One of the most common images employed in interpreting the Middle East conflict views it in terms of a moral symmetry: both parties ‒ Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab ‒ are in the right. According to this image, both have a legitimate claim to the same country and are actually engaged in a painful, tragic struggle with each other for possession of the land. At first sight the problem seems unsolvable from a moral point of view. Only mutual recognition and a clear insight into each other’s motives can clear the way to an ultimate reconciliation between the two peoples.

This morally ambiguous image receives much sympathetic attention from liberal intellectuals and politicians who claim to have a moderate and sophisticated position by bowing, so to speak, to both parties in the conflict. Indeed, in some political circles it is almost fashionable to speak of two truths with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The symmetric image has a long tradition, dating from the beginning of zionism. Much has already been written on the bad conscience of zionism, especially ‘left’ or ‘ethical’ zionism, when it discovered the presence of another people in Palestine. The story of Max Nordau, the early zionist leader, is well known. Once he came crashing in to see Herzl. ‘I hear there are Arabs living in Palestine’, he cried, ‘which means we are not in the right!’. While one might reasonably question the supposed naiveté of the early zionists, the physical and social existence of the Palestinian Arabs posed, to those zionists who preached socialist or humanistic ideals, not only a political obstacle but also a problem of legitimation, if not a heavy burden on their conscience. How to reconcile the foundation of a Jewish state with the rights of the people who were living there?

During the British Mandate period, some intellectuals and groups chose for binationalism, as for example Martin Buber, who explained this as follows: ‘It has always been a basic position of ours that we have here a confrontation between two vital claims, two claims different in their origin and nature, which cannot be weighed one against the other in a practical sense and there can be no decision between them in a theoretical way ( . . . ) But we are convinced that a compromise must be found between both claims; because we love this country and believe in its future, and because the other side shares this love and belief, it is inconceivable that we cannot join forces for the sake of joint service to this land. Where there are faith and love, even an apparently tragic conflict can lead to a solution.’ (From an open letter to Mahatmah Gandhi, February 1939). His solution was two nations within one state.

The ideology of the binationalists and other ‘ethical’ zionists was, however, structurally deficient. It was based on a utopian ideal, not on the real situation in Palestine. From its origins, zionist colonialism did not seek Jewish-Palestinian Arab solidarity, because of its exclusivist and expansionist principles and policies. The calls for Jewish-Arab cooperation voiced by Buber, Kalvarisky, Magnes and others led to some contacts (which proved to be short-lived) with Palestinian-Arab leaders, but not to real forms of Arab-Jewish organisation, because this was outside the scope of the zionist enterprise. With some exceptions, they did not depart from the fundamental tenets of zionism and as they lacked a social base among both Jews and Arabs in Palestine, their criticism was impotent. Some left zionist groups, such as Hashomer-Hatza’ir, stressed their commitment to binationalist or federative conceptions, supposedly based on Jewish-Arab equality, but worked in practice for the creation of an exclusively Jewish state, which they fully endorsed when it was ultimately established. Moreover, the built-in failure of these intellectuals and groups supported the strategy of mainstream zionism in those days; it was used to confirm the necessity or inevitability of a Jewish state. There was no Arab to talk to, mainstream zionism told the West, whose support it needed.

Even more than during the pre-state period, the right vs. right view of the conflict served after 1948 as a legitimation of common zionist practice. Instead of providing a political perspective ‒ however impotent and marginal ‒ beyond the status quo, the symmetric model began to explain and justify the facts that were being created. In particular, when Israeli policy during and after the 1967 war came under attack from western left circles, and the growth of support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation became a challenge for zionist ideology, it functioned as a counter-model against the view of Israel as a colonialist state.

In this article I shall analyse the ideological background of this model. Its key idea is the concept of tragedy; study of this concept provides access to the cognitive and emotional layers on which the model is grounded.

Rationalisation of political choices

On first glimpse, the image of the Middle-East conflict as a tragedy seems to express a pessimistic or even catastrophic mood. The use of the model by a number of left zionist writers, however, transforms this mood to some extent. They use it to rationalise earlier political choices made by zionism, to give a diagnosis of the present-day situation and to outline a political prospect with regard to an eventual solution of the conflict.

As already mentioned, according to this model the repeatedly stated essence of the conflict is the juxtaposition of two equal rights. Amos Oz, an Israeli novelist, wrote shortly after the 1967 war:

As I see it, the confrontation between the people that returns to Zion and the Arab inhabitants of the country is not like a Western film or saga, but like a tragedy. Tragedy is not a conflict between “light” and “darkness”, between justice and crime. It is a clash between total justice and total justice, even though one should not seek the simplification of symmetry in it. And as in all tragedies, there is no hope of a jubilating conciliation based on a clever compromise formula. The choice is one between a blood-bath and a sad, disappointing compromise, more in the way of accepting the situation by force of necessity than of the sudden breakthrough of understanding […] The Arabs did not oppose zionism because they failed to understand zionism, but because they understood it only too well. And that is the tragedy: the mutual understanding does exist. We want to exist as a nation, as a Jewish state. They do not want that state [… ] Any search for a way out must start from the open-eyed realisation of the full extent of the dispute: a tragic conflict of tragic power.1

Avraham B. Yehoshua, another left zionist intellectual and writer, concludes that there are here two ‘entirely different categories of rights’:

The Jews’ only genuine right is the right of hardship: the right of the starving man to steal a slice of bread, the right of the person fleeing from a murderer or from a fire. Herein lies the tragedy of the Palestinian conflict. On the one hand there is a people whose country has been invaded by strangers (and it is irrelevant that the invasion was in its beginnings carried out in the most humane way possible, without violence, with due consideration for the inhabitants; that land was purchased, and social aid given) and on the other hand ‒ a people hungry for a home, escaping the menace of the gallows and seeking to save its very existence […] What we have here is not a clash between the rights of two peoples to Palestine, but a clash between two entirely different categories of rights. On the one side there is a political, geo-political right, the natural right of a people to full sovereignty in its land (the right of the Arabs) and on the other ‒ the existential right, the right of no-alternative, which is also a natural right (the right of the Jews).2 

Yehoshua advises the Palestinians to reach ‘a tragic reconciliation’ with the State of Israel, after which ‘new horizons’ will open to them.

