Sabra, Shatila and Collective Amnesia by Gilad Atzmon
Nov 15th, 2008
Waltz With Bashir is a breath-taking new Israeli film, an animated documentary directed by Ari Folman.
In 1982 (1st Lebanon War), Folman was a 19-year-old IDF infantry soldier. Twenty four years later, in 2006, Folman is surprised to find out that he does not remember a thing from that war or the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. The film is a journey into Folman’s lost past.
The documentary is set as a chain of animated interviews and conversations between Folman and his military associates, psychologists and Ron Ben Yishai, the legendary Israeli TV reporter who was among the first to report on the Sabra and Shatila Massacres. The setting aims at building a coherent personal past narrative out of the broken memories of others.
The film is highly sensitive and emotionally moving. To a certain extent, it is a very brave individual attempt to deal with the devastating collective Israeli past, and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila in particular. However, we are asked to remember that the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps, though set up by the Israeli Army, were physically carried out by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists.
This may explain why the Israelis are so enthusiastic about the film. On the one hand, it wasn’t them who made the actual kill. On the other hand, loving the film portrays them as first-rate humanists. They allegedly deal with their dark past.
At the time the news about the massacre broke out in the Israeli media, PM Menachem Begin cynically answered his critics, “Arabs kill Arabs, and Jews blame each other”. PM Begin somehow managed to prophetically hit the nail on the head. It appears as if the Israelis can easily deal with a critical film about the Sabra and Shatila massacres, precisely because it was ‘Arabs killing Arabs’. Noticeably, Mohamed Bakri’s Jenin, Jenin, a film that tells the story of the Jenin massacre, a murderous assault committed by IDF soldiers, was not at all approved by the Israeli people. Clearly, the Israelis do not want to learn about their murderous acts from a fellow citizen who happens to be an Arab.
In Waltz With Bashir, Folman is searching for his lost past. His first step is his psychologist friend who manages to come with a very helpful insight. “The memory,” so says the Psychologist, “can be very creative. When it is necessary, it just invents a past.”
This may help us to understand Folman’s and his companions ‘ reflections. As one would expect, in the film the IDF soldier is somehow a victim. He is part of a big war machine, he “follows orders”. The individual soldier is powerless, he cannot stop the massacre, he can only report to his superiors. Alternatively he can “shoot and cry” in retrospect, or, as in Folman’s case, he can deal with amnesia or repression.
Cleverly and beautifully done, the entire film is animated, which allows us to assume that every retrieved memory or spoken past narrative may be a constructed one. However, the last scene of the film is real footage. It takes us to the devastated refugee camps and the Palestinian sobbing. It is there to tell us: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the following is not a personal memory. This footage is not animated deconstruction. This is a REAL massacre that took place under our noses.’
I was myself an IDF soldier at exactly the same time and in the same war. Though I was far from being an infantry soldier, some of the scenes in the film were very familiar to me. While watching the film, I found myself occasionally with tears in my eyes. This war indeed changed my life, as much as it changed many other people’s lives - Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese. This war launched a personal journey that led me eventually to leave Israel, with the decision never to come back. I know that I am not the only Israeli who reacted this way. However, I left Israel with a clear determination not to be part of this conflict. I wanted to drift away, to start a new, peaceful life, to forget, to be innocent for the first time. I obviously failed. For various reasons that are far beyond me, I am now far more involved in issues to do with Palestinian discourse than I would ever be in Israel.
Being overwhelmed with the quality and the transparency of the film, there are some general points that must be made. It seems that it is actually Israelis and ex-Israelis who are producing the most eloquent and sharp criticism of Israel, Zionism and the Jewish identity. Whether it is Shlomo Sand, Israel Shahak, Ari Folman, Gideon Levi, Ilan Pappe, Oren Ben Dor, Eyal Sivan, Uri Avnery, Amira Hess, Avrum Burg, Daniel Barenboim, myself and others, all of us regard the Israeli conflict as our own conflict and within our range of direct responsibility.
