Monday, October 24, 2011

Gilad is Still Alive

I have several other ideas for posts that would be easier and a lot more fun for me to write, but I have to cover this particular topic before the sense of urgency wears off, since the sense of urgency is already wearing off. I'm not in Israel, but I imagine that Gilad-mania, deprived of its organizing purpose, has ebbed over the past few days. At the moment, there's only one story about Gilad Shalit on the front page of the Jerusalem Post's website, although there are actually two or three prisoner swap-related articles on Haaretz's homepage, including one explaining why the deal isn't cause for celebration. And I agree. Maybe it's cause for relief, for a certain yet probably very small abatement of the psychic tensions related to the precarious nature of Israel's existence and the sacrifices that particularly its young citizens are forced to make on that project's behalf. But it's unseemly to celebrate the conclusion of a story so utterly tragic in its details, details that have been constantly cycling through my mind over the past few days--as they have been for the past few years, actually.

See for my first few months of studying abroad in Israel, I lived alone in a cheap apartment on the far side of Katamon, just off HaRav Herzog, the six-lane road connecting the downtown to the far northern reaches of west Jerusalem. Whenever I walked downtown, I would have to pass the intersection of Ben Maimon and Derekh Aza, which, until last week, contained one of the most heart-wrenching juxtapositions in all of Israel, if not the entire world. In the center of the triangular intersection is Restobar, an upscale restaurant that was bombed during the Palestinian terrorist campaign of the last decade. On the other side of the intersection is a walled-off complex that includes the Prime Minister's residence--and in front of that was, until recently, a tent in which Gilad Shalit's family was keeping constant vigil, reminding whoever happened to reside in the building behind them that his or her work wasn't complete until their son had returned home--and, by implication, until the terrorists responsible for attacks like the one on Restobar returned home as well.

In those days the counter wasn't even at 1000 days, I don't think. Every time I walked past it, the tent itself was an invitation to the kind of sobering reflection that one must constantly avoid while in Israel, lest the place become just unbearable heavy and sad. Would the counter ever reach 1000?, was a thought I would often have, along with far more potentially troubling ones: where was Gilad Shalit? What was he doing right now? What was being done to him right now? What got him through every day? Was he even alive?

A less constant thought, but one that's strongly occurring to me now, as I write this: Deep in his heart, did Gilad feel horribly cheated and duped--did he feel like the ultimate freyer, exiled and beaten and starved and tortured, simply so that a nearly insoluble logic of violence and hatred could perpetuate itself? It's irresponsible, I think, to flippantly psychoanalyze an entire country, but I think that the most disturbing thing about Shalit's ongoing captivity was the public spectacle of generations of deeply-endured physical and psychological trauma being heaped upon the back of an anonymous, unassuming youth. Gilad was--is--a jarring reminder of the steep moral costs of Israel's continued existence, and of the perverse necessity of making young people shoulder them.

Would Gilad's safe return negate those moral costs, or lessen their perversity?, I sometimes found myself wondering when I walked past the tent. Sometimes I'd glance across the street at the plaque commemorating the victims of the Restobar bombing, and realize that no it wouldn't, that those costs would probably always be there, and that the fact that Israelis embraced those costs with a graceful, infinitely admirable, Kohelet-like stoicism was likely the sole reason that I or any other foreign-born Jew could safely go there. As a taxi driver in Tel Aviv once told me (in Hebrew, actually...) in America, you pay for things in money. Here, we pay for them in blood. Zehu.

In a less humane, less moral society than Israel's, people would just instinctively suppress any reminder that so shocking a formulation could actually be true. But when I was in Israel, I found that the last thing Israelis wanted to do was banish Gilad from their national consciousness. It's not that his situation embodied certain tensions that Israelis couldn't run from--it's that it embodied tensions that Israelis clearly didn't want to run from. His presence was pervasive. When I was sitting at the Beersheva bus station, a woman handed me a Tanach and told me to read a page at random, in the hope that greater Torah learning on my part would hasten Gilad's return. At a seudat shlishit meal, the host reminded us to keep Gilad and all the Jewish captives in our hearts during birkat hamazon. In Eilat, Gilad's sad-eyed visage would appear on the jumbotron in front of the beachfront shopping mall, eyeing me as I crossed the street. And there was the tent, of course, that daily shock to the conscience, that reminder of the unfathomable cost of everything I saw before me. For the past five years, Israelis have been bombarded with the suggestion that Shalit's predicament is an outgrowth of their own predicament. As I've said, there's a lot that's disturbing and actually sort of horrifying about analogizing the two. But this makes the Israeli obsession with Shalit all the more noble, in my mind. Yes, the idea of Shalit-as-the-ultimate-freyer is the dark obverse of the widely-embraced idea of Shalit-as-universalizable-symbol-of-the-Israeli-condition. But the latter possibility is dark enough already, thank you very much. Gilad-mania and a million other things (their famously sardonic sense of humor, for instance) prove to me that while Israelis do not wallow in the darkness, they don't willingly deflect of ignore it either.

