Hamburger From Sacred Cows

December 3, 2014Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

No one can bring us back from the deep dark pit; here the joy of victory and songs of praise are useless… Raise your eyes in hope, not through gun sights; sing a song for love and not for wars [originally - for victories]…. So sing only a song for peace, don't whisper a prayer - it is better to sing out loud and strong a song for peace… Don't say "the day will come;" bring the day!

-The Song for Peace: words by Yankele Rotblit, music by Yair Rosenblum

In 1969 (!) the Song for Peace was sung by a popular army entertainment troupe after the army censored one line (noted above) and became a long-standing hit. Even censored, it was controversial, and two regional commanders, Rehavam Zeevi and Ariel Sharon, banned it from concerts for soldiers. The song became a kind of counter-culture anthem over the years. Yitzchak Rabin joined in singing it from the stage just minutes before he was assassinated.

Recently we attended a performance of The Good Soldier Schweik, performed in repertory by the Kameri, one of Israel's national theater companies. The play is a classic of 20th century Czech literature, by Yaroslav Hasek, a hilarious and biting satire on nationalist patriotism and military authoritarianism from the period of the First World War. And not long before that we went to see a hugely popular Israeli film, Zero Motivation, also a black comedy grinding into hamburger all the sacred cows of the Israeli army experience. To those of us who haven't served in the army, the movie was appalling; to those who have, it was all true and all hysterical. And a few months before that, we saw Brecht's Mother Courage performed by the national Habimah theater - another bitter anti-army classic.

A century ago, Zionism, and the incipient Israeli culture, were influenced by the cultural environment in Europe, where vitalism, which idealized strength and speed and might, sought liberation from the decadent old order. In our case, this meant the creation of a New Jew who would be the opposite of the cowering, pale, bookish stereotype of the Old Jew. Our boys (!), tall, tanned, and fearless, would know how to shoot and how to build. Ari ben Canaan (the protagonist in the novel Exodus by Leon Uris.) The army became the ultimate symbol of this ideal. And yet, from the beginning, there was a certain discomfort that came out in subversive humor and literary expressions of doubt. And so for a century we have lived with the army as a central uniting symbol of the Zionist vision - the citizen's army, a humane army, "it is good to die for our land," "shooting and crying," "purity of arms," the Israeli old-boy network, the differentiation between those who "bear the burden" and those who don't (Arab and ultra-Orthodox), a political elite drawn largely from the military elite. And yet, always just below the surface, there has been a counter-current, a nagging doubt, a sense that this is really not us as we want to imagine ourselves. Could it be that Mother Courage is dragging her cart of misery along our borders (wherever they are)? Could it be that the idealization of military heroism that was so essential to the Zionist revolution has become a less-than-salutary factor in determining foreign and domestic policies? Could it be that the rhetoric of "the only language they understand is force" is self-perpetuating? It seems to me that the expressions of these doubts, on stage and screen and elsewhere, are a sign of the health of Israeli democracy.

Cynics will say, of course, that we go to see The Good Soldier Schweik and Mother Courage to convince ourselves of how open-minded and non-militaristic we are, mocking the military myth out loud in the public square - while in fact we keep voting for the same leaders, proudly laundering our children's uniforms every weekend, changing nothing in our national behavior or psyche. Maybe the cynics have a point.

"Don't say 'the day will come;' bring the day!"

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