March 4, 2008

Promises and Prophecies

"There would have been no Jewish refugees had Israel lost the war [in 1967]. . . . There would have been two million corpses added to the six million Holocaust victims. [No] individual who lived in Israel in the days between 25 May and 5 June can ever forget the atmosphere of devastation which hovered over our stressed and pressured country . . . surrounded and besieged . . . bombarded day and night with prophecies of the approaching end."
--Israel Foreign Minister Abba Eban, June 1967

In the week when the IDF's exercise of force killed 116 in Gaza, the Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai warned that continued Hamas attacks on southern Israel would result in a bigger "Shoah" for the Palestinians, "because we will use all our might to defend ourselves."

Vilnai's use of the term became an irresistible reference when rightfully decrying Israel's military response to the barrage of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza. It seems certain from the context, however, that Vilnai did not make a direct reference to the Destruction of European Jews, but simply to a disaster brought on by Israeli military might. Of course, it is also true that there is no simplicity in the ways the term shoah traffics in Israeli discourse. For almost a half-century, since the time of Eichmann in Jerusalem, the use of a Holocaust poetics to render real political and military problems as existential threats has been standard. Therefore, "shoah" no longer escapes its associations with the planned murder of millions any more than the word holocaust simply refers to a "burnt offering." It cannot be used in innocence.

Vilnai's conjuring, however unconscious, of a "final solution" for the residents of Gaza -- even if his threat was not that -- is that the term used retains its suggestive power while promising something less. That the less is nonetheless an extension of the violent campaign of collective punishment and the death of so many this past week is muted by the reference to the Holocaust that wasn't. And so the bombardment, all of the bombardments, driven by myth, dreams, anxieties in the extreme, are destined to continue.