(In Memorium: Olivia Newton John, 1948-2022)
If you have never heard of the video game known as “Fortnite,” you are a better parent than I am. After years of valiant resistance, I broke down several months ago and purchased this perversive product, together with its supporting hardware, in the context of an “X-box for Peace” deal with my daughters: three whole days without “Moron!” “Fat pig!” “Ugly Wench!” and “One-Eyebrow Freak!” in exchange for a measly grand.
The concept behind Fortnite is simple: kill. With the help of an arsenal that the Pentagon would give its firstborn child to get its hands on — laser guns, bunker-busters, hunter drones, “disintegrator” rays, nitroglycerin-fueled 28-meter-range Napalm-Mix flame-throwers, fusion-powered, self-refueling F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter-bombers — children of all ages from countries across the planet gambol over lofty hills, traipse through lush forests, skip across verdant meadows and sail over pellucid waterways in a wild, whacky, fun-filled race to locate and murder one-another.
It took my ten-year old less than a week to turn champion. The child, it seems, does not know the meaning of fear, at least not in the virtual world. She initiates adversarial contact at every opportunity, charging, even without back-up or air cover, into enemy formations of ten or more hostiles with both barrels blazing as she screams from the living-room sofa loud enough for the entire neighborhood to hear: “Send regards to the Creator, you useless waste of organic tissue!” — and execrations of a similar ilk.
I began to be concerned when I noticed the manner in which my daughter would “neutralize” her opponents. After severely injuring and thereby “downing” another player — who is then forced to crawl humiliatingly on all fours as it awaits its impending doom — did my sweet little miss deliver the coup de grace by means of a simple kill-shot to the forehead? No. Nothing so humane as that. She would summon all present family members to watch as her “avatar” picked up the helpless figure, army-carried it to the edge of the nearest cliff, and hurled it mercilessly into the yawning abyss to the accompaniment of her own cackling laughter; or as it shoved the pathetic victim into a small structure, locked the door and nonchalantly tossed a grenade in through a side window; or as it thrusted the corpse-to-be, writhing and kicking, into the mouth of a large circumference cannon and then fired it point blank at a cement wall; or as it chose — when in the heat of battle and short on time — to forego all such theatrics and merely pummel the wounded warrior into kingdom come with repeated blows from a twenty-pound, titanium-alloy sledge hammer (“No need to waste a bullet!” quoth she).
True, blood and gore are nowhere to be seen on Fortnite – once subjected to lethal trauma the unlucky player or “skin” simply turns into this bluish flame and soars skyward – but still: I was aghast. What had become of my delicate, compassionate little flower, who out here in the real world won’t even permit me to crush a cockroach, and whose deeply felt empathy for all that lives and breathes extends even to inanimate objects (I once heard her earnestly thank an empty toothpaste tube for its service prior to tossing it into the garbage can).
As a responsible parent, I felt the need to intervene. I myself had been raised by two ’60s hippies who spent every Monday and Thursday demonstrating against the Vietnam War or trying to levitate the Pentagon telekinetically, and who forced my brother and me – while the rest of the kids in the neighborhood showed up to the weekly game of cops-and-robbers toting Hasbro sub-machine guns, Berettas, cross-bows and bazookas – to make do with a stick. I sat my daughter down on the sofa and administered a passionate lecture about the evils of violence and the virtues of co-existence.
I had a brilliant idea: what if she were to start…a peace movement in Fortnite! Enough with the slaughter and carnage! Who says participants in the game have to fight and kill each other?! Wouldn’t it be much more fun and fulfilling to lay down their weapons, shake hands and embrace, get to know their peers from different countries (the platform allows for rudimentary communication between participants), learn about their lives and cultures, and along the way promote tolerance of diversity and acceptance of the “other”? Make friends, I told my newly belligerent offspring – not war!