We may not agree amongst ourselves on many issues, yet we agree on one thing. This disaster in Palestine is our damn business. Unlike the very few sporadic Western Jews who loudly pop out once a month to collectively shout, ‘Not in My Name’, we know that, unfortunately, it is all done in our names. We all feel shame about it, we feel responsibility and we insist on doing whatever we can to bring about a change. I assume that this is enough to make our voice relevant and transparent.
The film is a smashing success in Israel. The Israelis love to weep collectively, and to express regret for the Christian Phalangists who killed on their behalf. They apparently come out of the film saying, ‘Only here, in our wonderful free country, can we confront our past so bravely.’
I went to see the first London screening at the London Jewish Festival. The Festival is sponsored by the Israeli Government, amongst a very long list of rabid right wing Zionist organisations. One may rightly wonder why Zionist institutes support such a harsh Israeli critique. I can only suggest one possible answer. Israel loves to portray itself as an open, liberal society. If I am correct here, this is indeed a very clever, sinister and calculated decision. It presents the Israeli not only as a humanist, it even manages to plant rabid Zionist institutions at the heart of the Palestinian solidarity discourse.
Moreover, as long as Israel manages to generate some harsh form of self disapproval, not much room for critical maneuvering is left for Israel’s real enemies. As much as we happen to despise Israel and Zionist institutions, we’d better learn to admit their sophistication.
Following the screening at the London Jewish Film Festival, there was a short Q & A session with David Polonsky, the art director of the film. I asked him a simple question:
“If the Israelis find it so difficult to remember what happened to them just 26 years ago, how is it that every Israeli remembers exactly what happened in Europe between 1942 and 1944?”
Surprisingly enough, in spite of the fact that this was a Jewish gathering and my question was rather provocative, no-one in the room exhibited any manifested rage. I assume that Jews, once left to themselves, happen to ask many questions they would avoid engaging in, in an open public discussion. However, Polonsky couldn’t really provide an answer. This is more than understandable.
The film however offers two possible answers, both provided by Folman’s psychologist friend. The memory is a construction, it has little to do with reality, says the psychologist. Apparently, Israeli and Jewish institutions, as well as individuals, are very productive in constructing and manufacturing a personal and collective memory of Jewish suffering. Suffering inflicted by Jews, on the other hand, is rather repressed in the contemporary Israeli and Jewish culture.
Later in the film, the same psychologist suggests that Folman’s amnesia may have been the outcome of his personal engagement with the Holocaust. ‘You were engaged with the massacre a long time before it happened, through your parents’ Auschwitz memory.’ To a certain extent, this insight resolves Folman’s quest. His repression started well before Sabra and Shatila.
Once again, we learn that Jewish Post-Traumatic Stress is actually a Pre-Traumatic Stress disorder. The Jewish and Israeli mindset is an institutional preparation for a tragedy still to take place.
In a previous paper dealing with Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I defined the mental state as follows:
“Within the condition of the Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the stress is the outcome of a phantasmic event, an imaginary episode set in the future; an event that has never taken place. Unlike the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in which stress comes as the direct reaction to an event that (may) have taken place in the past, within the state of Pre-TSD, the stress is clearly the outcome of an imaginary potential event. Within the Pre-TSD, an illusion pre-empts reality and the condition in which the fantasy of terror is focussed is itself becoming grave reality. If it is taken to extremes, even an agenda of total war against the rest of the world is not an unthinkable reaction.”
If Folman’s psychologist friend is correct, then Folman’s amnesia is nothing other than ‘Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder’. Folman’s amnesia of the events of the war is explained as a repression due to a prior remote memory of the Holocaust. This is indeed the ultimate Jewish Catharsis, the revival of the tragedy (to come) in the light of a past one. The trauma is set up in advance.
If the psychologist is correct, it may explain why the Israelis and the Jewish crowd at the London Jewish Festival loved the film. The Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the essence of Jewish existence, in which being in the world is resolved in the light of the shift between past and future tragedies. Life is meaningful as long as we are fearfully and constantly being prepared for a new disaster, in the light of an old one.
The question that is left for the peace enthusiast is, “what chance does such a self-destructive identity leave for peace? Alternatively, how can you make peace with a subject that is obsessed with its coming destruction?”
I am left with no other option but to repeat the old Jewish joke:
The following is a Jewish Telegram:
Begin worrying, details to follow