TEL AVIV, Israel — Some say that when the cannons roar, the muses fall silent. I have never agreed with this. When the cannons roar, the muses continue to speak in their tender, frail, muted and multifaceted voices — but who the hell can hear them over the damn shells exploding all over the place? Art, said Aristotle, is mimesis, the ability to imitate reality and its multitude of faces and contradictions. But at a time like this, when almost everyone you meet, be they Israeli, Palestinian, American or European, is digging their heels yet deeper into their extreme one-dimensional, almost romantic position on the conflict in the Middle East, who has patience for nuances and paradoxes? If you have something to say, say it loud and clear and make sure to carefully draw the line between black and white. On second thought, don’t say it — shout. After all, the situation has become extreme, and only an extreme response can do it justice. At a time like this, it comes as no surprise that many Israelis have chosen to take a vacation from art, opting instead for spectator sports, where it‘s always clear who the winner is.
I take my regular route from home to the university, and every few steps, the world-view of yet another acquaintance blows up in my face, and I try to weigh all the data in that antiquated program we call the brain, but I find myself all the more confused. So who the hell is Arafat? A murderer, whose support for the terrorist infrastructure has been proved beyond all doubt, or a saint, embraced as if he were none other than Mother Teresa by the European peace activists who succeeded in sneaking into the presidential compound? And is the Israeli army a Nazi horde that carried out a massacre in Jenin, or is it the most moral army in the world, to whom only the angels of heaven can hold a moral candle?
The answers, as I see them, are simple but confusing. The Israel Defense Forces, as most of the evidence I have seen shows, did not carry out a massacre in Jenin, but did, on the other hand, systematically undermine its humanistic obligations when it prevented Palestinian wounded from receiving treatment or when it halted the transfer of supplies to hospitals. The IDF, in my view, is not the most moral army in the world, and in general, armies, whose purpose it is to kill its enemies, are never completely moral, even when defending. The IDF is an ordinary Western army, with an ordinary level of Western morality, which is not bad, compared to the standard shown by other fighting forces in the region. In every war in the world fought so far in civilian population centers, innocents have always been killed, and some of these deaths, in all the wars, could have been prevented. That’s how it is, war is hell, and when you have to fight in the narrow alleyways of the Casbah of Jenin, you may accidentally, or even, due to the circumstances, not accidentally, hurt unarmed civilians. So what do you do? The solution is to judge the situation on an individual, not inflammatory, basis on both sides. The Israeli side must examine its failures, and so must the Palestinian and European sides, which have allowed themselves to be swept up by romantic, simplistic images without contending with the simple reality that until a diplomatic solution (which neither Sharon nor Arafat is in any hurry to produce) is arrived at, the terror will not end. And as long as it does not end, situations such as these will be repeated.
When I look at my friends in Israel and the world, I keep getting the feeling I‘m on a ship being cut in half, each of its halves sailing in a different direction, with me caught up in the current. The two sides have long since distanced themselves from a point of view that even tries to see both sides. Right-wingers, dragging along with them many centrists and ex-Laborites, are singing the “whole world is against us” tune about a war of the Jewish people against an anti-Semitic world, a war for its very existence, a war that grants us moral immunity for any humanitarian injustices committed in its name. For them, the anti-Semitic acts erupting daily all over Europe only bolster their claims. On the other side, the members of the left are also being drawn into frightening extremist responses. Just this week I heard about a professor in the university where I teach who announced that it is the moral duty of every soldier in the “occupation army” to give the PLO information about the base in which they serve so that the PLO can attack the soldiers of that occupation army — and that if they do not do so, she said, they would be committing a war crime.
As I reread my text, the radio announces yet another suicide bombing. Those who supported the defense “shield operation” explain that the terrorists came from the Gaza Strip, an area not invaded during the operation and therefore still having its terrorist infrastructure. They say if not for the operation, we would have had to deal with 100 more. Others claim this bombing was done to avenge the operation, and that after it will come 100 more. They’re both right, although they give contradictory analysis of the facts, and they‘re both wrong.
Etgar Keret is the author of The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories. This piece was translated from Hebrew by Ruchie Avital.