Some writers ‘weigh’ the legitimacy of both claims, and focus on the tragic choice that Israel had to make. Shlomo Avineri:

[…] It is still possible to view zionism as justified vis-à-vis the Arab question in terms that are morally meaningful ‒ not in black-and-white terms which would mean we have the country and they have no right at all, but in terms that are relevant to the nature of a moral alternative, that is a choice between two alternatives neither of which entirely satisfies all the moral demands, but one of which is likely to be less morally damaging than the other. It seems to me that it may be said, at least since the Holocaust, that if the alternative is between (a) the Jews having their own roof overhead at the price of uprooting hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from their land and resettling them in some other part of the same Palestine, and (b) the Arabs of Palestine continuing to live on the land while Holocaust refugees remain homeless ‒ then the moral price of setting up the State is justified.3

Amos Elon regards the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as resulting from a tragic choice:

As Thomas Jefferson once said of America, Israel holds the wolf by his ears, and can neither hold him down nor safely let him go. Grave moral and existential questions are left hanging. There are no clear answers, for this is no abstract dichotomy, equitable as in mathematics, but a conflict among humans, who in their fear and fury have irrevocably resorted to tragic choices. At the root is a disastrous struggle between two rights, a clash between two irresistible compulsions, the very essence of high tragedy. It is through tragedy that we recognise the glory and the degradation in human affairs, and sense the defects and excesses of some of our most cherished values. In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, “Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity, because it combines nobility with guilt”.4

F. Zweig quotes the same passage from Niebuhr and adds in an almost triumphant voice:

One can regret the tragic choice, but one cannot help admiring the noble faith of Israeli youth which has moved mountains, and the extraordinary heroism of the Jewish fighters, the ready self-sacrifice of young life […] in the defence of their land. And so there is nobility with guilt !5

From these examples it is possible to formulate some interlocking assumptions and ideological implications of the model, as it is used by these writers:

1 The assumption that the essence of the conflict is a clash between rights or moral values, which are by definition opposed to each other. The idealist approach juxtaposes not the moral values or rights of classes, or of political leaderships, but of whole peoples or nations. Of course the abstract idea of a nation as a stable, homogeneous entity existing above human history has a central place within the idealist romanticist tradition. The abstract idea of a Jewish nation is used to explain zionism not as a specific movement within a specific historical period, but as a timeless representative of (the needs of) the whole Jewish people. In this ideological framework it is not possible to put this assumption to test: by definition a nation has common interests and a shared destiny.

Moreover, because the rights of the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples exclude each other, no theoretical compromise is possible. Morally Palestine is indivisible. There is no theoretical guide-line according to which part of Palestine belongs to the Jewish people and which part of it to the Palestinian Arabs; both can claim the whole country on equally justified grounds.

2 Because of these conflicting claims, Israel has to cope with a tragic situation. Given the opposition of the Palestinians to the Jewish state, it has the choice between life and death ‒ no other alternative exists. And of course this is in itself sufficient to understand and explain Israel’s politics, if one shares the assumptions mentioned above. But those who apply the tragic model do not want to appear as one-sided partisans of zionism or Israel. They claim to take a detached neutral position in which they weigh the interests of both zionism and the Palestinians. Avineri, for one, applies the criterion of ‘minimum harm for maximum return’,6 that is to say: minimum harm to the Palestinians and maximum return to zionism. As a distanced, but apparently moved observer (a ‘tragic’ observer, indeed), Avineri puts both cases on the balance and judges that zionism was right after all. Given the practical situation ‒ no alternative for the Jewish people, a not so pleasant but workable alternative for the Palestinians ‒ the Jewish right had to prevail. In other words: a tragic choice for Israel had to lead to tragic consequences for the Palestinians. The injustice done to them can be understood as a form of necessary evil.

Of course much can be said about the way in which Avineri (or Oz and Yehoshua) presents and formulates both cases: after all he is not quite as unbiased as he claims. However, at least as important is the ideological background of his inclusion of certain options and exclusion of others. The tragic model portrays history as a narrative, with peoples or nations as personified actors who make decisive choices at crucial, dramatic moments. The dramatic metaphor suggests the possibility of a choice between two extreme, more or less well-circumscribed alternatives, which can be compared in a rational way by the intelligent actor. By personalising history in this manner, there are indeed only very limited choices at limited moments by limited actors. Moreover, the nation as an undivided actor excludes any alliances or options based on other than nationalist criteria. It is not only that they have failed to materialise; they just did not exist. They are not historical actors, so to speak.

3 The various applications of the tragic model include only one intelligent actor: Israel; and indeed left zionist writers do not hesitate to call this presumed fact the basic tragic aspect of the conflict.7 The Palestinians apparently had and have more options than zionism; that they failed to choose the reasonable ones (e.g. acceptance of the Partition Plan in 1947, or ‒ as one might sometimes hear ‒ staying at home during the fighting in 1948) is the underlying reason for Israel’s painful dilemma. However, some writers strictly follow the demands of their model, and stress that they still do understand ‘the politics of refusal’ on the part of the Arabs: both sides understand each other only too well, as Amos Oz stresses. But it is only an understanding at the moral level.

