Monday, August 07, 2006

Henri-Levy Represents the Tribe

Bernard Henri-Levy’s piece in this Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine is a revelation. It is a moving, straightforward assessment of the situation from the point of view of a battered Israel. Tinged but not clouded by emotion, Henri-Levy talks with the major superstars of Israeli politics and culture – from Shimon Peres to David Grossman and shares some candid conclusions. The scope of this war, he writes, is larger and involves global dynamics that Israel has heretofore not dealt with:

Israel did not go to war because its borders had been violated. It did not send its planes over southern Lebanon for the pleasure of punishing a country that permitted Hezbollah to construct its state-within-a-state. It reacted with such vigor because the Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped off the map and his drive for a nuclear weapon came simultaneously with the provocations of Hamas and Hezbollah. The conjunction, for the first time, of a clearly annihilating will with the weapons to go with it created a new situation. We should listen to the Israelis when they tell us they had no other choice anymore. We should listen to Zivit Seri tell us, in front of a crushed building whose concrete slabs are balancing on tips of twisted metal, that, for Israel, it was five minutes to midnight.

He writes of the power of semantics in this war, something not many members of the media besides pro-Israel watchdogs have discussed. If psychology is one aspect of this struggle, than using powerful language may actually communicate the impact of those brutal, barbaric deeds:

The damage these rockets can do, when you see them up close, is insane. And insane, too, is the racket you hear when you’ve stopped talking and are just waiting for the sound they make to blend with the noise of the car’s engine. A rocket that falls in the distance leaves a dull thud; when it goes over your head, it creates a shrill, almost whining detonation; and when it bursts nearby, it shakes everything and leaves a long vibration, which is sustained like a bass note. Maybe we shouldn’t say “rocket” anymore. In French, at least, the word seems to belittle the thing, and implies an entire biased vision of this war. In Franglais, for example, we call a yapping dog a rocket, roquet; the word conjures a little dog whose bark is worse than his bite and who nibbles at your ankles.. . .So why not say “bomb”? Or “missile”? Why not try, using the right word, to restore the barbaric, fanatical violence to this war that was desired by Hezbollah and by it alone? The politics of words. The geopolitics of metaphor. Semantics, in this region, is now more than ever a matter of morality.

There are beautiful bittersweet moments in this piece, like when Henri-Levy chats with Grossman in a garden restaurant in an Arab village, or when he meets military commander Ephraim Sneh at Koah junction, a place he describes as a “landscape of dry stone, brought to a white heat by the sun.” Henri-Levy’s piece reads as a sort of travel essay of a stricken yet still stunning Israel, an homage to the country’s ability to balance survival and aggression.

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