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The Kitsch of Israel

A bizarre controversy took place in Israel earlier this year over the question: Should soldiers be allowed to cry at the funerals of their comrades? The chief of the northern command was for allowing tears; against them was the chief of staff. The background of this exchange was a report in the Israeli press that paratroopers were seen weeping at the funeral of three of their friends who had been killed in an incident at the northern border. The question posed was whether an army proud of its fighters can afford to have them seen weeping in public.

The general who opposed crying—or, more exactly, being seen crying—was a sabra born on a kibbutz; the one in favor of showing soldiers crying was a Polishborn survivor of the Holocaust. The sabra officer is generally considered a rational and reasonable person, antimelodramatic but not antiheroic. The officer born in Poland is considered a tough, able, and obstinate disciplinarian. The first officer is the archetype of the sabra fighter; the Polish-born officer, for Israelis, is in some sense his opposite.

The argument about the soldiers’ tears goes to the heart of a fundamental issue about sentimentality in the Zionist revolution, the revolution that took it upon itself to mold a “New Jew,” and that saw wet eyes as the hallmark of the sentimental old-type exilic Jew. The New Jew was not supposed to shed tears. Begin came to power in 1977 and with him tears regained their legitimacy. Begin, appealing to the more recent immigrants, wanted to discredit the sabra as the model of the New Jew and he succeeded in doing so. But even before Begin, Golda Meir prepared the way. Her contribution to Israeli political culture was a particularly confident form of self-righteousness. Begin added to it his own brand of sentimentality. The sentimental revolution of the righteous that was heralded by Golda and cemented by Begin turned the two of them into model Israeli Jews in the eyes of diaspora Jews as well as of many new immigrants and their children in Israel itself. The Israeli sabras, even those who were sympathetic to their politics, were often disgusted.

The motif of crying paratroopers is not new. In “hours of greatness” the Israeli public expects its soldiers to cry. Countless printed words and photographs were dedicated to the famous weeping paratroopers at the Wailing Wall when it was first taken on the fourth day of the Six Day War. This crying was perceived as testimony to the greatness of the hour. Fighters with “hearts of stone melting away in tears by the Wall of stones with human heart,” to quote one of the heroic pop songs of those days. I remember a wedding immediately after that war when, upon inspecting the wedding gifts, the groom discovered with amazement no fewer than three garish, expensive paintings depicting the weeping paratroopers at the Wailing Wall. But even then tears were not the only or the most forceful symbol of the paratroopers “returning” to the wall. The quasi-official symbol became the photograph by the veteran Time photographer David Rubinger which shows a group of unshaven helmeted paratroopers at the wall, in the middle of which one sees—ecce homo—a young, blond, clean-featured fighter with his eyes lifted upward and holding his helmet next to his heart. This altogether non-Jewish gesture of taking off one’s hat at a holy place became the symbol of the return of the New Jew to the site of his holy temple.

Not long after the pictures of the weeping fighters at the wall were circulated there appeared a more sophisticated but no less ideological kind of publication, known in Israel as “shooting and crying” literature. Its principal text; which made a great impression at the time, was a book called Siach Lochamim, which contained conversations with soldiers, mainly kibbutzniks, after the Six Day War.1 The clear but unstated message of the book was one of rueful moral self-congratulation: we are beautiful, but we must shoot to kill—but not before we go through an agonizing search of our tormented soul. For the sake of the record it must be said that in the same book Amos Oz came down hard on the jingoistic euphoria of the time, but his was not the prevailing tone. A more recent criticism of the same sentiment is to be heard in “Shooting and Crying,” a pop song written by a young Israeli rock singer named Sy Hyman, whose explosive energy reminds her fans of Janice Joplin. Her song is banned by Israeli radio. (With the uprising in the territories, the latest twist given to Hyman’s phrase is “beating and crying.”)

The blond innocence of the New Jew has long been part of the Zionist fantasy that underlies the myth of the sabra. This myth at the same time seeks to protect the sabra from the image of the “yellow beast.” His toughness and coarseness are popularly understood as merely superficial qualities, for inside every coarse sabra, the myth has it, there hides a sensitive youth struggling to come out. The tourist guidebook cliché according to which the sabra is so called after the fruit that is prickly outside but soft and sweet inside is meant to give a succinct and saccharine expression to this myth, and much effort has been invested in nurturing it, notably through the thriving industry of books dedicated to the memory of fallen soldiers. It was almost invariably pointed out that they secretly read the poetry of Rachel (“the Israeli Anna Akhmatova”) or Alterman (“the Israeli Gumilov”). These soldiers never got much credit for their love of poetry while alive, only after their premature deaths.