From a moral point of view this Arab policy may be justifiable ‒ so the argument runs; from a practical point of view it is just self-damaging and therefore irrational. And what is moral certainty unlinked to the demands of the practical situation? Nothing but sheer fanaticism. Of course this is the basic assumption that Amos Oz shares with others in his description of the Arabs’ and Palestinians’ strategy. As we will see later, it implies the right of the intelligent actor in the conflict (or his intellectual defenders) to interpret the position of the other side and regard it as fanatical (and so on and so forth ‒ there is a vicious circle here). The apparent symmetry of the model exists only on a moral level, as Amos Oz hastens to say in the passage quoted above. In the quotations of Amos Elon and F. Zweig, Israel’s insight into its own tragic situation even has a heroic tint: Israel deserves admiration and pity, because of its painful dilemma and moral courage to confront it. Both the pain and the praises are thus quite unevenly distributed.

4 What is the prospect of the conflict, according to this model? In line with their idealistic approach, Yehoshua and the rest emphasise the mutual act of recognition.8 In the case of Israel, recognition of it as it exists. Towards the Palestinians, recognition of their sovereignty in the abstract,9 as a moral point of reference.10 As above, there is no symmetry in the demands addressed to both parties. Amos Oz is quite clear: the Palestinians and the Arabs have to accept the fact of Israel; ultimately they must realise by hard experience that Israel faces only one choice. Yehoshua reaches the same conclusion. Only a change in the Arab mentality can provide a solution in a basically static situation. Criticism of Israel’s policies is only directed at the level of stated intentions: Israel must declare its preparedness to face a future national identity of the Palestinians. According to writers such as Amos Oz, Avraham Yehoshua and Boaz Evron, Israel does not need to change its basic policies towards the Palestinians.11

However, some writers apply an additional moral standard. Because Israel has won the struggle in which the Palestinians have become tragic victims, it has a moral responsibility to soften the sufferings of the refugees. Amos Elon quotes Albert Camus in this respect: instead of choosing the side of the ‘whips’, the strong and brutal, Israel must choose another way, that of compassion. Zweig says: ‘By accepting his guilt he would satisfy his integrity, his sense of justice and his deeper moral self. This is what is actually required of Israel. She has to accept responsibility for the effects of her actions, for the displacement of refugees, and for turning the Arab majority into a minority. She has to remedy what it is in her power to remedy, namely to solve the problem of the refugees and to redress genuine Arab grievances’.12 Except that these proposals lack specificity; they do not transgress the boundaries of the status quo.

It is not accidental that those who use the tragic model as we have described it here do not specify concrete policies for Israel. It is actually less concerned with Israeli politics than with Israeli conscience. The model struggles with the basic contradiction of left zionist ideology: how to reconcile zionism with socialism or ‘universal human ethics’?13 How to reconcile the exclusivist, national principle with the inclusive, human principle?

The tragic view of the conflict gives an interesting, even ingenious answer to this dilemma. The ‘reconciliation’ is reached by separating morality from politics. The universalist statement that there are two conflicting absolute rights remains hollow on the practical level. The general moral principles demand only a moral act: a clear awareness of the tragic situation and a showing of good intentions. The model suggests that this act of moral self-understanding and insight into the enemies’ motives is enough to soften the inner conscience. So the idealist model provides an idealist, person-directed solution to the conflict. In numerous instances one can find an almost obsessive concern with cleansing the moral conscience. Here it is done in a highly paradoxical way: tragic (zionist) man says: ‘Look at me, I am not able to put my universalist principles into practice. I do not want to hide this ‒ I feel terrible because of this. If I am able to confess this, then who can distrust my motives?’ Instead of distrust it deserves admiration: ‘[…] we cannot help feeling a deep respect for those figures in this tragedy of a peaceless generation who, in wrestling with the scruples of compassion and integrity, vindicate their own conscience as well as the conscience of their people.’14 Or Robert Alter, introducing Ehud Ben Ezer’s book Unease in Zion: ‘It is easy enough to survey from a distance the great dismaying panorama of mankind and identify with the suffering humanity of the Czechs, the Vietnamese, the Biafrans, the Arab refugees, but it is a far more demanding, and morally credible, business to confront from day to day people who are trying to destroy you, and still retain some operative awareness of their humanity.15  The apparent paradox of emphasising a universalistic consciousness without ‘translating’ this into politics is overcome by a good deal of rhetoric. The model gives here priority to the conservation of a guilty conscience; this is the ultimate test of the viability and credibility of Israel’s policies.

The tragic myth

It would be too simple to say that the model is characterised by a good deal of hypocrisy. Of course it is, but such a conclusion would divert attention away from the existence of a real tragic consciousness in zionist ideology and Israeli society. For most left zionists the model is probably true: it is built on a structure of sentiments that is widely held in Israel. These sentiments are articulated by the model in a controlled manner. Because they are shared by a large number of people, they give the model also a large measure of social credibility. An ideology can only function if it is rooted in social consciousness, and if it is able to translate this consciousness into articulated discourse. Without credibility, manipulation is not possible.

The assumptions of the model are clearly linked to some deeply felt anxieties within Israeli society, and to a number of reactions which try to cope with these anxieties. The basic polarity is between ‘us’ and ‘them’, reflecting the continuing state of war. The polarity implies, as mentioned above, the feeling of a common destiny: one future for one people. Contradictions within one’s own society are present, but they do not seem decisive as far as the future of the whole is concerned.

The other assumption ‒ we have no options other than life or death ‒ is a very basic feeling among many Israelis and has been restated again and again: the Arabs only have to win one war; Israel’s victories are ultimately useless if they do not result in Arab acceptance of the right of Israel to exist; till that moment, Israel is forced to live in a state of siege.

