Sabra, Shatila, and Collective Amnesia

Waltz With Bashir is a breath-taking new Israeli film, an animated documentary directed by Ari Folman.

In 1982, Folman was a 19-year-old IDF infantry soldier. Twenty four years later, in 2006, Folman is surprised to find out that he does not remember a thing from that war or the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. The film is a journey into Folman’s lost past.

The documentary is set as a chain of animated interviews and conversations between Folman and his military associates, psychologists and Ron Ben Yishai, the legendary Israeli TV reporter who was among the first to report on the Sabra and Shatila Massacres. The setting aims at building a coherent personal past narrative out of the broken memories of others.

The film is highly sensitive and emotionally moving. To a certain extent, it is a very brave individual attempt to deal with the devastating collective Israeli past, and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila in particular. However, we are asked to remember that the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps, though set up by the Israeli Army, were physically carried out by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists.

This may explain why the Israelis are so enthusiastic about the film. On the one hand, it wasn’t them who made the actual kill. On the other hand, loving the film portrays them as first-rate humanists. They allegedly deal with their dark past.

At the time the news about the massacre broke out in the Israeli media, PM Menachem Begin cynically answered his critics, “Arabs kill Arabs, and Jews blame each other”. PM Begin somehow managed to prophetically hit the nail on the head. It appears as if the Israelis can easily deal with a critical film about the Sabra and Shatila massacres, precisely because it was ‘Arabs killing Arabs’. Noticeably, Mohamed Bakri’s Jenin, Jenin, a film that tells the story of the Jenin massacre, a murderous assault committed by IDF soldiers, was not at all approved by the Israeli people. Clearly, the Israelis do not want to learn about their murderous acts from a fellow citizen who happens to be an Arab.

In Waltz With Bashir, Folman is searching for his lost past. His first step is his psychologist friend who manages to come with a very helpful insight. “The memory,” so says the Psychologist, “can be very creative. When it is necessary, it just invents a past.”

This may help us to understand Folman’s and his companions ‘reflections. As one would expect, in the film the IDF soldier is somehow a victim. He is part of a big war machine, he “follows orders”. The individual soldier is powerless, he cannot stop the massacre, he can only report to his superiors. Alternatively he can “shoot and cry” in retrospect, or, as in Folman’s case, he can deal with amnesia or repression.

Cleverly and beautifully done, the entire film is animated, which allows us to assume that every retrieved memory or spoken past narrative may be a constructed one. However, the last scene of the film is real footage. It takes us to the devastated refugee camps and the Palestinian sobbing. It is there to tell us: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the following is not a personal memory. This footage is not animated deconstruction. This is a REAL massacre that took place under our noses.’

I was myself an IDF soldier at exactly the same time and in the same war. Though I was far from being an infantry soldier, some of the scenes in the film were very familiar to me. While watching the film, I found myself occasionally with tears in my eyes. This war indeed changed my life, as much as it changed many other people’s lives – Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese. This war launched a personal journey that led me eventually to leave Israel, with the decision never to come back. I know that I am not the only Israeli who reacted this way. However, I left Israel with a clear determination not to be part of this conflict. I wanted to drift away, to start a new, peaceful life, to forget, to be innocent for the first time. I obviously failed. For various reasons that are far beyond me, I am now far more involved in issues to do with Palestinian discourse than I would ever be in Israel.

Being overwhelmed with the quality and the transparency of the film, there are some general points that must be made. It seems that it is actually Israelis and ex-Israelis who are producing the most eloquent and sharp criticism of Israel, Zionism and the Jewish identity. Whether it is Shlomo Sand, Israel Shahak, Ari Folman, Gideon Levi, Ilan Pappe, Oren Ben Dor, Eyal Sivan, Uri Avnery, Amira Hass, Avrum Burg, Daniel Barenboim, myself and others, all of us regard the Israeli conflict as our own conflict and within our range of direct responsibility.

We may not agree amongst ourselves on many issues, yet we agree on one thing. This disaster in Palestine is our damn business. Unlike the very few sporadic Western Jews who loudly pop out once a month to collectively shout, ‘Not in My Name’, we know that, unfortunately, it is all done in our names. We all feel shame about it, we feel responsibility and we insist on doing whatever we can to bring about a change. I assume that this is enough to make our voice relevant and transparent.