My daughter was intrigued. Israeli born, she reached out in broken English (“You want no kill I?”) to the “skin” of this boy (or girl) from China, to another one from Russia, to a third who identified as Argentinian, and even to a junior jihadist hailing from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Quite the leader type, she somehow managed to convince them all that instead of shooting at one another, they should…dance. Really. The game has this seldom-used mechanism for causing one’s commando to cut the rug, and before long the fruit of my loins had assembled the whole diverse company in this pastoral glade bursting with poppies, hibisci and forget-me-nots, and was leading them in swaying, bopping, grooving and pirouetting to the strains of the international hit-song “Happy.” I melted. Schepped nakhes. It was a truly moving, inspirational display of mutual tolerance and affection. Then a squadron of Czech helicopter gunships appeared out of nowhere and exterminated them.
Kids like to kick ass. The young lady in question – my middle daughter – is crazy for “Super Girl” and all the other Marvel heroes, who aside from beating the stuffing out of bad guys and incinerating everything that moves with infrared beams emanating from their eye-sockets, don’t exactly do much. For her birthday, the kid asked for boxing gloves. Her favorite TV series is “Kobra Kai” (a continuation of the movie “Karate Kid”), in which a bunch of maladjusted, chronically pissed-off adolescents turn the streets and schools of their city into a round-the-clock Battle Royale.
Nor is this true, of course, of children alone. The majority of adults, I would venture, are attracted to, and regularly watch, films packed with cruelty, barbarity, savagery and butchery. And if we’re going to be honest, it’s not so much “films” as it is “film”: the same film every time. Some or all of the family members of the protagonist – who served in bygone days in a clandestine special forces unit where he was trained by a square-jawed older guy to “do one thing and one thing only” but who now eschews violence on principle and makes his living working in a flower shop – are either murdered or kidnapped by severely pockmarked evildoers, after which our hero has no choice but to dust off his sui generis “skill set” and embark for the remainder of the motion picture on a campaign of incomparably sadistic vengeance during the course of which he permanently removes from this terrestrial vale of tears a whole variety of human scum bearing Uzis, Magnums and Kalashnikovs while he himself is armed with a Q-tip.
When Will Smith administered the slap-that-was-heard-around-the-world to the cheek of his colleague Chris Rock for insulting the former man’s wife, the Oscars hurried to dissociate itself, issuing a statement to the effect that “The Academy does not condone violence in any form.” Really? You could have fooled me. Anyone who has been around for a while knows that yesterday’s “Rated R” is today’s “Rated PG.” Time was, if a guy got shot in the shoulder on the big screen it was a major milestone in the plot, maybe even the climax of the flick. Not anymore. Today, before you can finish saying kaddish over the first murdered gang-banger, mafioso, innocent by-stander, uniformed law enforcement officer, triple-jawed, goo-dripping, carnivorous space alien or very badly misnamed Persian “Immortal,” twenty more of the same have had their brains or bowels splattered across the camera lens Jackson Pollack style (the all-time record was set by the 2021 Korean Netflix blockbuster “Squid Games,” the first episode of which boasted no fewer than one hundred separate shooting deaths in the space of four-and-a-half minutes).
Nor is it just a matter of the quantity of homicides; there is also quality to consider. Ever more creative and disgusting methods of manslaughter have been devised by movie moguls in recent decades to retain viewer interest. When I was a teenager the worst of these involved a projectile of one kind or another entering the posterior cranium of a villain and emerging from his face via the mouth cavity or eye socket; today, your average ISIS beheading or burning video is a colossal bore by comparison.