This sad ‘knowledge’, which is presented as realistic thinking, is to some extent a heritage of an enduring war experience, but ideologically rooted in the schematic dichotomies of zionism. The Jewish people is set against the rest of the world. In principle the goyim are hostile to the existence of the Jewish people, and will try to discriminate or destroy them, when they have the chance ‒ and they do have that chance wherever the Jews are a minority. Only a Jewish majority ‒ which implies a Jewish state ‒ can resist the attacks of the outside world and force it to accept the Jewish existence. The terrible history of centuries, and its 20th century climax, can only be experienced in this way. So the choices are limited. ‘It is better to live thirty, fifty, even one hundred years like this, on a constant war footing, than to live five years in a concentration camp or ten years in an Eastern European ghetto or fifty years in an antisemitic US small town…” as one Israeli said recently.16 If the choice is not between life and death, then at least it is between freedom and bondage. Resignation implies bondage; struggle implies liberty. So the struggle for survival ensures one’s dignity.

The Massada story is highly pertinent here. Massada was the last stronghold of the Jewish revolt against the Romans; it fell in AD 73. According to this story, before it fell the leaders of its defenders, the Zealots, convinced their warriors to slay their families and, after that, themselves. In this way 960 defenders allegedly committed suicide instead of being captured by the Romans. Today the story, and indeed the physical remains of the stronghold, are regarded as part of Israel’s cultural heritage. The choice that the warriors had to confront was ultimately one between dignity and surrender, and they chose dignity.

While the applicability of the Massada metaphor has been hotly debated in Israel, there is no doubt that it is part of the zionist structure of sentiments: Israel in the role of a tragic hero. Of course this ‘heroism’ ‒ when explicitly stated and defended in this way ‒ has little credibility and political relevance, and this is precisely one of the reasons for the controversy. But this does not deny its widely felt influence on Israeli public opinion and policy.

There are other myths of this kind. A biblical one is the story of Samson. When Samson was captured by the Philistines, his eyes were torn out and he was publicly displayed and mocked. Finally he avenged himself by breaking the pillars of Dagon’s temple, bringing it down upon himself as well as his enemies. This ‘let my soul die with the Philistines’ psychology,17 together with other biblical and post-biblical suicide stories, expresses anxieties about defeat and suggests emotional reactions for coping with it. And of course in the nuclear age the Samson story is politically quite relevant and dangerous.

Destruction is a persistent theme in modern Israeli literature. While pre-war zionist literature is pervaded by a mood of romantic optimism ‒ as if the conflict was a western, in the words of Amos Oz ‒ modern Israeli literature is existentially inspired, full of uncertainties and mixed feelings.

The fortress mentality has been expressed time and again. For example in the novel by S. Yizhar, The Days of Tziklag (1958), in which he describes seven days in the life of a zionist fighting unit in the 1948 war: ‘Kill them off nicely, quickly, lots of them, make it snappy, you know how ‒ two with one bullet, three if you can. There is no other way. But I hate it. Yet, what is the point of hating where there is no other way? And I hate having to make my way across the dead bodies. You hate fighting ‒ but you do it. That’s how we have been told, all of us ‒ there it is. I belong to a generation that has no other choice. That’s why I am here and hate it, putting up with the war as a conquered city puts up with its tyrannical conqueror. A tangle of fear and madness.’

In Leon Yudkin’s treatment of modern Israeli literature ‒ significantly entitled Escape into Siege ‒ this story of Yizhar is judged in terms in which one can easily recognise the left zionist’s impotent and uneasy conscience: ‘This situation is the struggle of the man of tender conscience, who seems to be ill at ease in society, or rather, in a given society. Yizhar’s hero, when it comes to it, does not in fact behave exceptionally, nor does he persist in his stubborn course, but he does undergo agonies of hesitation and indecision before he commits himself to the common line’.18 In some novels the prospect of an eventual destruction looms large. The recent books of Amos Kenan (Holocaust II) and ltzhak Ben Ner (Après la Pluie) give an image of Tel Aviv after its destruction in the imagination of the author. To experience the destruction in the context of a novel is one way of coping with the fear that one day it may actually happen. In a cruel sense the imagined certainty of defeat and destruction may be more bearable than the anxiety itself.

As we have seen, the tragic model is ultimately based on the (theoretical) recognition of the enemies’ rights, even if this runs against one’s own wishes and instincts. ‘Arafat is a murderer. I hate the Palestinians and everything they’re doing, but their cause is just’ ‒ as a young Israeli woman on military service confessed.19 Morally, two legitimate rights clash; and to explain the actual suppression of the other’s rights is not only a burden on one’s conscience, but, on the emotional level, a clash between contrary feelings. There are various ways to reconcile the conflict between feelings of loyalty to one’s own group and feelings of understanding for the enemies’ case. The view of the tragedy of the Palestinian people as a mirror image of the tragedy of the Jews is relevant here. This view says that it is possible to understand the suffering other just because one shares the heritage of a people that has always been victimised. The Seventh Day ‒ a book in which kibbutz soldiers talk about their 1967 war experiences ‒ provides many examples. A soldier speaks about his perplexity on meeting a stream of refugees on his way back from war. He says that he completely identified with them: when he looked at the children being carried by their parents, he saw himself in the arms of his father during the second world war. He concludes by saying that his identification with the other people, his own enemies, was perhaps the most persistent tragic experience.20

The identification theme is widespread in modern Israeli literature, especially in the works of Amos Oz and Avraham Yehoshua. In the same way as Kenan and Ben Ner picture a future destruction, the heroes of Oz and Yehoshua identify not only with their enemies’ feelings and plight, but in some cases even with their acts of resistance. In an interview Yehoshua explains this apparent form of self-castigation:

We have in our lives some extremely serious repressions regarding the Israeli-Arab problem, the entire problem of our existence here. Literature has a social-psychological function to perform, a cathartic one which lies first and foremost in the release of our repressions. This is what happens in my story [Facing the Forests]; I considered this story one of the ways of resolving an existential problem that was oppressing me, of releasing the repression, seeing reality with an open eye and freeing myself from the nightmare.21

Facing the Forests is about a student studying the Crusades, who seeks solitude as a watchman in a forest of the Jewish National Fund planted on the site of a destroyed Arab village. The hero meets an old, mute inhabitant of the former village with whom he develops a strange love-hate relationship. The student identifies with the old man to such an extent that he helps him to set the forest on fire. At first this does not succeed; later the Arab does it all by himself and the feelings of the hero are released: a catharsis is reached.

