Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Israel: Women at War

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

Only the dead have seen the end of war.

The first time I saw Israeli women in uniform was on the train ride between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Actually they were girls, teenaged girls in combat boots and sagging fatigues with machine guns slung low on their backs. Clustered between cars, they stood teasing each other, chewing gum, chatting on their cell phones, smoking cigarettes, and listening to their I-Pods like teenagers virtually everywhere in the industrialized world. As deterrents to terror, they seemed delightfully harmless, though the facts, the statistics, prove otherwise. It has long been a successful Israeli strategy to post soldiers everywhere—at border checkpoints, airports, and federal buildings, surely, but also on buses and trains, in markets, synagogues, parks, schools, hospitals, shops, museums, restaurants, nightclubs, movie theatres, hotel lobbies, and even on the beach, where we had occasion to see them, often uniformed girls with Kalashnikovs and M-16s, strolling arm-in-arm on the sand.

By law, all able-bodied Israelis between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one are required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, known by the Hebrew acronym Tzahal for Tzva Hahahgana Le Yisra’el, a national conscription that has always included women. Charged to “defend the existence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state of Israel,” they—like their male counterparts—have done so, again and again, in the course of Israel’s brief and tumultuous history, if with an increasingly volatile mixture of loyalty and ambivalence, of courage, compassion, and fear.  

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid charts the boredom and yearning of three teenaged girls in a dusty outpost not far from the Lebanese border, as they struggle to make meaning out of their empty, conventionally hapless lives. It is only when they are conscripted into the army, when they are pressed to enact and enforce the absurdities and contradictions of modern Israeli life, in short, to defend the indefensible, that they come to understand what it means to be an Israeli today. 

The philosopher-historian Will Durant once calculated that there have only been twenty-nine years in the history of human civilization in which a war was not underway somewhere in the world. In the now sixty-six year history of the modern state of Israel there has never even been one, not a single year in which the nation was not at war. Politics aside, just think of it—the resources, the madness, the daily wear and tear on soldiers and civilians alike. While in Tel Aviv, my wife, my sons, and I had dinner with a friend of ours, a lovely evening with him and his wife and children in their home that ended with a tour of their bomb shelter, an architectural feature mandated for all Israeli homes, apartment buildings, and factories since 1951. To be an Israeli (or Palestinian) today, in my friend’s case a secular, cosmopolitan, politically progressive Israeli, is to live one’s life in a strangely normalized state of siege, a fraught, impossibly suspended now. Surely something soon must give. 

While I strongly believe that the world needs to continue to plead the case of the Palestinians and their equal right to a just, secure, and autonomous state, the effort will falter to the very degree that it inspires the vilification of Israel and of Israelis themselves. What this good novel does, what all good novels of the region do (including those of such tireless and courageous Palestinian writers as Elias Khoury, Susan Abulhawa, and Ghassan Kaanfani, to name just three), is to re-humanize the struggle there, to put a face—some very anguished human faces—on the latest philippics, invectives, and screeds. The wonder of such fiction as Boianjiu’s is the way in which it fleshes out and complicates the matters, clouding, precluding, that all-but-irresistible desire to simplify this war through caricature and propaganda, to paint it in black and white. For when this war is finally ended (as I’m convinced it will be, maybe even someday soon) the terms of peace are sure to be just as messy, complex. Then—just as now—the region’s best writers are sure to play their part.

Shani Boianjiu served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years and still lives in Israel today.

Peter Adam Nash

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