Waltzing Alone

Waltzing Alone

Israel, unrepentant and without introspection, doesn’t deserve a film as brilliant as Waltz with Bashir.


View a Nation Slide Show of excerpts of the graphic novel, Waltz with Bashir here.

A disclaimer: A decade ago, while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, a bit of my behind was blown off in Lebanon. When it comes to war, then, and to that particular country, I’m not exactly objective.

But stepping out of a screening of Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s masterful film, a few weeks ago, and immediately reaching for my iPhone to look up the latest news from Gaza, I felt a deep, seething anger lock arms with terrible despair and march defiantly down my throat. The movie, I thought, just taught me an awful lesson about my native country.

It wasn’t anything having to do with the 1982 massacre in Sabra and Shatila, the focus of the film’s final, ghoulish scenes. It wasn’t the needless loss of life. It wasn’t even the war.

What made me sick was the realization, simple and searing, that the Israeli public that heaped praise on Waltz with Bashir and selected it, in a recent survey, as the third most-favorite Israeli film of all time, the very same public–71 percent, according to a recent survey by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz–was ignoring every one of the film’s harrowing lessons and once again unequivocally supporting an aimless military campaign, its goals unclear and its potential for rapid and incontrollable escalation vast.

Anyone seeking some insight into Israeli society’s reactions to the newfangled war against Hamas, however, would be well advised to examine Israel’s previous violent escapade, the one that echoed the events portrayed in Waltz with Bashir so eerily that it instantly earned the moniker “Lebanon II.”

In September 2006, slightly more than a month after that war finally died down, along with nearly 1,800 Lebanese and more than 160 Israelis, public opinion polls asked Israelis to ascertain whether or not they were satisfied with Ehud Olmert; 68 percent responded that they were unhappy with the prime minister’s conduct.

This, in and of itself, made perfect sense: surely the same people who praised Waltz with Bashir for its courageous and unremitting examination of Israel’s bumbled, senseless and morally repugnant entanglement in Lebanon in 1982 would disapprove of any leader who orchestrated a similarly flawed and inexcusable excursion in 2006. And surely the same people, when asked today whom they would rather see at the state’s helm, would pine for a responsible, levelheaded and moderate politician, one who could guarantee that no similar violent escapades lay on the horizon. Surely.

But, casting their ballots earlier this month in the elections to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the people gave an overwhelming number of votes to right-of-center parties, making it nearly inevitable that the next Israeli government will be led by Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Put another way, the very same Israelis who elected Bashir as their third-favorite film also elected Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) as their third-favorite political party, proving the soaring popularity of its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, the former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Netanyahu and a rising star in Israeli politics whose ambitious plans include the forceful deportation of Israeli Arabs, the bombing of Palestinian civilian and business centers, and the drowning of Palestinian prisoners.

What did Olmert in when he attacked Lebanon in 2006, then, wasn’t his willingness to embark on a careless war that, far from achieving its goals, bolstered Hezbollah and dealt a blow to Israel’s future deterrence capabilities. What earned him the public’s scorn was that he wasn’t willing to go far enough. Asked the very same question by the very same pollsters on August 11, 2006, just days before the ceasefire took hold, 60 percent of Israelis said they thought Olmert was doing a fine job.

How, then, to explain this dissonance? How to analyze a nation willing to embrace a smart and sensitive work of art that digs deep into the collective memory and pleads softly and beautifully for recovery and repentance, while at the very same time cheering as the Israel Air Force assassinates hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, a significant portion of whom were civilians, and the Israeli army once again marches into the embattled Strip?

As is the case with most complex questions, there is no single, elegant answer. All I have is an explanation bordering on a hunch, a dark and disconcerting feeling put together, like a mental mosaic, over years of conversations and observations and frustrations. Here it is, in brief: for the most part, Israelis have become adept at using art as a mantle, a colorful cloth under which they can hide from the harrowing implications of the policies they support. Once a living, dangerous demon, Israeli art is now a gargoyle, perched high above the street, casting its reproachful look at us all, powerless and grotesque.