But back to Gilad. Gilad is a human being--one with almost super-human mental and moral toughness; a heroic figure whose survival should serve as an example to generations of Israelis and Jews and perhaps even human beings in general. He triumphed over homicidal evil, just by surviving--sort of like the Jews and Israel and maybe, one day I hope, human beings in general (we're still not out of our genocidal phase, I don't think). But I'm already slightly disgusted at myself for taking the metaphor even this far. Gilad is still alive, as the bumper stickers and tee-shirts once defiantly and quixotically claimed--and he must live every day of the rest of his life as a human being, and not as a metaphor or a scapegoat or a billboard or a near-fetishized symbol of a painful, national dilemma. Gilad is still alive, and maybe, in the end, that's the only takeaway I'm comfortable with here. Gilad is still alive.


A post-script, also on the Israel beat: Gilad was captured and imprisoned by Hamas, a terrorist organization supported by a band of pseudo-militant yahoos called the International Solidarity Movement. Vittorrio Arrigoni, the recently-murdered "peace activist" and anti-Semite who palled around with Hamas politburo chief Khaled Maashal, was an ISM activist. The ISM's website refers to the Hamas terrorists released as a result of the Shalit exchange as "political prisoners," which they were not. The ISM has numerous members actually living in Gaza, which on its own suggests a morally-compromising acceptance of the Hamas government. The ISM are basically the Larouche-ites of the Middle East, albeit with a paramilitary and international flavor that the Cheney-is-worse-than-Hitler brigades seem to lack.

I recently discovered that an old Hebrew school classmate of mine is now an ISM activist living in the West Bank. One of my best friends used to be an SJP activist at Hampshire, so anti-Zionism is wrong and horrible but clearly not disqualifying for me in a social context, for reasons that I myself am not consciously aware of and would probably rather not explore, in any event. But there's anti-Zionism, and then there's moving to the West Bank and turning anti-Zionism into your life's defining project. There's campus activism, and then there's proudly joining the ranks of Hafez al-Assad, Osama bin-Ladin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and all the other psychos and mass-murders who are actively trying or did actively try to stricken the Zionist crusader state from the face of the earth. And you know what, I'm actually weirdly tolerant of a certain subset of that kind of work, in a vacuum, at least. A lot of so-called "civil society" groups in the West Bank are likely motivated by anti-Zionism, but nevertheless perform worthy, important work or the sort that makes a lasting, two-state peace more likely. But anti-Zionism can rise to the level of pathology, and the ISM is a case in point. So why did my old Hebrew School classmate join them? When did the ISM's pathology become his, and how?

I don't think his trajectory was the result of self-hatred so much as an absence of self-criticism. The most troubling thing about this--and the reason that I'm blogging about it--is that I suspect you don't know you're on the road to being an ISM activist until you actually become one. For the past ten years, my friend has been on a journey from being an obedient Hebrew school student (compared to me at least; I was fucking terror when I was 11) to being an enabler of terrorists and anti-Semites. Did he know or even suspect it at the time, I wonder?


RIP Kim and Thurston, who wrote the song for which this blog is named. Sonic Youth lasted for nearly 30 years, and it's a bit solipsistic to expect two people who clearly can't live with each other to endure decades of a loveless marriage just so that the band can last for another album or five. But one only needs to listen to the past few SYR records to understand that a vital artistic energy is being snuffed out.

Sonic Youth had (has?) a radically inclusive sense of a rock band's artistic mission. The SYR series are ten self-released records that run the gamut from drone jams to Steve Reich covers to skronk-heavy post-jazz. Some of it is conventional (comparatively speaking...) and actually pleasant to listen to; I remember thinking that SYR 2 had some of the best guitar effects of any Sonic Youth release, which is saying something. But some of it is cheerfully impenetrable, like 2008's SYR 8, which contains a single, 56-minute jam with jazz experimentalist Mats Gustaffson. It's a record that is by turns abrasive and plodding, a work of no-wave maximalism that only the most open-minded listener could endure, and that only the most open-minded rock band could create.

SYR 8 is a stunning insight into the artistic mentality of late-period Sonic Youth, for whom being a rock band meant doing everything, or at least trying everything, or at least mapping out new creative territory with an energy and fearlessness that no other contemporary act could match. Sonic Youth maintained its wildly creative ethos until the very end, and as this Thurston Moore-Mats Gustaffson jam hopefully demonstrates, that ethos was anything but bullshit. As much as I love Daydream Nation and EVOL (and Sonic Nurse, and Murray St., and A Thousand Leaves, and Washing Machine, and...), it's records like SYR 8 that made Sonic Youth so special--and that help explain why I'll miss them so much.

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