The film is a smashing success in Israel. The Israelis love to weep collectively, and to express regret for the Christian Phalangists who killed on their behalf. They apparently come out of the film saying, ‘Only here, in our wonderful free country, can we confront our past so bravely.’

I went to see the first London screening at the London Jewish Festival. The Festival is sponsored by the Israeli Government, amongst a very long list of rabid right wing Zionist organisations. One may rightly wonder why Zionist institutes support such a harsh Israeli critique. I can only suggest one possible answer. Israel loves to portray itself as an open, liberal society. If I am correct here, this is indeed a very clever, sinister and calculated decision. It presents the Israeli not only as a humanist, it even manages to plant rabid Zionist institutions at the heart of the Palestinian solidarity discourse.
Moreover, as long as Israel manages to generate some harsh form of self disapproval, not much room for critical maneuvering is left for Israel’s real enemies. As much as we happen to despise Israel and Zionist institutions, we’d better learn to admit their sophistication.

Following the screening at the London Jewish Film Festival, there was a short Q & A session with David Polonsky, the art director of the film. I asked him a simple question:

“If the Israelis find it so difficult to remember what happened to them just 26 years ago, how is it that every Israeli remembers exactly what happened in Europe between 1942 and 1944?”

Surprisingly enough, in spite of the fact that this was a Jewish gathering and my question was rather provocative, no-one in the room exhibited any manifested rage. I assume that Jews, once left to themselves, happen to ask many questions they would avoid engaging in, in an open public discussion. However, Polonsky couldn’t really provide an answer. This is more than understandable.

The film however offers two possible answers, both provided by Folman’s psychologist friend. The memory is a construction, it has little to do with reality, says the psychologist. Apparently, Israeli and Jewish institutions, as well as individuals, are very productive in constructing and manufacturing a personal and collective memory of Jewish suffering. Suffering inflicted by Jews, on the other hand, is rather repressed in the contemporary Israeli and Jewish culture.

Later in the film, the same psychologist suggests that Folman’s amnesia may have been the outcome of his personal engagement with the Holocaust. ‘You were engaged with the massacre a long time before it happened, through your parents’ Auschwitz memory.’ To a certain extent, this insight resolves Folman’s quest. His repression started well before Sabra and Shatila.

Once again, we learn that Jewish Post-Traumatic Stress is actually a Pre-Traumatic Stress disorder. The Jewish and Israeli mindset is an institutional preparation for a tragedy still to take place.

In a previous paper dealing with Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I defined the mental state as follows:

Within the condition of the Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the stress is the outcome of a phantasmic event, an imaginary episode set in the future; an event that has never taken place. Unlike the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in which stress comes as the direct reaction to an event that (may) have taken place in the past, within the state of Pre-TSD, the stress is clearly the outcome of an imaginary potential event. Within the Pre-TSD, an illusion pre-empts reality and the condition in which the fantasy of terror is focussed is itself becoming grave reality. If it is taken to extremes, even an agenda of total war against the rest of the world is not an unthinkable reaction.

If Folman’s psychologist friend is correct, then Folman’s amnesia is nothing other than ‘Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder’. Folman’s amnesia of the events of the war is explained as a repression due to a prior remote memory of the Holocaust. This is indeed the ultimate Jewish Catharsis, the revival of the tragedy (to come) in the light of a past one. The trauma is set up in advance.

If the psychologist is correct, it may explain why the Israelis and the Jewish crowd at the London Jewish Festival loved the film. The Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the essence of Jewish existence, in which being in the world is resolved in the light of the shift between past and future tragedies. Life is meaningful as long as we are fearfully and constantly being prepared for a new disaster, in the light of an old one.

The question that is left for the peace enthusiast is, “what chance does such a self-destructive identity leave for peace? Alternatively, how can you make peace with a subject that is obsessed with its coming destruction?”

I am left with no other option but to repeat the old Jewish joke:

The following is a Jewish Telegram: Begin worrying, details to follow

Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and Being in Time and is one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached via his website. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.

14 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Brian said on November 15th, 2008 at 11:23am #

    I cannot imagine Rahm Emanuel taking an active interest in this.