There was a time–I remember it well–in the late 1980s, before the peace process, when Israeli artists produced morally serious, politically agitating works, and when establishment types, from commanders to cultural commissars, decried these works as malignant and repugnant. Rock albums, novels and films dared to question the country’s prevalent ethos of glory and sacrifice and point out its dangerous proximity to a kitschy cult of death. The country seemed poised for a real moment of rupture; there were mass demonstrations, movements, a whole vibrant scene.

I remember myself at 14, taking to the streets after a pop song decrying the occupation was banned from broadcast by the government, which at the time still controlled the entirety of the airwaves. Happily, a few hundred of us, none older than 25, congregated in one of Tel Aviv’s central squares, pumped our fists in the air and screamed out the song as loud as we could, turning the rather inane tune into a powerful anthem of protest.

And then came the 1990s, and Yitzhak Rabin, and the Oslo Accords, and in the peace-minded euphoria that engulfed us all, that raw political energy somehow lost its vivacity. Sure, Israel was still occupying Palestinian territories, settlements were still being built and there was still a massive Israeli military force in southern Lebanon, but none of that mattered. By electing Rabin and embarking on Oslo, we convinced ourselves that we were the good guys, and reassured ourselves that whatever terrible transgressions we committed were to be forgotten at once because, after all, our true aim, clearly, was reconciliation.

According to this logic, we were finally free to enjoy works of art that shed light on some of our darkest national undertakings. Now that we were en route to peace, any creative act of political protest was to be interpreted solely as further proof of our enlightenment: what other country, my friends often asked me, would produce such a steady stream of critical, insightful films, records and novels, especially while still facing major threats? Can you imagine, they inquired rhetorically, any similar works being created on the Palestinian side or, even better, in Syria? To them–and, I suspect, to a majority of Israelis–making movies and waging war balanced each other out, proving beyond doubt that ours was the kind of thoughtful, responsible and soul-searching society that only resorted to violence when the very core of its existence was under attack.

Reality, however, is far less prosaic: in many cases, art has become almost an excuse, something to be immensely proud of while pursuing the very same policies to which Israel’s artists, for the most part, vehemently object and which they continually decry in their art.

How else to explain the fact that Israelis watching Beirut circa 1982 in Folman’s film are no longer shocked to the core, nor do they realize that they are still fighting the very same dumb and deadly war that so deeply traumatized the director and his friends? How else to explain their continuing support for brutal operations with little lasting strategic value, their continuing calls for increasingly bloody vendettas, their continuing endorsement of political candidates who promise tougher and more violent measures against anyone attacking Israel in any way?

This, to be sure, has little to do with any existential threats. Let’s be honest: these simply do not exist, certainly not from Hamas. The current operation in Gaza was launched in retaliation for more than 10,000 rockets launched by Hamas militants on southern Israel over the past seven years; these attacks, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, killed eighteen people. In an average year, nearly twenty-five times as many Israelis die in car crashes alone. And yet, the majority of Israelis believe that Hamas’s behavior is reason enough to launch a massive military assault on a densely populated urban environment, killing hundreds and achieving no discernible long-term strategic goal.

It is, of course, the right of the Israeli people to choose whomever they want as their leader. It is the privilege of the Israeli public to pursue whatever policy it sees fit. But let us not pretend for a moment: Waltz with Bashir is not in any way the product of a thoughtful society moral and mature enough to examine its own conscience and correct its ways. Rather, it is the work of a brilliant filmmaker operating, sadly, in a cultural and political landscape eager to provide him and others like him with ample material for future tragedies, a landscape free of introspection and devoid of meaningful action, a landscape given to vacuously praising sublime art while simultaneously endorsing the most hideous of human behaviors.

As I stepped out of the cinema, rubbing my scarred butt and looking at the images of the dead in Gaza – images that looked just like the terrible real-life footage of Palestinian victims in Lebanon Folman inserted at the end of his film–I muttered a silent rant, to no one in particular. Let them wage war, I thought. And let them make movies. But let them never pretend that the two have anything in common, or originate from a common mental space that is fundamentally just and contemplative and resorts to arms only when inevitable.

Israel of today is not Ari Folman’s. It is Avigdor Lieberman’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, the country of the countless men and women crying out for revenge. As we root for Waltz with Bashir, if we want to truly honor that film’s message, let us never forget that. Otherwise, all we have is just a pretty animated film.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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