Visiting enemies

by Lizzie Doron

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

My childhood was coloured by defeat. My parents escaped the Holocaust but never held a gun; they didn't fight back when the enemy killed their families. In effect, I grew up in an anti-hero household.

In the newly formed state of Israel, the idea of what it meant to be a Jew changed. Until then, our history had been based on intellectual study of the Bible and our lives within our religious community. But our new identity, that of an Israeli, involved toiling in the fields to make the land arable - and fighting and strengthening the army of the young state. Not only did we want to overcome the past; we sought to do the groundwork for the future. We wanted to be heroes. I remember how excited I was when I saw uniformed people with weapons. We didn't play with dolls in my kindergarten; we preferred tanks and aeroplanes. Our young state had to be defended against all external enemies, that was the social consensus. We have always been victims. Now it was up to us Jews to be victorious. The psychology of the victim is complicated. From the outside it seems weak, but it is also very dangerous.

In my childhood dreams I was a fast runner and I had to flee from the Germans or the Arabs. Night after night I fell into a deep hole in the ground, hiding myself there and figuring out the best fighting strategy to kill my pursuer. I was, mind you, just four or five years old. When I was a bit older, I read many hero stories and, above all, scoured around for stories about Israeli heroes. Among those were women, for example, pioneers who guarded the borders at night. It was also down to women to defend Israel’s national interest.

I grew up without a father. He died when I was eight, but my mother never really spoke about it. Instead, we behaved as if he was just somewhere far away. When I joined the army at 18, I was asked about my father. Only then did I say for the first time that he was dead. I was asked how he died. Then I said something that seemed to come from deep within me, I think, from my dreams: I said he died in the Revolutionary War. Everyone looked at me stunned, telling me: That cannot be, you were born in 1953 and the Revolutionary War was 1948! I had simply spoken from wishful thinking. I so wanted my father to be a war hero and, after all, most heroes in our stories end up losing their lives. In reality, my father died of tuberculosis. Our Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once explained how his motivation to fight for Israel's freedom came from the era of British occupation of the country. But Netanyahu was born after the end of the occupation. As a result, he was widely dubbed as a liar - which he was, of course. But this episode showed me that I wasn't the only person with this strangely distorted perspective. That is closely interlinked with our trauma. Israel's psychological inner-world has so many layers; they have come to define us almost as much as our genes. After all, we don't only have a complex inner life, we also have an enemy threatening our existence as a state.

When I first held a weapon in my hand during military service I thought straight away: I have to tell my mother that I now know how to kill someone. I was amazingly proud. But she was wise and said: "When you kill someone it is far more likely to get killed yourself. Don't think of that as being heroic. That is stupidity!"

I grew up with friends who were also the children of holocaust survivors. We all dreamed of being heroes. But we didn't have much luck. We started our military service in 1973, during the year of the Yom Kippur War, the fourth Arab-Israeli war. Seven of my friends died, making it a turning point for me. We shouldn't focus on supposed heroism. There is a high price to pay for that.

Every nation has its narrative, it's a social consensus. For Israel, the thinking goes: We are in danger - therefore we need to be strong and we need strong leaders. To sustain this consensus, we have a string of memorial days for soldiers, holocaust survivors and civilian casualties. We repeatedly count up our death toll and find that it is too high. That feeds into our deep-rooted hero and martyr dreams and ensnares us in the never-ending Middle East conflict. We lack an alternative story, something to break this pattern.

For me, this perspective first started to feel wrong during the Yom Kippur War. I linked up with the left-wing freedom activists, but we were only a small group. In the end I gave up on it and dedicated myself to my own life. Later my husband and then my children had to join the army. Once again, I felt the urge to get to know our enemy, the Palestinians. In 2009 I decided to do just that. For me back then every Palestinian was a terrorist, a murderer, those people who had killed my seven best friends. I began to regularly meet with a Palestinian journalist as part of a book project. During these meetings I also wanted to find out what it means to be a hero in today's Middle East conflict. You have to switch perspective to relate to other people's history. It's like an inner revolution. It is difficult because you have to mourn your own dead. But I realized: The parallels on both sides are amazing. You tell your story and hear an echo; it is the story of your enemy. I think it's very similar in Bosnia or Ireland. Wherever there are such wars, someone should have to draw an honest image of the enemy. I found that we are playing an absurd game of rivalry: who has suffered more, who has made more sacrifices? And at the same time, the Palestinians want to be heroes too. As we glorify warriors, they glorify the war and the decision to commit suicide. This is crazy! Really crazy! What the hell is that supposed to be a dream, how can we live that way?

I hope people are starting to realize that this is a never-ending war. We fail to check if it is still relevant. We no longer have any doubts, it is like a religious doctrine: God commands, and you do not doubt. The army's fight is part of this logic. Military service is as natural to us as the metro system is to Berliners.

Today I believe that we can only make a difference if we are ready to defy the social consensus. That's my definition of heroism. Not only in Israel, but also with movements like #Metoo. It is all about people questioning basic assumptions. To do this, you first have to distance yourself: Zooming out is a first step towards questioning something. For this reason, my heroes don't need weapons or uniforms. From time to time, I hear the voices of my dead friends in a dream, they ask if I am a collaborator. Today, I don't see them as martyrs any more. They followed the dreams of their political leaders. At that time we were convinced that we had to protect our land. But, with hindsight, it was probably a mistake to sacrifice your life for this war. Maybe we could have found another solution.

But today we still haven't found the right arguments or the right languages to convince one another. I will continue to transcribe the stories of others. It is as if I changed trains and am now traveling in the opposite direction. It isn't possible to change back to my original train. The humour, which underlies my books, is my tranquiliser pill. I have to be cynical. Also among my Palestinian friends I have seen how the victims have a great sense of humour. Recently I went with Suliman, the Palestinian leader of the peace organisation "Combatants for Peace" to a fine restaurant in Jerusalem. Suliman loves being barefoot and took his shoes off. All the other restaurant goers stared at him as if he was mad. I discreetly pointed that out. He replied: "Tell them that it's better if I go barefoot than if I have a grenade in each hand!"

We couldn't stop laughing. 

Transcribed by Friederike Biron

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