Israelis forgetting how to treat the other as human

Back in January, Assa Doron, an Israeli/Australian research fellow in the research school of Pacific and Asian studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, wrote a piece in the Australian about Jewish dissent over Israel:

No one has a monopoly on patriotism or what constitutes national loyalty. Like many others, I too feel for those Israelis whose lives are routinely affected by the barrage of bombs falling on their homes in southern Israel.

However, I become deeply suspicious when their experiences are used as an authenticating and authoritative view, to the exclusion of other equally important voices, especially when pitching Israel as the sole democracy in the region.

In August, Doron published a powerful piece in Hebrew in the Israeli political blog Haoketz and he has sent me the English translation:

A recent article from Haiir (July 17), a Tel-Aviv newspaper, reports on a cartoon depicting an Israeli and a Palestinian soldier in a face off, rifles aimed at each other, with a baby pram –a symbol of parental nurture and future generations – beside each. The difference between the two almost identical soldier figures is that the pram is in front of the Palestinian who hides behind it, while an identical pram is located behind the Israeli soldier, who guards it.…  The article reports on the production and distribution of what it calls a caricature by a senior high school teacher during the Gaza war. The caricature was sent to students in an email with a caption underneath noting ‘there is no need for debates in school when a caricature is worth a thousand words’.

The caricature came to the attention of parents and more recently of the newspaper. Both parents and students were dismayed at the cartoon’s message; which along with other incidents in which the teacher conveyed religious and nationalistic principles and values, were viewed as at odds with the schools’ secular mandate. The school is not in a settlement in the occupied territories. This is a school in Ramat-Aviv, the liberal and secular bastion of Israeli society. In response to queries by the newspaper, however, the school’s Principal was unequivocal in her praise for the senior teacher whom she described as an excellent educator and teacher.

My concern with such caricature is to emphasize how such an image is located within a broader process of dehumanization taking place across Israeli society and its state institutions. The most significant point is that such a sketch is but one way in which Israeli youth are subjected to methods of inculcation by their teachers: those who the state places as one of the most important moral authorities.

Through the sketch the teacher exercises political persuasion in the classroom in ‘innovative’ ways that powerfully target the young. When parents began questioning such methods, the senior teacher replied she merely put into drawing what the government (Peres, Nethanyahu and Barak) and the media have been saying all along: that the terrorists (synonymous with ”˜the Palestinians’) are hiding behind women and children and the IDF is protecting our citizens: that was the consensus.

Curiously, in the same week another debate erupted in Israel over a report by an Israeli Human Rights Organization called, ”˜Breaking the Silence’ that documented testimonies by soldiers who served in the ‘Cast Led’ operation in Gaza, conceding that they used Palestinian civilians as human shields to protect themselves in battle.…  The report immediately triggered a vehement response by the well-oiled army PR machinery against those anonymous testimonies by soldiers.…  The spokesmen claiming that the organization is out to tarnish the IDF, which Israel regularly proclaims as the most moral army in the world.

Unfortunately, the image drawn by the teacher received far less attention by the state authorities, but to my mind is equally revealing of the process of dehumanization that is in full swing in Israeli society. The recent exposure in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz of Israeli soldiers wearing t-shirts sporting an image of a pregnant Palestinian woman in a rifle’s cross-hairs with the slogan “1 Shot 2 Kills” is a case in point. There are many more such disturbing mass produced t-shirts. It should be clear, these are t-shirts are produced privately by soldiers, often with approval of senior officers. However, even if they are not official army issue, the fact that so many soldiers approve of them and wear them, as noted in Haaretz, points to a deep-set attitude of hatred, stretching beyond professional concerns, that seems to afflict many soldiers.

Perhaps more concerning is the fact that the dehumanizing process is now fully entrenched in schools, as part of the mechanisms reproducing the widespread maxim that there can be no partner for peace in the Middle East. Such simplistic sketches, closely mimicking the cartoon genre beloved to all children, normalize state discourses about the other as being undeserving of any sympathy whatsoever.

There are a number of grave concerns that emerge from such an ‘innocent’ sketch – one that as the teacher said, merely ”˜reflects the consensus’. Some of these concerns have been hinted at above, such as the way in which the future generation is indoctrinated into viewing the Palestinian as the mirror image of a morally upright Israel – i.e., non-human. How else can one explain a person using a defenseless baby to shield himself from the enemy (from the Israeli soldier)? The Israeli soldiers’ moral superiority is clear – the baby in the pram is behind him. He represents Israel whose sole role in the conflict is to defend itself from an inhuman enemy. The Israeli soldier guards the future generation while the Palestinian other sacrifices it.

But the visual text is equally powerful because of its sterility. This is not old fashion Nazi depiction of a stereotypical Jew, with his big nose, greedily chasing after defenseless children or trying to trick people out of their hard-earned money. No, as Israelis we are wary of such stereotypical depictions. After all, this common practice is found elsewhere: something we regularly hear about with relation to Israel’s portrayal in the Arab world.

To be sure, such demonizing portrayals of Israel and Jews across the world still exist, but the image drawn by the teacher is powerful precisely because it lacks such attributes. Its potency lies in the visual sterility and fixity of the situation it seeks to portray. Indeed, other than the head gear and the flags (Palestinian and Israeli) located next to the two opposing soldieries there are hardly any distinguishing markers. The power of the sketch lies in both the medium and the context. Cartoon and caricature are potent formats because they convey so much in such a concise fashion. Caricatures often induce us to think outside the box. This type of sketch, however, is simply another brick in the separation wall that we as Israelis have come to accept as part of our everyday reality and encounter with Palestinians. In other words, this sketch reproduces what is routinely peddled by state authorities and the media: that Arabs are inhuman – they don’t even care for the most vulnerable in their midst, their own children become mere fodder for feeding the conflict.

The ”˜sterile’ nature of the image is also revealing because of what is absent from the static scene of an Israeli and Palestinian soldier in a face-off. It suggests that all things are equal in this war, apart from the moral system symbolized by the location of the baby prams. There is no mention of the economic and military might employed by the Israeli forces, ranging from battleships, tanks and cutting-edge unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), nothing about the crippling occupation and sufferings experienced by Palestinians in their everyday encounters with the Israeli state. Moreover, the absence of actual caricature – such as distorted features – makes the image seem more ”˜truthful’ and undistorted.

One can only commend the parents who complained about such depictions. The same cannot be said about the principal, the teacher and Israeli state, all of whom seem to endorse it.

Assa Doron is a researcher in the Australian National University and a member of the The Ein Bustan project and kindergarten promoting an intercultural dialogue between Arabs and Jews in Israel

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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