Israeli Symbolic Violence

In Jerusalem in September, an Israeli miscalculation triggered riots which led to the deaths of scores of Palestinians and Israelis. The government, with fanfare and a military guard present, opened a tunnel for tourists along the edge of a sacred Moslem site. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "I do not regret that we opened the Western Wall tunnel, which has no effect on the Temple Mount, and expresses our sovereignty over Jerusalem." (New York Times September 28, 1996, p. 6.) Former prime minister Shimon Peres commented that his government, well aware of the provocative nature of the action, had avoided opening the tunnel.

The tunnel was a symbolic violation of Palestinian and Islamic self-respect--a fact which I am certain was obvious to the people who called in a significant military contingent to gurad the opening ceremony. It was an act of symbolic violence, reminiscent of many other Israeli actions, including a military sweep that attracted almost no press attention: the army went into a Palestinian town and killed all the dogs. Someone with a macabre sense of humor had read Kafka: at the end of The Trial, Josef K. declines to commit suicide and is stabbed to death by government officials. His last words as he expires: "Like a dog." The Israeli message to Palestinians: "You are like dogs to us. Today we kill your dogs; tomorrow it will be you."

Even the rubber bullets the Israelis fire at Palestinians during demonstrations--they fired a lot of these after the tunnel opening-- are symbolic violence. (The bullets also are real violence: they leave people bloody, and kill them sometimes, especially if they strike them in the head.) While some may see rubber bullets as "merciful"--they could be firing real ones instead--the message again is: You are completely vulnerable to us. Nothing stands between you and the muzzle of my gun, as the trajectory of this rubber bullet proves. If you persist in seeing rubber bullets as merciful, ask yourself why they are fired at unarmed demonstrators, when tear gas, truncheons and shields could do the job. A government that typically hesitates-- just slightly--about committing real massacres, commits symbolic massacres instead, to prove its point.

Symbolic violence is a means of inciting real violence while avoiding responsibility. The pernicious words of A.M. Rosenthal, writing in the Times op ed page, illustrate the moral shell game: its only a tunnel. Why can't the poor Israelis open a tunnel? The man's moral blindness--he is a prime apologist for Israeli violence--is clear in his failure to ask the question: if you know that dropping a match into oil will cause a conflagration, how can you blame the oil but not the one who dropped the match? What cost benefit analysis did the Israelis perform which led to the conclusion that a tunnel for tourists was more important than the peace process or several score lives? Obviously, the only explanation (other than utter stupidity) is that the goal was to commit a deniable act of symbolic violence to offend the Palestinians and derail the peace process.

Symbolic violence may not kill people directly. But it often spurs people to kill, and even when it doesn't, it kills the soul. When the army comes and kills the dogs, the message is, you are less than a human being. The process of becoming fully human--hominisation as foreseen by Teilhard de Chardin-- involves renouncing symbolic as well as real violence, and the first step is to take responsibility. As Hannah Arendt correctly understood, responsibility and authority are conjoined; and true authority can never be based on violence, but is contrary to it. The Israelis will never govern their own lives, or their own selves, so long as their country--geographic, psychological, emotional--is built on symbolic and real violence to the Palestinians.