Keep Our Mouths Shut and Salute? It’s Not the Time for Israelis to Keep Quiet
Jan 6, 2024
Below is a recent article by Zehava Galon, former Chair and Member of Knesset from Meretz, that recently appeared in Ha’aretz. As is clear from the title, she insists that NOW is the time for Israelis to be debating Israel-Palestine policy, not rallying around the flag in the name of “unity”. She is an important voice in the debate going on right now in Israel about the efficacy of the current military campaign in bringing the hostages home – and the larger debate over whether the government’s strategy is unnecessarily destructive of both lives and values. Partners values your comments, which can be left on our website by clicking here.
The sketch in which comedian Udi Kagan plays a reservist home from the battlefield is one of those “Eretz Nehederet” sketches that is likely to stay with us for a long time. It’s not every day that a TV satire show produces a sketch that is mainly about revulsion with politics, with the signs of the time. In the brilliant sketch, Kagan, a reservist home on leave, sits there looking lost at the head of the table with the family all gathered around, stunned to discover that the political arguments and anger that were tearing the family apart have continued unabated even after October 7.
Viewing the sketch makes one want to feel ashamed of the anger, of arguing, of having an opinion. But in this sketch, “Eretz Nehederet” is presenting a longing for a country that never existed, a nostalgia for a unity that cannot exist, and expressing an aversion for what is essentially the only nonviolent way in which we can resolve the dilemmas before us. Don’t fall for it.
Today, whenever people hear the word “politics,” they feel nauseated. They hear “politics” and think of central committee party hacks giving away slices of the country; they think of people with frozen smiles plastered on their faces shaking hands; of them making the rounds at the bat mitzvah of the granddaughter of the vote contractor from Yavne’el. All these things do exist, part of the rot that can never be completely cleaned out. It stinks, but it’s not the heart of the matter. Which is also why “Eretz Nehederet” will continue, despite everything, to take apart Israeli politicians with surgical precision. Because politics is the engine that propels the wheels of policy, and we have been fleeing from policy for way too long.
We’ve become fed up with politics because we’re fed up with the toxicity, which has really been overwhelming in the last few years. It is painful to watch a society send its sons to fight on the battlefield while it is riven by internal wars. If only it were possible to refrain at the very least from the poison and the hatred, which have become so ubiquitous we sometimes hardly notice them anymore, yet the weight they continue to exert is terrifying. I’m not sure it’s even possible. We face a series of essential questions and deciding them will be very painful for large parts of the public. They won’t just go away if we close our eyes.
Unity is terrific. It sells cottage cheese, clothes, secondhand politicians in good condition. It also contains truth, because we are all truly in this together. We are all part of the Israeli project, and its fate is our fate. But you don’t run a country with “Together We’ll Win.” You only walk together, head held high, to where everyone is going – even if it’s straight to hell.
The reservist portrayed by Kagan went to fight in Gaza because all the lies they sold us about the state of the country collapsed in a single day. He is there because we vowed “to eliminate Hamas” and three months since the start of the war not a single official has bothered to explain to the public just how this goal may be achieved. He is there, and may also remain there in the years to come, as much as it is up to Bezalel Smotrich, for example, who declared that Israel must maintain security control of Gaza and establish “settlements” there.
The discussion is not just about “the day after” and it is not some theoretical matter that can keep being postponed, even if it upsets the combat troops. The discussion is about the here and now – what the combat in Gaza should look like and what its goal is. Avoidance of this discussion is not just an ugly game being played by the coalition, but an abandonment of the soldiers out of a stunning indifference to the sacrifice they are prepared to make.
On October 7, in wake of the terrible massacre and war crimes committed by Hamas, the diplomatic and security conceptions of the Israeli governments over the past two decades collapsed. If all we learn from this is, once more, “Quiet, we’re shooting,” then we haven’t learned anything. The conceptions that fell apart here did not belong solely to Benjamin Netanyahu, their progenitor. They were also taken for granted by politicians and military officials and commentators. We held entire election campaigns as though there were no Palestinian question at all. Naftali Bennett, who is currently warming up on the sidelines, referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “piece of shrapnel in the ass.”
And now, when we are sending our finest sons and daughters to fight, we’re supposed to just keep our mouths shut and salute? It should be just the opposite. Israelis reported for duty, volunteered by the thousands, put their lives on the line. The aversion to any criticism, this idea that the important thing is avoiding any serious discussion of Israeli policy, makes a mockery of their sacrifice and of the readiness to make many more sacrifices if needed.
Three months into the fighting in Gaza, more than 500 soldiers have been killed and thousands wounded. Estimates from Gaza say that more than 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, 70 percent of them women and children. These are not numbers that we’ve seen in the past, in any previous operations or previous ground incursions. Is it a consequence of imprecise bombings, as the Americans claimed, and as did some of the released Israeli hostages, who said they feared for their lives from the bombardments? Must we really be discussing proposals like the one to starve out the Gazans, even at the cost of thousands more dead, even at the cost of starving the Israeli hostages? Isn’t it time that we discuss the need to bring more humanitarian aid into Gaza, and not because the United States is pressuring us to do so?
It is the government that sets our policy in Gaza. There is no reason for us to just accept it as the gospel from on high. We don’t need easy talk about unity, we need an intelligent discussion supported by facts. And we need it now, for one thing because the way we fight in Gaza directly affects the lives of the Israeli hostages there, the lives of thousands of Gazans who didn’t do anything, our international legitimacy to carry on fighting, and the solutions that will be possible to implement once the fighting ends.
The fundamental questions for Israeli society did not become any less dramatic since October 7. In fact, they are all the more urgent. There’s nothing easier than running away from politics to the warm and inviting “togetherness.” But someone is always doing politics, even if you decline to participate in the game, and someone is making decisions about policy, even if you’re running away from them. We are not a family. We are a nation. The racist who is spewing conspiracy theories isn’t your deluded uncle at the holiday table, he’s a minister who holds your children’s lives in his hands. Real debate is not an unseemly burden. It is a necessity, if we wish to live.
Zehava Galon is the former chairwoman of the Meretz Party.