  2. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 15th, 2008 at 11:55am #

    i am very grateful that so many ‘Jews’ (they r an admixture of many voelken) condemn israeli crimes against humanities.
    many of which r comparable to the nazi crimes against slavs, ‘gypsies’, et al.
    natch, judeo-christian ad hoc alliance (for destruction of palestine) in canada and US write or talk solely or mostly ab nazi crimes against euros w. judaic faith, w. little or no semitic genes.
    this not only shows how evil religions can be but proves it. thnx

  3. John Hatch said on November 15th, 2008 at 1:49pm #

    As in America, Israel represents the best and the worst of humanity.

    As in America, the worst are in preponderance.

  4. henry harlow said on November 15th, 2008 at 3:44pm #

    in hollywood movies there are never any zionist bad guys

  5. mary said on November 15th, 2008 at 3:57pm #

    I would like to thank Gilad Atzmon for standing up for the Palestinians in spite of the reproach that he must experience from the Zionist Jews. I expect that the news about the dire situation in Gaza has reached the US. There is no power station operating because the fuel has run out (none is being allowed in) and therefore no sewage stations or water pumps are working; there is little food because UNWRA cannot bring any in as all entries are closed; no journalists are being allowed in and entry has even been denied to a group of British doctors who were intending to help, teach and observe. The blockade or siege is complete and the Israeli oppression of these Palestinians is at an extreme point. 12 have been killed this week alone in Israeli attacks.

    International aid agencies are now warning of a humanitarian disaster.

  6. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 17th, 2008 at 1:20pm #

    it’s worth repeating. zionists r not a semitic people; thus cannot be jews.
    so, there is no zionist jew; there r only zionist euros; both the christians and judaists.
    there was never any indians in americas. people who called indigenes of americas “indians” knew it.
    we can help indigenes of palestine by acnowledging the fact that zionists r euros.
    even if this is not true, err on the side of the victims. thnx

  7. Deadbeat said on November 17th, 2008 at 1:56pm #

    bozhidar says…

    it’s worth repeating. zionists r not a semitic people; thus cannot be jews. so, there is no zionist jew; there r only zionist euros; both the christians and judaists.

    This is a careful parsing of the language. Technically speaking bozhidar is correct. Zionism is NOT Judaism. For example, Orthodox Jews have long been outspoken against Zionism and the state of Israel. They were very active, agitated, and outspoken during the anti-war movement in 2003 against the War on Iraq. A few of them found solidarity and got involved with International Answer and were on the forefront in their condemnation and understanding that the war on Iraq was about advancing Zionism’s interest.

    However I think the author is making an excellent about about Jewish Identity. What Zionism as done has ingrained itself among Israelis and especially American Jews with its rancid ideology. Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity which is why Zionism is associated with “Jews”.

    As Dr. Petras reported in one of his DV articles, 90% of AIPAC membership is “Jewish” while 10% represents the “Christian Right”. Therefore it is up to anti-Zionist Jews (like the Orthodox Jews, like Dr. Petras, etc) to reject Zionism and speak out against its growing influence.

    When you see an African American, like Barack Obama, embrace Zionism in order to get elected President then you can easily see how ubiquitous and influential this ideology is and why it needs to be unambiguously confronted.

  8. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 17th, 2008 at 4:18pm #

    i evaluate as factual that the euros w. judaic faith are not semitic. catholics of poland or ireland are not italians; they r poles and irish.
    if that is false to u, then u juxtapose own facts ab ethnicity of people in question.
    denying s’mbody else’s facts is disingenious while at the same not producing their own.
    by continuing to call nonjews “jews” or even “zionists” one is abetting criminals and christian imperialism.
    am s’mwhat puzzled ab ability of handful of ‘jews’ or criminals in europe to have been able to set up a state of their own in an occupied land.
    and being up against 100mn arabs.
    no it is not possible. it was possible only because the help of christian lands, the real zionists.
    add to this the fact that most of these criminals were not judaic at all, it becomes even clearer what transpired: theft of land by euro empires; both communist and fascist. thnx

