Monday, 23 April 2007

Disappearing in a blaze of Zionist glory

By Khaled Diab
When I first arrived in Israel, the blue-and-white Star of David flags everyone seemed to be flying on their cars and even their houses for the forthcoming festivities added a touch of the unreal to my surroundings. It was a clear indication, in case I needed one, that I had arrived in Israel – and at a hugely patriotic moment.

But that slight sense of oddness was as nothing compared with the total freakishness and quirkiness of going to the Palmach House which charts the course of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war from the perspective of that Jewish militia. My hosts had decided that it was a good idea to get an idea of the official patriotic Israeli narrative of that war which led to Israel's independence.

When we walked in and I saw an entire platoon of famously trendy IDF soldiers (Anat tells me they were young recruits in the tank corps), I began to have my doubts. They were here to learn why they had joined the army, but why was I? Well, to learn more about how the other side thinks. The young guide, who sounded incredibly proud of her role and deferred greatly to Amos, the veteran, found my presence rather novel, and it also stumped her. "You're from Egypt?" she exclaimed. "We've never had anyone from there before... Where should I start, then?"

Neither novelty nor weirdness begins to describe the sensation I felt as we stood around – 20 or so young male and female soldiers, my hosts, and myself, the lone Arab infiltrator into the 'enemy camp' – waiting for the tour to begin. I don't think any of the soldiers realised quite who I was, although some did cast a couple of curious glances my way, since I was the only non-Hebrew speaker there. Now I've seen the IDF at play, it will be interesting to see them at work when I go to Ramallah in a few days.

For those who are not aware, the Palmach was one of the precursors of the IDF. Short for Plugot Mahatz (Strike Companies), it was the regular fighting force of the Hagannah, which was originally set up by the British to fight Rommel but went underground when the British tried to disband it.

A balanced piece of history, the museum was not. An emotive and tear-jerking narrative with a plot and high-tech wizardry, it certainly was. Amos was the first to get emotional, having been a Palmach veteran of the war himself – and one soldier even milked him, I assume, for stories. As we progressed through the museum, Anat and Tzachi began to hug each other, as did several of the soldiers.

As for me, there were a couple of moments which struck a minor chord - that emotive was the display. But being an Arab and a person who is averse to nationalist narratives composed as a symphony for the heartstrings. To me, the gaps in the story were as telling as what it mentioned, such as when one of the commanders was asked "What should we do with the Palestinian refugees?" To which he gave the cryptic answer, "I'll leave to each of your better judgements."

Of course, patriotic military museums rarely give balanced narratives, and this one was no exception. However, it was interesting for me to see just how convinced Israelis are that they are the plucky, underdog David pitted against the Arab Goliath.
©Khaled Diab. Text and images.


Jonathan said...

It is very interesting to see what the experience of an Arab going for the first time to Israel is like. This is a rarely blogged about experience. I remember recommending to an Anglo-Arab friend to do this and he thought that it would be impossible or that he would be discriminated against or suspected of being a terrorist (or just not let in).

As a Jew, I would hope that it would be a good experience and that you would gain a better understanding of Israel and Israelis and that many myths would be dispelled.

Your report from the West Bank should be interesting too.

I wait with baited breath!



Khaled Diab said...

Jonathan, it is certainly helping understand better the Israeli mindset and it societal dynamic.

I'll be in the West Bank in a couple of days, so watch this space!