All these feelings ‒ the fear of destruction, the uneasy conscience, the unwilling identification with the enemy, the feeling of having no alternative ‒ are part of a structure of emotions which is nourished by zionism, both in theory and practice, but which has acquired a power of its own. Its ideological force results from its capacity to produce all sorts of myths ‒ where ‘myth’ has to be understood in the broadest sense of the term, including not only biblical stories or novel narratives, but also the images and tales through which Israeli people represent themselves and their society.

Conversely, these images and stories structure their experiences and interpret what is happening in the world. More often than not they are rooted in the subconscious layers of the mind; for this reason they are able to hold people in their grasp for a long time, as long as circumstances do not make them inapplicable or irrelevant.

These representations or myth, can obviously have a cathartic function, the release of repressed feelings. And so they help people to cope with the status quo, paradoxically by imagining the ultimate failure of the status quo. The dream is a nightmare, but at least it is a dream, just a dream.

Myths express existential and social contradictions and dichotomies; myths that support the status quo, such as the tragic myths, express them in a static way. They ‘freeze’ them, so to speak; the contradictory ideas or feelings are juxtaposed, not related or developed in a dialectical manner. Moreover, by freezing the contradictions and polarities, the tragic myth naturalises them and lends them an air of self-evidence.

History seems to repeat its essentials, which are represented by tragic myths within the context of particular histories. As Arthur Koestler says: ‘History cannot be judged by the application of any rigid code of ethics; it can only be represented in the manner of the Greek tragedy, where the antagonists are both right in their own terms of reference and in their own universe of discourse. In the tragedy of Jews and Arabs in Palestine both were in the right, and the spectator could do no more than extend his sympathies to one part or the other, according to his subjective values and emotional bias.’22

Because of their elegance, simplicity, and general applicability, tragic images can be found in all sorts of discourses: from news to fiction. Because they resemble each other in structure and reasoning, they feed and support each other and evoke innumerable emotive and cognitive associations, especially between the fate of the Jews in Europe and that in the Middle East, or, conversely, when the Palestinian fate is compared with the Jewish fate. Many examples can be given. It is easy to recognise in many Israeli stories the resemblance between the adventures of the hero and the fate of Israel at large. So these representations signify, and support, other representations in an almost endless chain of associations.

The tragic myth holds an unstable balance between extreme pessimism and extreme optimism. Pessimism reigns as far as the (in)stability of the status quo is concerned; moreover, the prospects implicit in the status quo itself are mortally perilous. After making the decisive choice, tragic man is doomed to follow the chosen path, whatever the consequences. However, extreme pessimism is matched by extreme optimism. In his loneliness, tragic man is still able to stand against the world and to force his will upon his enemies, at least for a time. He is able to defend his besieged stronghold; and if he loses, he loses with dignity. The line between pessimism and optimism is a thin one: optimism can easily collapse into pessimism, while deep-felt pessimism can be controlled by an unsteady optimism. The model’s hovering between extremes reflects the idealist dichotomies of zionist ideology which were mentioned above. Sometimes these are evoked with all their store of extreme consequences and emotions. Thus Uri Avneri:

Nuclear weapons, missiles of all types, are nearing the Semitic scene. Their advent is inevitable. If the vicious circle is not broken, and broken soon, it will lead with the pre-ordained certainty of a Greek tragedy toward a holocaust that will bury Tel Aviv and Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem .23

Here the traumatic perspective is not sketched in order to induce a catharsis, as in some Israeli works of literature, but to formulate against this spectre a new, utopian alternative. In most left zionist writings however the tragic model is reasonably optimistic: in its formulations and nuances it opts for gradual progress by mutual recognition and acceptance. It freezes the extreme tragic feelings (which are definitely present) by articulating them in a controlled, even manipulative manner. The concept of tragedy itself makes this possible: in its ‘rational’ use it takes the stance of the detached observer who can reconcile the conflicting feelings, or choose between them.

Persuading the West

The tragic feeling is both an existential agony and an ideology; indeed, it could not function as an ideology if it were not rooted in and shaped by this real consciousness. It stands in a dialectical relationship with it: it structures and feeds this consciousness and it uses it for its own political ends.

As ideology, the tragic model is part of a larger network of communication, with its own audiences, codes and messages. This network is embedded in a larger power structure in which the relation between the West and the Arab world is decisive. The historical development of this relation has been unequal to such an extent that one can say that the Arab world has been shaped by the West in accordance with the West’s needs, and that the Arab world, or the Orient, actually exists as an entity because of its unequal relation with the West.24 On the communicative level, the image of the Arab world has been formed not by the Arabs themselves, but by Western interpreters, who pictured them as completely different from Western Man (and so constituted them as separate people with their own ‘mind’, ‘mentality’, and so forth), and as unable to interpret themselves. The power structure validated this assumption by placing, by and large, the Arabs outside the communicative process with the West. So the Arab did not become a concrete actuality, that spoke for himself to a Western audience, but an abstract idea, static and ahistorical, that had to be continually interpreted in all its mystic forms by Western communication ‘brokers’: scientists, traders, missionaries, or diplomats and military men.