One could, albeit, make the argument that this glaring paradox – condemnation of brutality in life versus the glorification thereof in art – does not represent hypocrisy at all: by intensifying the level of violence on the screen, Hollywood and the gaming industry are furnishing the populace with a vicarious substitute for genuine violence out here in the real world, allowing viewers or players, as it were, to shoot their bolt, sublimating their most destructive urges into harmless viewing or console manipulation. Even if one does not accept this claim (and as arguments go, it is among the more criminally spurious), a parent can at least hope that there is no direct correlation between the virtual and the actual, and that his child will not grow up to be a school shooter or serial murderer as a result of his or her experiences in the world of “Fortnite.” But perhaps, also, the time has come to cease denying that violence plays a natural part in our consciousnesses, and in human experience at large, and that it is not always a catastrophic abomination to be avoided at all costs. Perhaps the time has come to admit that sometimes, a good thrashing is downright necessary.
Every kindergarten teacher worthy of the name instills in her charges the iron-clad law that if one of your peers hits you, you must never return the favor, but rather run and inform…the kindergarten teacher. This rule is nothing if not understandable. If preschoolers start “taking the law into their own hands” and exchanging tit for tat, the chances of somebody getting badly hurt will go way up, and the kindergarten may well deteriorate into a pee-wee version of the Wild, Wild West. Despite this undeniable risk, however, I hereby confess that my wife and I, in the case of every one of our four children, have systematically undermined the authority of the kindergarten teacher and taught our kids the diametric opposite: If somebody shoves you, you shove him back – harder. (I suspect that we are not the only parents who do this, but most of us prefer not to admit as much out loud in polite company, lest we be ostracized by the PTA or extradited for war crimes to the International Criminal Court at the Hague).
After all, cultivating in one’s child the ability to stand up for him or herself, gather courage, even handle pain, constitutes at least as essential a contribution to his or her personality development than cultivating in one’s child the ability to hold back and refrain from battery – no? (Just don’t employ, for the purpose of instilling the lesson that force should be met with greater force, the old Persian proverb: kolokh andaz padash sang ast, “If someone throws a ‘dirt-bomb’ at you, you throw a rock back at them” – our eldest daughter took this literally, and the other girl needed stitches).
I will go even further and risk immediate excommunication by averring that which all our grandparents knew instinctually and never even needed to say out loud: the inculcation of physical courage directly contributes, especially in the formative years but even beyond, to the development of emotional courage. And now this becomes simply Darwinian: show me the woman who is not attracted to the self-confident man, or the man (if he is a real man) who is not attracted to the self-confident woman. Giving one’s child the gift of courage early on – inter alia by explaining that one cannot rely on the kindergarten teacher to fight one’s battles – means giving him or her an evolutionary leg-up, plain and simple.
One classic celluloid expression of this reality will be familiar to most readers who are no longer young and stupid: the scene in the original Back to the Future movie in which Michael J. Fox’s nerdy, wimpy, wuss of a dad, George McFly – after years of meekly knuckling under to the exploitative and humiliating demands of the hulking bully “Biff” – finally screws up the courage to stand up to the latter, who is busy forcing himself on a young lady. With one unexperienced but passionate punch, he TKOs the molester, at which point, of course, the damsel in distress, who has never so much as glanced in George’s direction except perhaps to giggle with her friends at his awkwardness, all of a sudden gazes upon him with admiration and desire – and the rest is history. There are, of course, literally thousands of scenes like that one in thousands of movies going all the way back to the onset of the genre, and they have been and remain virtually unparalleled high points for spectators everywhere (for you, too, dear reader, whether the present campaign against “all forms of violence,” the take-no-prisoners enforcement of political correctness, the ridiculous excesses of radical feminism, or your own self-image as a sophisticated connoisseur of unbearably boring foreign films allows you to admit it or not).
