Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Last Update : 04:46 AM IST

  Opinion   Columnists  16 Oct 2023  Mohan Guruswamy | The Gaza war: Has Israel now lost its heroic sheen?

Mohan Guruswamy | The Gaza war: Has Israel now 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 : Oct 17, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Oct 17, 2023, 12:05 am IST

Israel heroically defied the odds and many writers like the late Leon Uris captured this new spirit of the Israeli people.

 Israel has been striking targets throughout Gaza since a bloody, cross-border attack by Hamas militants killed over 1,300 and captured many Israelis on Oct. 7. (AP/PTI)
  Israel has been striking targets throughout Gaza since a bloody, cross-border attack by Hamas militants killed over 1,300 and captured many Israelis on Oct. 7. (AP/PTI)

The attack on the rave party near the small Israeli town of Sderot across the Gaza Strip fence is possibly the single most shocking event of recent times. The sheer savagery and ferocity of the early morning attack on revellers makes it extremely difficult not to justify the savagery and ferocity of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. By its visceral reaction, Israel has made it apparent that it sees all Gazans as Hamas and does not accept that societies too can become the hostages of terrorist groups. We in India generally paint all terrorist attacks by jihadi groups from across our western border as Pakistani. Of course, it is the responsibility of the Pakistani State to ensure that its territory is not used to launch attacks on its neighbours. But what about where there are no functioning states? The prolonged occupation and denial of democratic rights has changed how the civilised world now looks at Israel. Israel has lost its heroic sheen.

Israel acquired a heroic sheen from the manner it 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 humiliation, 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 Eas-tern Europe, led to the determination of building a 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. Golwal-kar and V.D. Savarkar who openly admired Adolf Hitler and his “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 in their ferocity and far exceeding any limits of justifiable and even acceptable retribution. Gaza is just 41 km long, from 6 km to 12 km wide, and has a total area of 365 sq km. It is supposedly a self-administered area, but a virtual prison, with 2.2 million inmates. If you factor the buffer zone imposed by Israel in it, it is the most densely pack-ed 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 to a 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 newly-independent India to be among the first three countries to recognise it.

The first generations of Israeli leadership were drawn from the European Jewry known as the Ashkenazim, and were generally liberal and progressive. This was seen in the early Israel when most of agriculture was under cooperative farming organised around the kibbutz, which also entailed a communal (sharing) lifestyle. The “Histadrut”, the Israeli labour union, which was the bedrock of the Labour political movement led by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, was also Israel’s biggest employer that owned much of its transportation, dairy, construction and services 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, which 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 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 the mighty Goliath. In the four major wars it has fought, the IDF had worsted numerically superior Arab armies with ease. It is 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 and everyday nibbling 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: israel palestine conflict, israel, mohan guruswamy