Tuesday, February 3, 2009


What follows below is, on one level, a film review, a Pauline Kael-worthy review of a worthy Golden Globe winner, "Waltz with Bashir."  Like the film, it is also moral reflection on the character of moral courage in what the article's Israeli author calls the "post-moral world."


Given the author's background and the nature of the film, it would be too simple to say that this is all about Lebanon and Gaza and Israel…about a particular guilt in a particular place in a particular time,,,about a guilt, a night sweat terror, a spiritual crisis that need not concern those of us who were not at Deir Yassin in 1948, Sabra and Shatilla in 1982, or Gaza last month.  And, given Burston's aim – to plumb the troubled Israeli soul – he makes it too easy for the non-Israeli to fall into that trap, just like non-Germans more than sixty years later too easily wrap the Holocaust in a unique box – the particular crime of a particular people in a particular time and place – never to be paralleled, never to be repeated, never to trouble our pristine consciences.  To fall into that trap, however, threatens one with a simplistic, unhistorical, and ultimately very dangerous form of moral cowardice.  Listen to the eminent Polish Jewish sociologist who, in his Modernity and the Holocaust, wrote:


…the exercise in focusing on the Germaness of the crime as on that aspect in which the explanation of the crime must lie is simultaneously an exercise in exonerating everyone else, and particularly everything else.  The implication that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or malady of our civilization – rather than its horrifying yet legitimate product – results not only in the moral comfort of self-exculpation, but also in the dire threat of moral and political disarmament.  It all happened 'out there' – in another time, another country.  The more 'they' are to blame, the more the rest of 'us' are safe and the less we have to defend this safety.  Once the allocation of guilt is implied to be equivalent to the location of causes, the innocence and sanity of the way of life of which we are so proud need not be cast in doubt.


But that is precisely what Burston and Ari Folman are about – subversively, no, frontally casting doubt on the sanity of the way of life their countrymen are so proud of.  And the key word in all this is "sanity," for what Burston and Folman are concerned about is the moral insanity of young Israelis partying in some Tel Aviv nightclub or settlers on the West Bank watching some sitcom on their living room TV, safe behind their walls, "getting on with their lives by turning a blind eye to, blaming away, repressing, or somehow ideologically reprocessing genuine tangible horror."  "It has to do," Burston writes, "with the fear of memory…the reluctance to look inward, the quiet terror of what one might actually uncover."  


That leads to the very sort of cognitive dissonance I encountered last November, as, again and again, back and forth, I traversed that ugly Wall that separates Israel from Palestine, reality from fantasy.  It is the sort of cognitive dissonance that, if not confronted and dealt with, leads ultimately to insanity.


For his part, Burston identifies the raft of palliatives which people attempt to deploy against that threat, among them self-delusion, denial, and superstitious silence…the sort of whistling past the graveyard going on now in Jerusalem and, for too long, in Washington.  But sometimes those palliatives prove insufficient, yielding instead to drugs, alcohol, PTSD, anger, rage, and the sort of sociopathic behavior that can yield, in turn, to homicidal violence.


Burston's project, then – as Folman's – is one of moral rehabilitation, of redemptive sanity in the midst of all the madness that is hatred and war.  His closing message is simple: "our humanity is better off left open to the air, than locked away for safekeeping."


I urge you to read what he has to say and to go out and see "Waltz with Bashir" (an excellent trailer is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylzO9vbEpPg).  You will be moved.


And, when you do, please don't leave the theater thinking it's all about an Israeli-Arab thing that "happened 'out there' – in another time, another country."  I'd be glad to loan you my copy of "Apocalypse Now" that I turn to from time to time to remind me of another special place in hell.


Here then is Burston's reflection from the February 2 edition of Haaretz:



A Special Place in Hell: "Waltz with Bashir," Gaza, and the Post-Moral World


By Bradley Burston


I went to see "Waltz with Bashir" this week, not suspecting for a moment that the story it told would have anything to do with me.

That, it turns out, is precisely what the film is about. It has to do with everyone who has been in a war here, which is everyone here. It has to do with all those who have succeeded in getting on with their lives by turning a blind eye to, blaming away, repressing, or somehow ideologically reprocessing genuine, tangible horror. It has to do with the fear of memory here, the reluctance to look inward, the quiet terror over what one might actually uncover. And because it has to do with the moral failings of bitter enemies, we are, every one of us, in the movie.