The mythical sabra, forever young, has somewhat aged. In the Israel of today he is best epitomized by Defense Minister Rabin. Much can be said about the nervous brutality of the aging sabra Rabin, but he is certainly true to the myth in at least one respect: he is not sentimental. And certainly the tears shed by fighters over their fallen comrades are not necessarily an expression of sentimentality. Sentimentality is not shown by the first tear, the tear of sorrow for the loss of somebody one has known. Rather, sentimentality, along with its artistic embodiment in kitsch, is expressed by what Milan Kundera—a shrewd connoisseur of kitsch—calls the “second tear.”

According to Kundera’s distinction between the first and second tear in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the second tear is a “meta-tear,” the tear we shed from solidarity with the collective feelings of the group we belong to at the sight of the first tear. It is a manifestation of a vicarious sentiment: it does not come out of the person’s direct involvement with the object of feeling but rather out of a derivative excitement that comes with reflection. It is a passive emotion that replaces direct emotional involvement. What Kundera paid no attention to is the further twist in kitsch, when the second tear comes without the first one’s ever occurring. This is kitsch in its pure form: the presence of the first tear serves only to dim it.

The “New Jews” of the Ben-Gurion years were afraid of tears. Tears are an expression of helplessness. They come about, for example, when someone close is irrevocably lost, or with deep frustration. Tears can be an expression of happiness too, but even then there is an element of helplessness, for these tears usually express relief following anxiety or tension, often in a situation in which we find ourselves helpless.2 The objection, in Ben-Gurion’s Israel, to what Kundera later called second tears had to do both with their expressing passivity and acquiescence, and with the fact that they spring from vicarious feelings. In any case tears were perceived as a substitute for action. Instead of whining for the Jewish fate, the demand of the early Israel was for action to change it.

The immigrant parents of the Israeli sabras were ambivalent about eliminating tears from the sabra experience. On the one hand they were proud of the “goys” they had reared, but on the other hand they felt that with the abolition of tears there disappeared also a certain ideal that to them was not only important but also part of the Jewish experience: the ideal of being a mensch in the sense of being sensitive to the suffering of others. The mensch-ideal of this parent generation has always been ambiguous. Sometimes it referred to those sensitive to any human suffering, and sometimes to those sensitive to the suffering of Jews only. This ambiguity with regard to the “other” permeates Jewish culture in general. Thus “man” in the biblical “when a man dieth in a tent” (Numbers 19:14) is taken by the Talmud to refer to Jews only, while in “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do he shall live in them” (Leviticus 18:5) “man” is taken to refer to any human being. This thoroughgoing ambiguity in the entire Jewish tradition could nourish universalistic tendencies just as it could also, obviously, nourish particularistic and tribal tendencies.

The wave of sentimentality that surged when Begin came to power had none of the universal sense of mensch—notwithstanding standing Begin’s gesture, never repeated, of allowing some Vietnamese boat people into the country. The sentiment was exclusively of the “love-of-Israel” kind, that is to say one of tribal sentimentalism: “The whole world is against us,” as one Israeli popular song has it, and we are against the world. Of course, the notion of a diffuse “human brotherhood” which has us all belonging to the “family of man” is also fraught with sentimental kitsch, but the kitsch of “love of Israel” is of the tribe and of the tribe alone.

In Israeli cultural criticism the discussion of kitsch in this sense has recently become widespread in daily conversation as well as in writing. Anton Shammas, the Arab-Israeli writer, has written on the subject (in the French magazine Levant, under the title “Kitsch 22,” and translated into English in Tikkun, September–October 1987); a special issue of Koteret Rashit, a magazine reflecting the mood of the Israeli intelligentsia, was devoted to kitsch in June. The concept of kitsch in these works mostly has to do with manifestations of vulgarity and bad taste, and not, at least not overtly, with criticism of the political culture of Israel. But one must ask why there is such a high concentration of kitsch in Israel, and the reasons are not far to seek. To begin with, Israel has a state ideology. Second, Israel is constantly preoccupied with marketing an image: to the world in general, and to the Jewish Diaspora in particular. Third, Israel is a new country with no established tradition. Fourth, it is a country that by history and by nature combines the sublime with the trivial: supermarkets and gas stations spring up where once the prophets trod. Fifth, Israel is a country of tourism. Sixth, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza produced its own culture. And lastly, the state of Israel is a product of a national movement deriving from nineteenth-century European Romanticism.

  1. 1

    The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War, recorded and edited by a group of young kibbutz members (London: André Deutsch, 1970).

  2. 2

    See the excellent book by Nico H. Frijda, The Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

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