Pankaj Mishra: Is Israel, in its survivalist psychosis, the portent of the future of a bankrupt and exhausted world?

Pankaj Mishra: Is Israel, in its survivalist psychosis, the portent of the future of a bankrupt and exhausted world?


Pankaj Mishra, in a recent lecture, said:

In​ 1977, a year before he killed himself, the Austrian writer Jean Améry came across press reports of systematic torture against Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons. Arrested in Belgium in 1943 while distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets, Améry himself had been brutally tortured by the Gestapo, and then deported to Auschwitz. He managed to survive, but could never look at his torments as things of the past. He insisted that those who are tortured remain tortured, and that their trauma is irrevocable. Like many survivors of Nazi death camps, Améry came to feel an ‘existential connection’ to Israel in the 1960s. He obsessively attacked left-wing critics of the Jewish state as ‘thoughtless and unscrupulous’, and may have been one of the first to make the claim, habitually amplified now by Israel’s leaders and supporters, that virulent antisemites disguise themselves as virtuous anti-imperialists and anti-Zionists. Yet the ‘admittedly sketchy’ reports of torture in Israeli prisons prompted Améry to consider the limits of his solidarity with the Jewish state. In one of the last essays he published, he wrote: ‘I urgently call on all Jews who want to be human beings to join me in the radical condemnation of systematic torture. Where barbarism begins, even existential commitments must end.’

Améry was particularly disturbed by the apotheosis in 1977 of Menachem Begin as Israel’s prime minister. Begin, who organised the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in which 91 people were killed, was the first of the frank exponents of Jewish supremacism who continue to rule Israel. He was also the first routinely to invoke Hitler and the Holocaust and the Bible while assaulting Arabs and building settlements in the Occupied Territories. In its early years the state of Israel had an ambivalent relationship with the Shoah and its victims. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, initially saw Shoah survivors as ‘human debris’, claiming that they had survived only because they had been ‘bad, harsh, egotistic’. It was Ben-Gurion’s rival Begin, a demagogue from Poland, who turned the murder of six million Jews into an intense national preoccupation, and a new basis for Israel’s identity. The Israeli establishment began to produce and disseminate a very particular version of the Shoah that could be used to legitimise a militant and expansionist Zionism.

Améry noted the new rhetoric and was categorical about its destructive consequences for Jews living outside Israel. That Begin, ‘with the Torah in his arm and taking recourse to biblical promises’, speaks openly of stealing Palestinian land ‘alone would be reason enough’, he wrote, ‘for the Jews in the diaspora to review their relationship to Israel’. Améry pleaded with Israel’s leaders to ‘acknowledge that your freedom can be achieved only with your Palestinian cousin, not against him.’

Five years later, insisting that Arabs were the new Nazis and Yasser Arafat the new Hitler, Begin assaulted Lebanon. By the time Ronald Reagan accused him of perpetrating a ‘holocaust’ and ordered him to end it, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese and obliterated large parts of Beirut. In his novel Kapo (1993), the Serbian-Jewish author Aleksandar Tišma captures the revulsion many survivors of the Shoah felt at the images coming out of Lebanon: ‘Jews, his kinsmen, the sons and grandsons of his contemporaries, former inmates of the camps, stood in tank turrets and drove, flags waving, through undefended settlements, through human flesh, ripping it apart with machine-gun bullets, rounding up the survivors in camps fenced off with barbed wire.’ [Continue reading…]

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