Battling to the End in Israel/ Palestine

Sometimes a blog just writes itself. I’m preparing to attend the annual academic conference on mimetic theory being held near Munich, Germany July 21-24, 2014. We will be focusing on René Girard’s book on war called Battling to the End in the context of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Girard’s analysis of war centers on his reading of another famous treatise written in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars by Carl von Clausewitz, called simply On War. Needless to say, theories of war are on my mind.

So when I read an article in the New York Times on July 4, America’s Independence Day, I was struck by the way in which it supplied evidence for Girard’s thesis. The article is about the escalating conflict in Israel/ Palestine triggered by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths. This was followed by the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian youth and an increase in rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and a massing of Israeli troops on the Gaza border. I’ll set quotes from Battling to the End alongside excerpts from this article to illustrate the connection between current events and Girard’s ideas.

The Trend to Extremes

From the news article, commenting on the tit for tat exchange of kidnapping and murder:

“It could be a shift in the nature of the conflict, from political struggle to blood feud,” said Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University. “It’s no more the Palestinian possible state vis-à-vis the Israeli state; it’s kind of two people entangled in cycles of vengeance.”

From Girard:

Heraclitus wrote that Polemos, war, “is father of all and king of all”… This law of human relations was reformulated [by Clausewitz and] took the shape of the trend to extremes, the inability of politics to contain reciprocal, in other words, mimetic, increase of violence.

Are we witnessing an escalation to extremes? Is violence in Israel/ Palestine escaping the ability of politics, diplomatic negotiations or even of military power, to contain it? The possibility of

Josh Sager — November 2012

descent into “blood feud” – the quick return of violence for violence against indiscriminate victims – is none other than a predictable result of long history of alternating periods of truce and violence in the Israel/ Palestine conflict.

Who Started It? They Did!

From the news article:

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a [Israeli] military spokesman, said troops were mobilizing around Gaza “to serve defensive positions and forward preparations.” But he repeatedly said that “we have no interest in escalation… but we will be prepared for developments”… Hamas political leaders, too, have said they are not interested in escalation… masked men from the Hamas military wing declared themselves “ready for all possibilities.”

From Girard:

[A]mong humans, the fact that no one ever feels they are the aggressor is because everything is always reciprocal. The slightest little difference, in one direction or another, can trigger the escalation to extremes. The aggressor has always already been attacked. Why are relations of rivalry never seen as symmetrical? Because people always have the impression that the other is the first to attack. (18)

Why do we always ask who started it? Such a question is futile and misses the point Girard is making. No one ever says they started it. That would mean that their violence was aggressive, which no one ever admits. Like the Israelis and Palestinians, we all firmly believe that our violence is defensive, always a response to someone else’s aggression. This is because our actions are reciprocal – we are always learning from others what is worth fighting for and the more violently someone defends what they have, the more it dawns on me that I am willing to fight to possess it, too.

Adversaries Become Doubles

From the news article:

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday [July 3] sentenced four recent recruits to 10 days in military jail for joining a Facebook revenge campaign by posting pictures of themselves with signs urging Israel’s prime minister to “let us exterminate the terrorists”… a Hamas fighter said through a kaffiyeh covering all but his eyes, “We monitor the barbaric and brutal aggression by the enemy’s army in the West Bank and Jerusalem. We promise to turn your settlements, posts, the targets you expect and those you don’t expect into a burning coal if your leadership makes any stupid step.”

From Girard:

When the belief of adversaries in their differences from each other producers the alternation of defeats and victories and approaches reciprocity, then we are nearing what I call the sacrificial crisis [loss of differences]… It can be seen only be someone who is outside the conflict because from the inside you must always believe in your difference and respond more and more quickly and forcefully. From the outside, the adversaries look like what they are: simple doubles. (14)

What the combatants cannot see is how much alike they sound, how their calls for violence are mirror images of one another. From within the conflict, as Girard says, both sides believe completely in their differences from one another. Each side believes in its own goodness and the justice of its cause while condemning their opponents as evil and wantonly violent. Only from the outside can we see that the claim of difference is false and that the truth lies in just how much each side has come to resemble the other.

Signs of Hope

This is how the article ends:

Tamir Lion, an anthropologist who focuses on youth and combat soldiers, said on Israel Radio, “The state of Israel in recent years is looking for its ethos – that is to say, ‘Where are we going.’ When there is no ethos, and it does not matter why, you always withdraw to the most primitive ethos – us and them. It becomes a group that defines itself not as what it is, but what it hates.”