  9. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 17th, 2008 at 4:40pm #

    but hadn’t every prez since 50s sanctified israel/zionism? had churchill not been zionistic? yes, he was. he had said to chaim weitzmann that: It wld be OK if u can take ALL of palestine, but if u can’t, partition will have to do.
    trotzky wasn’t but stalin was a zionist. precisely, because most of the khazaro-euros were against religion; ie, were not of judaic faith.
    all popes were strongly zionistic. there r 100 times more zionists in canada than in entire ‘jewish’ world.
    the rancid jewish ideology in US is shared by ab. 200mn amers. thus we can assert that nearly all amers r zionists.
    which obviously worried chomsky. as these rancid people cld an did push the rancied/rabid ashkenazic people into ever greater paroxicism.
    he and others didn’t want israel in lebanon or expansion of settlements.
    for obvious reasons.
    it only takes moment to realize that these criminals will succeed or fail.
    i wld not like to live in israel whatever eventual outcome.thnx

  10. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 18th, 2008 at 9:25am #

    that no zionist had prior to ’48 been jewish, the use of ‘yiddish’ (beware) language proves that they had no semitic blood in them.
    no semitic people wld have abandoned their semitic language nor semitic religion.
    euro-khazarians have been judaistic for just a millenium and not for 3.
    and the socalled yiddish language, it’s not yiddish but a germanic slang mostly.
    to which much later were addead some semitic words.
    let’s not comfort these bastards. tnx

  11. Deadbeat said on November 18th, 2008 at 11:38am #


    Nothing that I wrote argued against your facts or conclusions. Nor where my remarks about what defines who is or who is not Semitic. I clearly would leave that up to you. It is very interesting background information.

    However the author himself specifically referred to “Jewish Identity”. The fact that Zionism has been associated with “Jewish Identity” is not my doing and therefore it is rather “disingenuous” for you to misread my remarks. I am clearly not misreading your remarks. You are presenting a valuable historical insight. However we should let this historical insight obscure what has become a “political and identity norm” especially in the United States. This is especially why I brought up the Orthodox Jews who are ardent anti-Zionist.

    But it is also disingenuous to ignore the fact that Zionism is interwoven into “Jewish” (note the quotes) identity (note the italics) especially in the U.S. and it is disingenuous not to discuss this problem.

  12. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 18th, 2008 at 12:25pm #

    ok, i take back the word “disingenuous” since after rereading ur post and reading ur follow up, it’s unclear whether the word is apt or not.
    however it may be, to me, orthdox ‘jews’ (beware, it’s a danger word; laden w. misconceptions/lies/deceptions) r merely euro-khazarians w a faith.
    the orthodoxic euro ‘jews’ r, as i have amply documented, not semitic; exception being real semites of africa and asia.
    and most or all afroasian semites w. judaic faith may be arabs and other semites.
    that may include also the jerusalem ‘jews’.
    u say “zionism is not judaism”. i don’t like to disappoint u ab this.
    torah commands hebrews to take canaan by sword. and not only that but the orthos also commanded hebrews to slay every person and all animals of the cities they were to capture and which were situated within borders of the ‘promised’ land.
    and to boot, mad priests have ordered hebrews to make servants of the residents of captured cities and which layoutside the borders of the ‘promised’ land.
    i undersatnd the orthos r not against an israel but only an israel wrought by euros.
    in any case, if i am in error ab much or all of this, i am not in error for denying the ‘jews’ their right to be in palestine or to manipulate prez’s.
    i don’t expect anything good from any of them. tnx

  13. paul martin said on November 20th, 2008 at 12:59pm #

    According to this film, the following should be taken into account. The people (call them soldiers, police or whatever you will) who actually carried out the holocaust should be called to account, but not the planners and minds behind the Final Solution.
    Sharon and his people planned this massacre and the Falangists carried it out.
    You really need a very twisted mind to justify this.
    The Destiny of the Jew is Exodus over and over again. They do not need anybody to help them along this historic journey.
    By their deeds they will be judged and dealt with.

  14. Jeome Cantor said on February 5th, 2009 at 12:56am #

    Gilad Atzmon did the right thing when he left Israel after the war in Lebanon since he didn’t want to go against the government which initiated the war. To fight the government while in Israel demands as much courage as a soldier under fire plus a willingness to see your whole family hurt. It is much easier to attack the Israeli government policies from a friendly environment like England. The Sabra and Shatila affair was disgraceful but why doesn’t Gilad ask the Christians why they took vengance this way. They think that they had good reason. Israel has made many mistakes in dealing with the Arabs but you can be sure that Arab hands are not as clean as made out to be.