I knew, going in, that the film had to do with the filmmaker, Ari Folman, and his inability to remember his experiences as a 19-year-old soldier during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and, in particular, at the time of the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp massacre.

What I did not know was that, scene by scene, the film was about to invade me, rumble over me and through me, corner me and take me over. I went to see Waltz with Bashir, but it wasn't really seeing that I did. It wasn't long before the film turned visceral. I saw armored personnel carriers and knew how to operate and load and clean the machine guns at their turrets, and I began to feel a fist inside rise from my gut upward until it took my windpipe, still from the inside, and strangled the air out of me, long ago, in a green uniform gone black with sweat, in what I would only later and only for that one instance recognize as claustrophobia.

The Christian Phalangists began emptying their AK-47s into the air, and I could smell the cordite as if they were in the next row.

For the time of war, adrenaline can seem good for whatever ails: claustrophobia, moral qualms, mortal fears, sleeplessness, free-floating anger, free-floating anxiety, depression. When it wears off, there are other palliatives for those of us who get off lucky, alive, limbs intact, minds formally whole. There is survivor guilt, which can manifest itself in self-delusion and/or self-hate and/or political activism and/or political extremism. There is denial. Then there is my personal favorite, a certain silence born of superstition, the sense that if you don't talk about a fortunate near miss, or those killed and crippled in a place you might have been, then it won't happen to you or your loved ones in the cumulative balance sheet of grief.

On January 11, when Waltz with Bashir won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the war in Gaza had been raging for more than two weeks. Without commenting directly on the fighting in the Strip, Folman told The New York Times that the film, which he has called apolitical but anti-war, "will always be up-to-date because something will always happen again."

In a modern climate of diminished reality and computer-generated truth, the honesty of Waltz with Bashir comes as an astonishment. The Times interviewer, somewhat taken aback, responds: "You mean the prospect for peace seems so remote? That's sad."

"But it's true," Folman answers.

Folman's comment, and no less, his film, suggest that we now live in a post-moral world, a world in which, if nothing else, we can discern that both sides to this conflict commit grievous crimes, to little if any lasting effect, other than the injury done the victims on both sides.

If there is to be peace, and this is one of the world's faster growing of all "ifs," perhaps it will be just this post-moral outlook which will save us. For far too long, the attitude of pro- and anti-Israel sides to the wrangling over the Holy Land, has revolved over sophisticated versions of an "I was right all along" approach better confined to a kindergartener's arguments in schoolyard fights.

Perhaps its time we surrendered to what we know to be true, Arab and Jew both: The leaders on both sides lie. That is their job. They resort to war to protect the lies. Lies like We Will Never Recognize the Enemy. Our Efforts Will Bend Their Will. Only If We Demand Our Full Rights Will We Prevail.

We try to look beyond our leaders, to see someone better, but we can see little down the road.

There will be an election here in a week, but there will be no one to vote for. If the Palestinians were going to the polls on Tuesday to decide between Fatah and Hamas, they'd probably feel exactly the same.

The problem goes far beyond elected officials. We have learned from weary experience, that the apologists and apparatchiks on both sides lie. That is their job. We try to look beyond them, but there are too many of them to see beyond.

As Jews, we have come to see the post-moral world as caving in on us. On the eve of International Holocaust Day, the Vatican rehabilitated the post-moral British Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson, who had flatly denied both that 6 million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust, and that any had been gassed.

Classically anti-Semitic incidents have multiplied, with daily reports of hate crimes from Caracas to Turkey.

Meanwhile, Palestinians every reason to echo the cries of a woman seen at the end of Waltz with Bashir, who calls, in her distress, "Where are the Arabs? They should be rushing here [to help us]!" For all of the concern and identification expressed across the Muslim world, the misery of Gaza remains a tragic constant.

Every night of the three weeks of hell in Gaza and the south, I had a different dream about the war. This is the one that, in retrospect, made sense:

As Ahmadinejad's campaign for June elections stalls, he orders the Hail Mary, ostensibly to avenge deaths in Gaza: a proportional military strike against Israel. He miscalculates, however, and annihilates everything in the Holy Land, Israeli and Palestinian alike, except for the three things that even nuclear holocaust cannot eradicate - cockroaches, Qassams, and settlement outposts.

Years from now, we may well look back on Waltz with Bashir as a work of rare maturity, a signpost toward a future less enamored of military means to political ends.

Years from now, we may look back on the film not only as anti-war, but, perhaps even more usefully for our purposes and future, a message that our humanity is better left open to the air, than locked away for safekeeping.

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