject of Steven Spielberg’s 2006 film, Munich.

Israel is certainly not unique in its use of assassinations. Although it has attracted relatively little attention, America has been using Predator drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, to assassinate alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. According to a new book by Mark Urban, the BBC defence correspondent, Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) captured or killed nearly 4,000 terrorists in a secret war in Iraq.

Although it is wrong to single Israel out morally for its policy of killing opponents, assassination plays a distinctive and central role in contemporary Israeli society, imbued as it is with the culture of victimhood. A closer examination of this culture – itself an extreme version of prevalent views in the West – helps unveil the character of the Israeli psyche.

Israel is what could be called a warrior-victim state. On the one hand, it is a highly militarised society in which the army plays a central role. On the other hand, it is a state that is defined by victimhood – it sees itself as the only rational response to the age-old scourge of anti-Semitism. Although these two elements coexist in Israeli society they are often in tension with one another. Indeed, the importance attached to the assassination of enemies – a key characteristic of contemporary Israel – brings together the warrior and victim elements in a lethal form.

The warrior character of Israeli society emerged as a reaction to the experience of anti-Semitism in Europe. Early Zionist leaders, from the late nineteenth century onwards, consciously set out to create a class of Jews who were the opposite of the Jews of the shtetl (the traditional Eastern European Jewish ghetto). Whereas the traditional Jews of the diaspora were frail, the New Jews were to be physically strong. Traditional Jews were intellectual, whereas New Jews engaged in manual and agricultural labour. Shtetl Jews were passive, whereas New Jews were willing to fight to defend themselves.

Terms used included the New Jews or the New Hebrews. Max Nordau, one of the early Zionist leaders, called for the development of ‘Muscle Judaism’. Jews who were born in Israel were known as sabras, after the desert cactus pear, as they were supposedly prickly on the outside but tender inside.

Such warrior values were institutionalised in underground military organisations before the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948 and in its army afterwards. The army ensured that Israelis were trained to be warriors who would fight against all odds, and if necessary kill, to ensure their survival. And since the army had such a central place in Israeli society, its ethos permeated the whole of the country.

Tragically, it was the Palestinians, who were in no way responsible for European anti-Semitism, who suffered as a result of the creation of the New Jew, when they found themselves dispossessed by the growing number of Zionist colonists in their land. The aim of the Zionists was not only to ensure that Jews could live in the area but to create a Jewish state (Medinat Yisrael) in the country. As a result, the non-Jewish population suffered.

However, the creation of a warrior Israel was not just a problem for the Palestinians. It is less widely known that Holocaust survivors suffered significant stigma during Israel’s early years. They were seen as having passively accepted their fate rather than fighting in accordance with the ideology of the New Hebrew. They were even derided as sabon (soap) by some native-born Israelis. It is hard to think of a more derogatory term for Holocaust survivors.

As Klein Halevi, an Israeli writer, notes: ‘When the survivors first arrived, they were received with indifference, even hostility. Survivors were seen as the antithesis of Zionism’s “New Jew”, passive victims who threatened the daring spirit on which Israel’s birth and continued survival depended, as if they carried a contagious weakness. Survivors – whom sabras derisively nicknamed sabon, soap – were even accused of having been collaborators, their very survival suspect.’

However, the Zionist enterprise never fully broke away from its identification with victimhood. The rationale of the Zionist movement was that Jews would always be victims of anti-Semitism in non-Jewish society. As Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, wrote in 1896: ‘The nations in whose midst Jews live are all, either covertly or openly, anti-Semitic.’ Jews could not rid themselves of their victim status entirely but they could escape, in Herzl’s view, by establishing a Jewish state.

Ultimately Zionism was always about running away from anti-Semitism rather than fighting it. Both Zionists and anti-Semites shared the assumption that Jews and non-Jews could not live together in peace. However flawed this response, it would be wrong to blame it primarily on Jews. It was the failure of broader radical movements before the Second World War to tackle anti-Semitism – and to transform society more generally – that left Jews open to the arguments of the Zionist movement.

Over a century after Herzl’s death, the emphasis on victimhood in Israel has gone further. In this sense, Israel has moved on from the Zionist vision of the New Jew to the post-Zionist Jew as victim. For instance, the new Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem which opened in 2005 – part of Israel’s official Holocaust memorial centre – gives far more centrality to individual victimhood than older parts of the complex (see Can you feel a Holocaust victim’s pain? by Nathalie Rothschild). In earlier times the emphasis was much more on the collective suffering of the Jewish people. Before 1973, as Halevi notes in Israel at 50, Israel’s official Holocaust commemorations focused ‘obsessively on partisans and ghetto fighters’ in line with the ideology of the New Jew.

The institutionalisation of victimhood is particularly prevalent in the Israeli educational system. Defamation, a 2009 documentary on anti-Semitism by Israeli director Yoav Shamir, showed how many thousands of Israeli high school students go on organised trips to Auschwitz shortly before being inducted into military service.

Today’s individual victim orientation has even permeated the Israeli army. This was most apparent in the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, when Israeli troops evacuated settlers from the Gaza strip. Israeli soldiers, even officers, were openly seen weeping in front of television cameras. Such behaviour would have been anathema to earlier generations of Israeli army officers who prided themselves on toughness in all situations.

