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  Opinion   Columnists  02 Aug 2022  Mohan Guruswamy | Why State of Israel has lost its heroic sheen

Mohan Guruswamy | Why State of Israel has lost its heroic sheen

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Aug 2, 2022, 11:50 pm IST
Updated : Aug 2, 2022, 11:50 pm IST

Israel’s heroic burnish is now dulled after the emergence of Israel as the pre-eminent and most ruthless power in the Middle East

Israeli ruthlessness was most evident in recent times by its retaliation on the Gaza Strip, horrific its ferocity and far exceeding any limits of justifiable and even acceptable retribution (Representational Image/AFP)
 Israeli ruthlessness was most evident in recent times by its retaliation on the Gaza Strip, horrific its ferocity and far exceeding any limits of justifiable and even acceptable retribution (Representational Image/AFP)

Israel acquired a heroic sheen from the manner it had created a nation for itself, after over two millennia of exile from their homeland, starting with the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. Several other exiles followed and the Jews of the diaspora all over the world, amidst their suffering and humiliations, mostly in Europe, never forgot to sing “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim” or “Next year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Passover Seder and at the end of the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur. The Aliyah Bet, or illegal immigration, of the Jewish survivors of the German Holocaust and the pogroms in Eastern Europe led to the determination of building a new nation driven by egalitarian values and strong enough to never let it happen again. The world admired them for it. Except for a few like the RSS gurus M.S. Golwalkar and V.D. Savarkar who openly admired Adolf Hitler and his “Die Endlosung”, or Final Solution”, our Hindu nationalists began admiring the Israelis only when their heroics inflicted defeat after defeat of the overwhelmingly numerous Muslim Arabs. But Israel’s heroic burnish is now dulled after the emergence of Israel as the pre-eminent and most ruthless power in the Middle East.

Israeli ruthlessness was most evident in recent times by its retaliation on the Gaza Strip, horrific its ferocity and far exceeding any limits of justifiable and even acceptable retribution. Gaza is just 41 km long, and around 6-12 km wide, and has a total area of 365 sq. km. It is a self-administered territory, but a virtual prison, with 2.1 million inmates. If you factor the Israel-imposed buffer zone in it, it is the most densely packed place in the world. It also is subject to a cruel and crushing economic Israeli blockade that is supported by the United States. The irony of this being imposed by a people long experienced in prison-like existence in Europe cannot be missed.

The founding of the State of Israel held out the promise of a new nation that being tempered by their experiences and motivated by the high idealism of its founders would give the world something to look up to. It was this idealism that inspired India to be among the first three countries to recognise it. 

The first generations of Israeli leadership were drawn from European Jewry known as the Ashkenazim, and were generally liberal and progressive. This was seen in the early Israel when most agriculture was under co-operative farming organised around the kibbutz, which also entailed a communal (sharing) lifestyle. The Histadrut, the labour union, which was the bedrock of the Labour political movement led by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, is also Israel’s biggest employer that owned much of its transport, dairy, construction and service sectors. Israel was intended as a progressive, socialist and democratic state.

During the initial years of its existence Israel heroically defied the odds and many writers like the late Leon Uris captured this new spirit of the Israeli people. His 600-page masterpiece Exodus created a sensation in 1957 and propelled him to the highest literary fame. It was a detailed and heroic chronicle of European Jewry from the turn of the last century to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. 

Exodus, while being the epic story of a nation seeking a state, was also the touching love story of Ari Ben Canaan, an Israeli freedom fighter, and Kitty Fremont, an American nurse who joins Canaan’s fight for a Jewish state. In 1958, Exodus was made into a film by Otto Preminger and featured Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan.  The book and the movie contributed the most to the mythologising of the Israeli fighter as an indomitable and idealistic hero. 

But it is not that Israel lacked such men those days. The founders of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Haganah that was the forerunner of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), were men like Moshe Dayan, Haim Bar Lev, Ezer Weizmann, Yigael Yadin, Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Allon, all men of heroic proportions and each one could have been a prototype for Ari Ben Canaan.

The Haganah was founded in 1920 as the underground military organization of the Jewish “yishuv”, or community, and was then a loose organisation of various local defence groups. The Palmach was its first mobilised unit and gained battle experience in the Second World War as the Jewish Brigade under British command. The Palmach consisted of many first-generation “Sabras”, or Palestine-born Israelis, who were also fluent Arabic speakers, which gave it the ability remain concealed among the Arab population and to wage a lethal unconventional war on them.

The British learned as much from this experience. Capt. Orde Wingate, who led the famous Chindits Brigade in Burma, was originally associated with the Palmach. Wingate was a charismatic dreamer, who though born a Christian, had joined the Jewish movement and led the Special Night Squad of the Haganah, which carried out reprisals against the Arabs.

Wingate’s Palestine experience found expression in Burma and its successes led all traditional armies to establish special warfare forces to give them similar deep strike capabilities. Of the three battalions who formed the original Chindits Brigade, the 2/4 Gurkha Rifles is still with the Indian Army and carries the Chindits tag with great pride.

The heroic sheen of the IDF has now largely dissipated with its emergence as a mighty army with the latest weapons and the unstinted support of the United States. It is now no longer David with a slingshot facing mighty Goliath. In the four major wars it has fought, the IDF had worsted numerically superior Arab armies with ease. It’s difficult to remain a heroic David against such adversaries for long. The Palestinian intifada is now the heroic struggle of a people seeking to find their identity, their freedom and a piece of their ancient homeland to call it theirs. Just like Israel’s struggle was before 1948.

But the continued occupation of the West Bank since 1967 and the continued building of settlements in defiance of UN resolutions and in the face of world opinion are ugly and contemptuous manifestations of a narrow nationalism. Israel is no longer the valiant and beleaguered underdog, but increasingly seen as an increasingly arrogant oppressor seeking to crush another old nation under its jackboots. The sad truth about Israel is that now Benjamin Netanyahu is fact and Ari Ben Canaan is fiction.

Tags: gaza, gaza strip, israel, middle east