This communication structure reached its ideal form during the 19th and the beginnings of the 20th century, at a moment when the political future of the Arab people was debated by the competing colonial powers of the day. In that context the zionist movement succeeded in filling a particular niche within the power and communication structure, by offering its services to England as a potential client state which could monitor nationalist developments in the Middle East and intervene whenever things went wrong from the viewpoint of the colonial powers. And so the zionist movement was in a position to interpret the Arab world and more specifically the developments in Palestine to the West. It took over the broker’s role from the earlier Orientalists; and it did this in a highly organised, political way. The somewhat mystic and romantic image of the Orient of the 19th century was abruptly replaced by an equally generalised, but much more politically hostile image, in which the reasonable and cultivated West was threatened by barbarous, even murderous Arabs. At the frontier, the zionist movement could guard Western civilisation against attacks from outside. While this image did not always achieve its aim because of the political complexities in Palestine and the short term considerations of the colonial power, the basic dichotomy remained in force.

The Palestinians were Arabs, and even more ‘Arab’ than other Arabs. In the communicative process with the West the Arabs of Palestine were wholly represented by the zionist movement, to such an extent that their image was the antithesis of the ideal image of the zionists themselves. Where values such as organisation, productivity, imagination, pioneering activism, or generally progress and success were stressed within zionist ideology, Arab-Palestinian society was seen as all the more stagnant, passive, or ‒ of course ‒ terroristic and fanatical. And so the story of the Middle Eastern conflict became the story of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, wherein it was easy for the Western audience to choose sides ‒ if not always politically, then at least emotionally. This story had great credibility in the West, as long as one could afford to leave the Arab society aside. It reached its political climax during the 1967 war which satisfied all the requirements of the heroic fairy-tale.

Since then, the story and the implied images have lost some of their credibility and political effectiveness. A critical left audience has not accepted the continuing occupation of Palestinian territories conquered during the war, and has shown some sympathy with the demands of the Palestinians. And later the established Western powers could not swallow Israeli annexation policies and were more prepared to integrate the Arab states in the Western economic system. New attempts were made to convince the Western audience of Israel’s case, taking into account the changed realities in the Middle East.

The tragic model or ideology is one of these attempts, perhaps the most effective for some time. It is based on, and validates, the existence of the lopsided communication structure between the West, Israel and the Arabs or Palestinians.25 The tragic model places Israel in the centre of the problematic, which is about the Israeli- alestinian/Arab conflict and explained to a Western (liberal) audience. It attempts to lock the audience in a sort of complicity with the speaker (Israel, or its left defenders), which from the very start excludes the third party ‒ the party that does not speak but is only spoken about. Look, it says, we behave so-and-so and that is quite reasonable; the other party does not behave in this way and can therefore be legitimately excluded from the communication process.

This means, first of all, that the tragic model does not function as a dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians ‒ quite the contrary. Despite all the apparent understanding of the Palestinians’ case and the acknowledgement of injustice done to them, it excludes them as a living people which can speak for itself. According to the model, the Palestinian people does not struggle for its rights; these are assigned to it by a generous adversary, so to speak. A tragic victim needs help from others, he cannot help himself. Which also means: he cannot speak for himself, he is not a political subject. The model offers the Palestinians nothing but a subservient role from which there is no escape. Their living voice is annexed; the tragic model suggests that Israel can represent them, because she is so universalistic that she understands the claims of the adversary.

Like the other, ‘epic’, model the tragic model presents two opposing images of Israel and the Palestinians. However, instead of giving clearcut representations (the good vs. the bad guys), it gives a difficult, ‘sober’ image of the conflict. The model shifts the discussion from the level of deeds to the mental level, the level of intentions. And here the mentality of Israel is good, reasonable and morally sympathetic, while the mentality at the other side is fanatic, blind and immoral. This is, for example, the message of Shlomo Avineri:

The tragic nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict is recognised by most Israeli writers on the subject, a recognition that gives their own nationalism a peculiarly introspective and liberal edge: they perceive the point of view of the other side, even if they do not accept it. Among Arab intellectuals, however, very few perceive the conflict as tragic or see it as a conflict between two claims.26

Avineri’s remark is in accordance with the rest of his argument. He explains that Jewish and Arab nationalism share a number of characteristics (a relatively late origin, each supported by imperialist powers, each with its own historical traumas, and both in search of their identity). However, there is one fundamental difference: zionism succeeded in combining a social and national revolution, while Arab nationalism remained exclusively political: ‘The successful synthesis of the social and political realms gave zionism its peculiar dynamism and strength, whereas the purely political nature of Arab nationalism, in Palestine as well as elsewhere, is at the root of its present tragic dilemma.’27 And so one cannot escape the conclusion that the lack of a tragic consciousness among Arab intellectuals is apparently an expression of the failure of a social revolution in the Arab world. Ralph Coury interprets Avineri’s message in the following way:

‘We (i.e. zionist intellectuals) are sensitive and aware. We belong to a tradition that is self-critical, that does not accept violence as right as long as it is successful. We belong to a culture and a religious heritage that can sympathise with the underdog, that has a sense of the tragic dimensions of human life and conflict.’ But there is more: ‘Since you are not as sensitive as we are, since you do not possess the sense of tragedy which we possess, you are the bearers of a lesser humanity. As the bearers of a lesser humanity, your claims are in fact not as valid as ours, and we can feel less guilty for what we have done to you.’28

Moreover, Avineri draws a boundary between the Arab and Western intellectual traditions. Israeli writers on the subject clearly belong to the latter tradition and so speak a common language with the West. The tragic consciousness is part of this common experience and language, and since Arab intellectuals do not share this consciousness, they can be excluded from the communication process.