Many Israeli combat soldiers, including members of elite combat units, have expressed unease at what would normally be considered a core part of their job. Some 13 members of Sayeret Matkal – Israel’s equivalent of Britain’s SAS – including a major, have even signed a letter declaring their refusal to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. In addition, an officer and sergeant of Duvdevan (cherry), an elite undercover and assassination unit, were dismissed after refusing to carry out an arrest mission in the West Bank town of Jenin. Such incidents probably help explain why in recent years Israel has increasingly used helicopter gunships rather than ground troops for assassination missions.

Clearly, both warrior and victim elements still coexist to some extent in contemporary Israeli society. But the theme of individual victimhood has come to the fore at the expense of the ideology of the tough New Jew.

It was the events of the 1970s, beginning with the attack on Israeli athletes in Munich, which increased Israeli society’s sense of victimhood. The October 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria, helped to strengthen its sense of vulnerability much further. After the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel had destroyed the surrounding Arab armies in less than a week, there was a feeling of near invincibility in Israel. In contrast, six years later an acute sense of anxiety began to develop in the popular mood.

Subsequent events have heightened Israel’s feeling of insecurity still further. Its invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982 was first followed by many years of indecisive conflict, and then by a humiliating withdrawal. The Palestinians’ First Intifada (uprising) of 1987-88 and the Second Intifada that broke out in 2000 also played a role.

But Israel should not be examined in isolation from the rest of the world: the growing emphasis on victimhood and vulnerability in Western society has also influenced Israeli culture. In a sense, everyone nowadays wants to identify with the most tragic aspects of the Jewish historical experience. This is why the term ‘Holocaust’ is increasingly used to apply to all kinds of conflicts.

In contrast, the qualities associated with the New Jew are widely seen as repellent. Anyone who is willing to stand up for themselves, with force if necessary, is viewed with hostility. Much of the popular hostility to Israel today is based on its willingness to fight. At the same time, little credence is given to the idea that the Palestinians should have the autonomy to determine their own future – as witnessed by the frequent demands for Western diplomacy to solve the conflict.

It is in the context of the shift from New Jew to victim that the Israeli assassination teams should be understood. The distinctive character of an assassination team is that it fuses together the warrior and victim elements in a particularly brutal way. Or as a senior Israeli army officer said following the assassination of a Palestinian activist in 2000: ‘We will continue to take action against anyone who tries to harm us.’ If someone defines themselves as a victim, and they have the means at their disposal, it makes sense to kill whoever is seen as the aggressor. Even if your military doctrine emphasises self-defence – as the Israeli army’s ‘purity of arms’ (tohar haneshek) does – anyone can be judged a legitimate target if they are seen as a quasi-Nazi.

Anyone who doubts the importance of assassination to Israel should remember that two prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, along with many other senior politicians, were once members of Sayeret Matkal, which for years was Israel’s prime assassination unit. Indeed, Spielberg’s Munich shows Barak, then commander of Sayeret Matkal, leading an assassination operation in Beirut in response to the attack on the 1972 Olympics.

Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of assassination, including high-profile Palestinian leaders among its targets. In 1988 a joint Mossad-Sayeret team killed Abu Jihad (Khalil el-Wazir), then the PLO’s military commander and its deputy leader, in Tunis. In March 2004 an Israeli army helicopter was used to assassinate Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas. The following month Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, the Hamas leader, was killed in a similar attack.

It is also widely believed that as part of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 the then defence minister, Ariel Sharon, wanted to assassinate Yasser Arafat, but his move was vetoed by America. In April 2004, Sharon, then prime minister, threatened publicly to have Arafat killed (although he did not pursue it).

Israelis have also learned that once the principle of assassination is accepted it can have unexpected consequences. In 1995 Yigal Amir, an Israeli extremist, assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, for negotiating with the Palestinians.

This is the character of the Israeli tragedy. The original impulse of Zionism was to break away from Jews’ position as victims to create a new warrior Jew. But its inherent limitations meant that it could never fully escape from its identification with victimhood. In addition, the Palestinians, a people with no responsibility for the Holocaust, themselves became the victims of the Zionist enterprise.

However, it is wrong to blame the Zionist movement or the Israeli state wholly for this situation. The failure of radical movements to combat anti-Semitism played an important part in creating the circumstances in which this tragedy could develop. America and Britain have also played a key role in backing Israel in the past, since it has often fitted in with what they see as their strategic interests.

Clearly such a complex and embedded situation cannot be easily resolved – certainly not by simple dialogue. Perhaps the best starting point is to reject the contemporary trend for individuals to define themselves as victims. For once people identify themselves as victims above all else, then perhaps anything, including assassination, becomes justifiable.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on spiked in January 2006.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here. His new book, Ferraris For All: In Defence of Economic Progress, will be published by Policy Press in July.

Previously on spiked

Daniel Ben-Ami thought Spielberg’s Munich presented a fantasy view of the Middle East. Nathalie Rothschild said America is no longer master of the Middle East. Elsewhere, she noted the rise of new forms of fearful separatism in Israel. Brendan O’Neill examined the politics of anti-Zionism. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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