If fighting for your country earns you the privilege of speaking freely of it, Haim Bresheeth-Zabner spends that coin to the fullest.
In An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Force Made a Nation, Bresheeth-Zabner, a disillusioned veteran of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, makes the following assertions: the Jewish state is an apartheid nation, the natural conclusion of Zionism’s settler colonial project; Israelis are warmongers, shielded from effective censure by Holocaust guilt; and that its leaders have weaponised the paranoia of “existential threats” to justify a near-constant state of war. Much, if not all, of this is because Israel is “a creature of the army”. And that’s just in the introduction.
It’s a woefully narrow lens through which to measure an entire country. In Bresheeth-Zabner’s telling, all of Israeli society, culture and history has been bent by the gravitational force of its strongest institution, the army, to a single arc — the achievement of a racially pure Jewish democracy, eventually bereft of Palestinians.
This is clearly not true. Nation states are motivated by more than one ideology, forged by more than a single institution. Even more importantly, as he notes himself, ideologies evolve with the men who shape them. David Ben-Gurion’s political and conceptual victories over Zeev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor’s visions of Zionism, for instance, changed the very nature of the state that was born in 1948.
But Bresheeth-Zabner’s book, strident at times, carefully argued at others, carries on in a tradition that is absent in everyday Israel, but vibrant and deeply fought in academic circles — questioning the role of the army in shaping the Israeli psyche. If Israeli power, undeniable today in the Middle East, stems from its mighty military, then what is Israel without the IDF?
Not much, argues Bresheeth-Zabner. He starts his history even before the IDF was born, in the days of the Irgun and the Haganah, the paramilitary groups that came of age during the Arab Rebellion of the 1930s, and their role in both helping the British stem the revolt and in ushering the British out the door a decade later.
These events, he argues, laid the foundational myths of Israel’s origin story: the Arabs attacked first, we defended ourselves, the Arabs fled because their leaders told them to, and that the UN’s partition was fair.
Bresheeth-Zabner spends considerable effort piercing those early “mythistories”. But if he uncovers something new, it’s lost in his repeated assertions that the birth of Israel itself was a violent, immoral act designed to ethnically cleanse Arabs from their homeland.
And therein lies the problem of this book. Just as Israeli hasbara, like all propaganda, is a constellation of lies, obfuscating half-truths and convenient truths, Bresheeth-Zabner’s version of anti-Zionism is a foregone conclusion in search of supporting evidence. Israel is immoral, thus Zionism is immoral, or is it vice versa? (He does not care.) As he meanders through Israel’s other military campaigns — Egypt in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967, the humiliation of the 1973 Yom Kippur war — Bresheeth-Zabner treads familiar ground with barely disguised disdain.
The book comes alive, though, on his observations about how Israelis are weaned on a steady diet of IDF adulation, from the hit songs on Army Radio to the hero-worship of fighters.
This, of course, continues in modern Israel, where nearly all Israeli Jews, other than the ultraorthodox, are conscripted out of high school, forming life-long bonds to each other and the national endeavour. Most Israeli Jews hold the military in the highest regard of any public institution.
But that also gives the IDF an impunity when it fails the ideals of the Israeli state — the daily violation of human rights in the occupied territories, the children killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza, the shootings of unarmed protesters at the border with the Gaza Strip.
Described within Israel as “the most moral army in the world”, serving in the IDF becomes a shared badge of honour. That makes examining the IDF’s failures a fraught moral exercise, uncomfortably mingling personal honour with the institution’s.
It is a contradiction that bears further study. Bresheeth-Zabner’s book is not that book. It is, instead, part polemic, part history, part cry for justice and part slander — much like the Israeli army’s propaganda of itself.
An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation, by Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, Verso, RRP£20, 448 pages
Mehul Srivastava is the FT’s Jerusalem correspondent
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