The flip side of Israel’s need for heroes created in uniform, weapon in hand, is the urge to preserve the ideals associated with them and to shield them from criticism — the ramifications of which have become disturbingly clear in the case of Elor Azaria.
“A nation without heroes is a house without doors.” So says the grotesque, dictatorial general in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch,” after affording equal posthumous honors to several army officers who die in quick succession, no matter whether they were killed in a tragic accident or as a result of their own depraved activities.
The idea that national heroes form a structural part of any state has suffused Israel since its founding. The narrative of the pre-state years and the country’s early decades — at least the version most Israelis tell themselves — is essentially a sequence of military battles whose (Jewish/Israeli) participants are almost uniformly considered heroes, and the term “Gibor Yisrael” (“hero of Israel”), which is mostly reserved for military men, is an intrinsic part of the national lexicon. (It’s worth pointing out that the word “gibor” comes from the same root as “gever,” man, giving heroism a fixed undercurrent of masculinity.)
Narratives feed into national memory, which itself informs national identity. In Israel, then, members of pre-state militias and army generals are memorialized via countless street names and monuments throughout the country, while also collectively forming the image in which Israel has molded itself.
It goes without saying that the concept of national heroes is not in of itself troublesome, as much as that canon in most Western countries remains dominated by white, straight, cis males. The key is context, and in Israel the context is problematic — not just because heroism is so readily associated with men’s military exploits, but also because that definition of it is so tightly bound up with Israel’s sense of the best version of itself. The uniform dictates the worth of the person inside it, not the other way around, and in this regard Israel’s relationship with its army takes on the character of religious devotion.
The notion of active military duty as the ultimate patriotic ideal is serviced by Israel’s politics, media, judicial system and academy. But as I wrote on this site a year ago, the idea that an army, which is an inherently violent institution, should form...Read More