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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.