The common language urges the West to interpret the Israeli position in the Middle-East conflict in terms of Western experiences, and so it is not accidental that many comparisons are made between the tragic experiences of the Jews in the West and the Israeli tragic dilemma in the Middle East. As noted above, the tragic model is open to many associations in this respect.29

The tragic approach creates two opposing images of Israel and the Palestinians or Arabs by indirect means. It is not clearly stated that the one party is ‘black’ and the other ‘white’. Both are ‘grey’, so to speak, at least theoretically. But beneath the surface it is clear that the images are polarised. The model calls attention to an identification with the Israeli position, by emphasising the mental struggles in which (left) Israelis and their supporters are involved and, as Coury concludes, the basic message seems to be that the one party is human (‘only too human’, in its tragic situation), and the other one is not. Avineri differs from others by explicitly stating these implications; hereby he deviates from a sort of common line, indeed from the code of the model, which is based on the rhetoric of understatement ‒ wholly in accordance with Western (academic) tradition. By saying things indirectly, by implication, the argument takes a subtle colour, and this of course makes criticism of it more difficult, because the basic points are not explicit ‒ they have to be translated or decoded. Its apparent sobriety and appeal to intellectual rationality are the more effective, because they hide the structure of sentiments on which the assumptions, and indeed the ‘rationality’, of the model are based. The rhetoric of the model is not only destined to convince people of the justness of the cause, but also to make it immune against criticism of its emotional and ideological grounds.

The model commands its audience to agree with its rationality, with the rationality of those who apply it; that is, with the rational intentions of its supporters. This is a fundamental assumption of the model: intentions can be separated from deeds, values from facts, and theory from practice. Moreover, intentions are more important than deeds. This assumption fits in with a deep-rooted tradition of liberal intellectualism. It challenges the Western audience by calling not for a simple, blind solidarity, but for a difficult, even ‘painful’ view of the conflict, which does not imply any specific practical steps. In fact, it asks for sympathy, or compassion and pity, with the tragic hero. It does not demand identification with the tragic victim ‒ that would be too ‘easy’, as for example Robert Alter explicitly states. Not the actual situation in which both parties find themselves, but their mental state is important. And this mental state, the moral struggling, is exhibited time and again, so as to provide a picture that contrasts with the implied insensitivity of the Palestinians or Arabs, and to defocus attention away from Israeli practice, especially the acts of repression.30

Concluding remarks

The tragic model became highly actual after the 1967 war, because of the legitimation crisis in which left zionism came to be involved. Recently left zionism has had to cope with a second legitimation crisis, after the arrival of the Likud government, and its all too clear annexation policies after the Israeli-Egyptian treaty. The ideological cornerstone of the tragic model ‒ Israel has only limited options because of its security situation ‒ has become much less credible than before. The security concept of the Likud government is not as ‘sober’ as that of the earlier Labour governments, who wanted to impress the Western audience that they were strictly led by military considerations. It is by now quite clear that, while the Likud government and Gush Emunim apply old zionist practices and ideologies such as pioneerism and annexation by ‘accomplished facts’, they differ in their religious zeal from the secular forms of legitimation which were used by Labour zionism. They do not appeal to Western rationality, and so they make it much more difficult to present a tragic image of Israel as a whole.

Still the model as I have described it here continues to function. This is, first of all, because it is ultimately immune to criticism; it cannot be refuted on rational grounds. The model claims a potential danger for Israel (or, in zionist terms, an always existing danger of antisemitism), and one can disagree about the probability of this danger but not about its existence ‒ this is an assumption which cannot be disproved, in the same way as zionism cannot be ‘disproved’. Secondly, the model presents itself as an alternative to Gush Emunim zionism. It suggests that there is ‘another’ zionism, or another Israel. And so it attempts to restore the weakened relationship between Israel and the West, by asserting a ‘new’ alternative discourse, which may convince the liberal Western audience as it appeals to a shared rationality. Therefore it is much too early to say that the model has lost its persuasive power and effectiveness. It is probably not accidental that ‘ethical’ zionism (sometimes presented as a search for the ‘real’ roots of zionism) is receiving increased attention from some progressive circles in the West.

Any criticism of the model has to take into account that it is not a well-rounded, rational argument, which can be criticised on its own merits. This would neglect the ideological roots of the model. Ideology does not only imply a rational argument, but also a shared consciousness and feeling, and even an inter-personal identity. For example the model appears to say that progressive people do not need to feel ashamed to declare that they are zionist ‒ in this sense the ideology gives them an identity.31 So the model must not only be criticised on its rational arguments, or on its pretended rationality, but in the first place on its position in a specific unequal communication structure. And therefore one has to look at the ways in which the model is used. While superficially the model gives an image of symmetry, it is used to imply that the one right is somewhat more understandable, sympathetic and moral than the other. These images are created by the social and linguistic contexts in which the model is used, and by the tacit assumptions which the model shares with its audience.

Conversely, this means that a different social and linguistic context can give a wholly different content to the model. The symmetric view (right vs. right), by its sheer banality, can be used for almost any end. It can invite people to consider the ‘other side’ of the matter ‒ without any pressure to give up old ideas. It can have a mediating function, when people intend ‘to bring the parties closer together’. Or it can have a prophetic function, when it is used to warn people that one cannot safely suppress the legitimate rights of the other party for such a long time. And so on and so on. (Ironically, today left zionism is sometimes confronted by a use of the model which is far from its own political intentions, for example when the Palestinians are regarded as ‘the Jews of the Middle East’ or similar metaphors).

The approach to the problem of ideology which has been chosen here implies a criticism of the model as part of left zionist consciousness and politics, and ultimately as part of the larger zionist ideology, with which it is inextricably linked.