The question why we defend and thrill to acts on screen that we roundly condemn in life – an excellent example being our love-hate relationship with the motif of revenge – is a complex and fascinating one, worthy of another whole essay. But there is no arguing that the aforementioned Back to the Future scene – however we may evaluate its message, positively or negatively – reflects reality at least in the sense that if a heretofore well-known “sissy” overcomes his traditional timidity and at least tries to resist the brutality of a malefactor, his reputation and sense of self-worth will be enhanced, and his potential for later success in career and romance increased. Sure, he might also get badly pummeled, lose a tooth or two, even, God forbid, suffer a broken arm. And sure, there are certainly other ways, perhaps even more effective ways, to boost a kid’s confidence and strengthen his personality than by encouraging him to hit back when set upon. But neither the risk involved nor the alternatives available means that children shouldn’t learn to stand up for themselves, get physical when necessary, conquer their fear, handle extreme pressure, bounce back from adversity, and the like. A kid who runs crying to the teacher – so my own children all assure me – is pretty much finished socially, at least for the remainder of that school year.
If this all sounds like a bunch of primitive, cave-man, toxic-masculine nonsense to you – or at least like an attitude more suited to the 1950s than to our enlightened, post-millennial, considerably more civilized era – then give a thought, perhaps, to…the Ukraine. The Ukrainians gave up their nuclear arsenal way back in 1994 in return for a promise, and then lost the Crimea twenty years later when the Russians (and the West) broke that promise. In the winter of 2022, they stood facing a humiliating ultimatum issued by a massive, snarling, salivating Russian bear. No nukes, no army worthy of the name, no friends except the kind that had proved unreliable, a Jewish comedian for a president, and a cold-hearted, dictatorial, megalomaniacal, cossack serial killer with his itchy finger on the red button for an enemy: logic, to say nothing of the most fundamental instincts of self-preservation, cried out for submission.
But honor – that badly battered, severely maligned and almost thoroughly eradicated idea that once played such a central role in our lives – demanded otherwise, and the Ukrainians, rather unexpectedly, decided it was better to die on their feet. NATO, the Security Council, International Law – in short, the macro versions of the kindergarten teacher – were not about to come to the rescue, and the Ukraine was left, as we all are at one point or another in life, to fight its own battles. And lo and behold: once they decided to rise to the challenge, they found strengths they barely knew they had; they found weaknesses in the enemy war machine that surprised even the slickest of military strategists; they found allies willing to help those who were insistent upon helping themselves; and they gained the respect and admiration of the entire world. Whatever happens in the end, standing up to the biggest, baddest bully on the block turned out to be the best decision the Ukraine ever made.
My grandfather, the pseudo-pacifist (I say “pseudo” because boy did he ever cheer and whoop when the Israelis pounded the living you-know-what out of the Arabs in ’67 and ’73), used to say: “What if they threw a war, and nobody came?” I always loved that image: A bunch of silly, self-important, rotund generals walking around in circles on an empty battlefield, whistling nervously, glancing at their watches every so often in irritation, harumphing and looking off with increasing consternation toward the horizon in anticipation of the arrival of gullible young cannon-fodder who never show up.
Alas! That ain’t the way the world works – never has been, never will be. In some kind of fantasy existence it might make sense to raise a generation of young people who know nothing of violence. In the real world, their ethereal, effete, over-refined condition will only invite others – who have yet to ascend beyond the body and physicality and who even have a penchant for wildness and brutality – to come on over and pummel them to bits. And that brings us to the real reason why this essay is being written…
* * *
Several weeks ago I came across the following item on a news app that regularly pops up on my phone: “Jewish students at Tel-Aviv University Avoid Campus, Resort to Zoom, Citing Fear of being Assaulted.” Several days prior, a large demonstration had been held at the university in which Arab students, together with some of their leftist Jewish colleagues, had – for the first time in history – brandished hundreds of Palestinian flags at the entrance to this mainstay of Israeli higher education. A lone Jewish woman, a middle-aged alumnus who had witnessed the event from her apartment window across the street, brought over a sizeable Israeli flag and began waving and dancing with it nearby, as a personal, patriotic protest. Many profanity-laced curses were launched in her general direction by the pro-Palestinian demonstrators, who soon moved menacingly toward her while shouting in unison: “Get out of here, you fascist whore!”