Of course, the same could be said of the Palestinians. Each side has come to know itself by its hatred of the other. A sorry state of affairs that seems to be heading towards a path of mutual destruction. But in Battling the End, Girard consistently refers to “apocalyptic thought” as a way of thinking about the trend to extremes. Mutual destruction is but one possibility – the other is reconciliation. How is that possible? Because, as Girard explains:

Apocalyptic thought recognizes the source of conflict in identity, but it sees in it the hidden presence of the thought of “the neighbor as yourself” which can certainly triumph, but is secretly active, secretly dominant under the sound and fury on the surface. Peaceful identity lies at the heart of violent identity as its most secret possibility.” (46)

Paradoxically, then, reconciliation is within reach just when a conflict appears to be spinning out of control. “The Kingdom is already here,” Girard says. Rather than a reciprocity of violence, adversaries can always opt to “change into peaceful reciprocity in order to avoid falling into the abyss of absolute violence.” (47) It is when we stare into the abyss of mutual destruction side by side with our adversaries that hope for a mutually assured future becomes most attainable.

About Suzanne Ross

In January 2007, Suzanne and her husband Keith founded The Raven Foundation to increase awareness of mimetic theory. In 2010, Suzanne served on the staff of the first mimetic theory summer school sponsored by Imitatio. Her first book, The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things, examines the lessons of myth, scapegoating and forgiveness in the hit Broadway musical Wicked. Her second book, The Wicked Truth About Love: The Tangles of Desire, explores patterns of romantic love and how to create a fulfilling relationship. Suzanne continues to lecture on mimetic theory and popular culture at universities, conferences, churches, bookstores and libraries. She is currently working on the Leader Guide that will accompany James Alison’s Adult Christian Education DVD series, The Forgiving Victim.

  • Yonah

    A very good post. Detailed, specific. Well articulated.

    Only 2 reactions.

    1) Do we find a Palestinian “Tamir Lion”?
    2) Generally, I agree that it’s true that any “side” thinks of itself as defensive. But, my memory is that Sedat admitted that his war was fully self unleashed as a matter of regaining both Egypt’s and Arab stature after previous losses. A version of that, not admitted to, might be George Bush going to war (Cheney & Co.’s agenda aside) because his Dad didn’t march into Baghdad in the first Iraq war.

  • Yonah

    For such a good post, it should have better response. So, I will expand.

    I thought about it over night, and specifically what I like about it is the agenda of getting at the psycho-social roots of how war whips up like a tornado. What can be added to understanding of such roots? I thought of this:

    First, the question of how one gets anyone to move to the new uncharted spot beyond the historic conflict. I thought of one aspect in my own conflict(s) with upper class people. I am admittedly a class warrior, but haven’t been so willing to admit that I would be willing, given the right conditions, to move beyond it. What is the missing key? I think it is the utter lack of acknowledgement of the working class narrative. To be honest, the historical devastation of my boyhood working class culture was so complete, the culture in no way exists anymore…and will not be reconstituted. I know that. So, on one hand, I war about something that doesn’t exist anymore and can’t again. But, I cannot leave the history…and its narrative….UNTIL…the upper class acknowledges what it did…and what the results are: the present tinder box of economically oppressed people backed into a corner from whence comes all manner of social dysfunction observed at any moment of the day at Walmart.

    But not only will the upper class not admit to the history, they tell continuing lies about the path forward. As a public school teacher, I got dragged into telling those lies to my own working class students….that the path is and should be: that everyone should go to college….or be left in the dust. Indeed, I heard a version of this lie from my college economics professor who simply prescribed a message to the underclass that they had to give up their homes/neighborhoods and simply move to where the work is…like upper class people do all the time…they work in New York for awhile…then Dallas….then Seattle…what’s the problem? Thus, the upper class prescriptions totally ignore the history, and preaches “facts”….from one side. The upper class person can preach down to the working class person droning on about technology and globalization, and not give a thought to the working class loss of a homeland…and the fact that even if college had been a real option for many more, still, a trade with unions would have been stuck to….if it were possible. In truth, if I knew back when I was 18 what I know today about upper class people…and their professions…and their institutions….I would have never agreed to 3 plus academic degrees. I would have gone to work in the rail yard at CSX with my best friend Rodney. I wish I had done that.

  • Yeshuratnam

    The geological make-up of the area and the potential for surprise attacks all make the tunnels a big challenge for the IDF. A gunfight near a kibbutz has shown how close Hamas militants can now get to the Israeli population. Hamas fighters operate in civilian areas, and store weapons or plan battles from places like homes, mosques and hospitals.Hamas has urged Gazans to ignore Israeli evacuation orders. Hamas terrorists encourage Gazans to die as martyrs (saheeds) without leaving the areas announced potentially dangerous by the IDF. That is the primary reason for civilian casualties.Hamas wants the Western media to project the images of civilian casualties to get worldwide support.

    The present crisis began when Hamas abducted three Israeli teens and murdered them. Later they fired rockets into Israel without any provocation. Hamas terrorists are not prepared for a cease fire. No wonder, the war is escalating with more and more civilian casualties.