[Toine Van Teeffelen]

  1. Amos Oz, ‘Meaning of Homeland’ , New Outlook, vol 10, no 9, December 1967, pp 15-17; emphasis in text. Hana Wirth-Nesher, in her article ‘Tragedy and the Arab-Israel Conflict: Dangerous Misnomer’, The Jerusalem Quarterly, no 9, Fall 1978, mentions some other examples of the tragic metaphor, almost all within a left zionist context. I shall deal with her criticism of the metaphor below.
  2. Who is Left? Zionism Answers Back, Confrontation Series, The Zionist Library, Jerusalem 1971, pp 117-8.
  3. Sholomo Avineri, ‘Subjugation of the Means to the State’s Ends?’, in Ben Ezer (ed), Unease in Zion, Jerusalem Academic Press, 1974, p 183; emphasis in text.
  4. Amos Elon, The Israelis: Founders and Sons, Bantam Books, New York, 1971, pp 332-3.
  5. Zweig, Israel: The Sword and the Harp, Heinemann, London, 1969, pp 243-4.
  6. Ahmad Haffar, ‘The Fallacy of the Necessary Evil’, New Outlook, January-February 1980.
  7. Shlomo Avineri, ‘The Palestinians and Israel’ in Avineri, Israel and the Palestinians, St. Martin’s, New York, 1971, p 142.
  8. Avraham B. Yehoshua, ‘The New Left and Zionism’, in Who is Left? Zionism Answers Back, op cit, p 119.
  9. Boaz Evron, ‘The Israeli-Arab Impasse: Reflections on a Constructive Alternative’, in Who is Left…, op cit, p 138.
  10. Daniel Amit, quoted by Noam Chomsky, Peace in the Middle East, Pantheon Books, 1974, p 91.
  11. At least at the time when they wrote these articles.
  12. F. Zweig, op cit, p 245.
  13. ‘Zionism and Universal Ethics’ in Arie Bober (ed), The Other Israel, Doubleday, New York, 1972.
  14. Alisa Stadler, ‘How Israeli Literature Reflects the Arab-Jewish Trauma’, Patterns of Prejudice, vol VII, no 6, 1973, p 10.
  15. Robert Alter, ‘Forward’, in Ben Ezer (ed), op cit, p 19.
  16. Quoted in Fred Jameson, ‘Capitalism, not Zionism is the Problem’, Seven Days, September 28, 1979.
  17. Jay Gonen, A Psychohistory of Zionism, The New American Library, New York, 1976, p 216.
  18. Leon Y. Yudkin, Escape into Siege: A Survey of Israeli Literature Today, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Boston 1974, p 77.
  19. Quoted in Jameson, op cit.
  20. Quoted in Saul Friedländer, Réflexions sur l’Avenir d’Israel, Editions du Seuil, 1969, p 179ff. He says about the book: ‘Les pages de Siah Lohamim ne reflètent certes pas l’attitude de tous les soldats israéliens pendant la guerre ou après, main n’est-il pas significatif que ce livre soit devenu, pour l’élite de la population, l’image que celle-ci veut avoir d’elle-même?‘ (p 181, emphasis in text).
  21. Âvraham B. Yehoshua, ‘Let Us not Betray Zionism’, in Ben Ezer (ed), op cit, p 328.
  22. Arthur Koestler, Promise and Fulfillment: Palestine 1917-1949, Macmillan, London, 1949, pp 23-4.
  23. Uri Avnery, Israel without Zionists, Macmillan, 1968.
  24. Edward Said, Orientalism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
  25. This communication structure, ‘the broken triangle’, has been noticed in an article by Erskine B. Childers, ‘Palestine: the Broken Triangle’ , Journal of International Affairs, vol XIX, no 1, 1965.
  26. Shlomo Avineri, ‘The Palestinians and Israel’ in Avineri (ed), op cit.
  27. For a similar line of reasoning, see Boaz Evron in Who is Left…, op cit, pp 136-7.
  28. Ralph Coury, ‘Why Can’t They Be Like Us?’, Review of Middle East Studies, 1975, p 130. His criticisms can also be applied to the following statement of Hana Wirth-Nesher: ‘Without the recognition of two rights, there would be no hope at all, and it is regrettable that most Arab statements have not yet acknowledged the right of Israel to exist. A mature adult may be one who, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s terms, has the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind simultaneously, and still continue to function’. Wirth-Nesher’s problems with the tragic model do not transgress the ideological boundaries of left zionism. She criticises the model on two points mainly: its detachment and paralysing effect on the observer, and its simple symmetries. In themselves these criticisms are valid; but she analyses the tragic metaphor as just a literary label, a ‘misnomer’, not as an ideology. Moreover, it seems that she does agree with most applications of the model, provided that they go further and see the basic asymmetries between Israel and the Arabs on the practical level. So she emphasises a point which is in fact part of the model; she apparently wants a left zionist use of it.
  29. In this double way the tragic metaphor is used in the writings of Nahum Goldman, especially: Israel Muss Umdenken!, Fisher Bücher, 1976.
  30. One well-known example is the so-called ‘Tear Gas Monologue’ (New Outlook, vol 21, no 6, October 1978, pp 52-3) of an Israeli soldier who reflects on a brutal act in the occupied territories (throwing tear gas into classrooms at Beit Jala, summer 1978): ‘My personal problem as a man who received a certain education, and has nothing against the Arabs, is, how did I reach the point where I threw the grenade’. The monologue gives a picture of a morally struggling man, a man with a ‘tender conscience’. Boaz Evron comments: ‘It’s not the victims that interest him but his own “scruples”, his own moral situation, what happened to him. Any sensitive listener will notice here the unconscious note of admiration of his own sensitivity, of his own “scruples”.’ (Yedioth Ahronot, Dec 8, 1978 ‒ translation by Israel Shahak). Like Hana Wirth-Nesher, Boaz Evron directs his criticism at a particular use of the model. He seems to be saying to the soldier: ‘You are responsible for your acts, you must know that there are things which, once done, cannot be undone and you have to pay for them. This means to be mature, to understand that life as a whole is tragic, to be complex and maybe even to despair.’ So Evron asks the Israeli public to be a real tragic hero ‒ with all the implied dignity.
  31. More specifically, the tragic hero provides a model for identification. In Holland, the left zionist Werkgroep Israel (Israel Workgroup) distributes a film called De Gekortwiekte Duif (the dove without wings) in which the audience is invited to identify with a kibbutznik of Maki orientation (communist-zionist), who complains that because of the war and the guerilla actions he is not able to put his left ideology into practice.