Undeterred, the Jewish lady went right on dancing and waving, at which point a male Arab student lunged at her, grabbed her by the shoulder and midriff, wrestled the flag away and threw it on the ground. While this was happening a nearby male voice was heard shouting over and over in high-pitched Hebrew, “Leave her alone! Take your hands off her!” But the owner of the voice did not interfere in any way, and only when the riot police arrived on the scene some thirty seconds later was the male Arab assailant separated from his female Jewish victim and the flag restored to the latter, who continued to dance, and to be the butt of unceasing and highly obscene imprecations.
Now, needless to say, had the case been reversed – had a Jewish man manhandled an Arab woman in public – things would have gone much differently. Whatever the cost to themselves, including arrest, expulsion, imprisonment or even severe injury, the Arab males present would have made quite sure that the hand that had touched their Muslim sister would be mangled beyond recognition, and the owner thereof beaten to a bloody pulp. Before even entering into the question whether such a reaction should be condemned as disproportionate, savage, chauvinist, patriarchal or what have you, we must first recognize that it is the ineluctable, inexorable reality: a sacred more of Arab-Muslim society, a matter of honor etched in stone. And everybody here in Israel knows it. This recognition is important because of the imbalance it entails: on the whole – there are, of course, numerous individual and even collective exceptions – a comparatively “progressive,” “civilized” and irenic Jewish population in whose eyes notions of “honor” are antiquated and dangerous, facing a comparatively “backward,” “barbaric” and brutal Arab population for whom notions of honor are paramount.
To this must be added a related, extremely consequential and constantly expanding bifurcation that can best be depicted via a creative exegesis of Genesis 27, 22: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” In Israel, Jews talk – and write, and code, and analyze, and sing, and philosophize – and Arabs build – and clean, and dig, and plant, and pave (and, perhaps most ominously, like the Germanic foederati who protected Roman frontiers from the incursions of their own Barbarian bretheren just prior to the empire’s collapse, guard Jews – at schools, malls, hotels, country clubs and even Independence Day celebrations – against their fellow Arabs).
Zionism emphasized “Back to the Land,” “Hebrew Labor” and Aaron David Gordon’s imperative to “open a new account with nature” now that we were “back home” and no longer had to huddle behind closed doors for fear of the surrounding gentile population as we did in the exile. In flagrant betrayal of all this, Jews in today’s Israel are mostly found indoors, breathing pumped, perfumed air and working and playing on the Internet in their sky-scraper offices and apartments, far from the earth and from physicality, whereas their Arab cousins are mostly outdoors, breathing the air of the Land of Israel, working its fields and frolicking in its ponds, their muscles straining and getting stronger as they move our freight, prune our trees, collect our trash and produce our food (each year, for about three days during and after the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha, there is no meat in Israeli supermarkets).
Last year I was dragged along by some university colleagues to a morning-long outing in Wadi Kelt, a beautiful oasis snuggled in between the mountains outside of Jerusalem. After hiking only about a kilometer-and-a-half, and having already managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost, we came upon a little cliff overlooking a shallow water-hole. Twenty or so Arab youngsters – barefoot, stripped to cut-off jean shorts, lean and sinewy without exception – were taking turns running and hurling themselves off of the cliff and yelping with glee, especially on the occasions when one of them barely missed bashing his head in on a protruding slab of granite or received a painful blow from the hard stone floor of the approximately one-meter-deep lagoon below.
Now picture us: a bunch of dorky, heavy-set, bespectacled academics decked out in Bermuda shorts, Lacoste shirts, sparkling clean professional hiking sneakers bought specifically for the occasion, socks pulled up to our knees, designer knapsacks with (catered) picnic lunches and bottles of Gatorade and Strawberry-Mint sparkling water packed just so into the side pockets, all topped off by safari hats and baseball caps to shield our sensitive facial skin from the sun’s rays just in case the gobs of Dr. Fischer Maximum Protection lotion we had smeared all over ourselves didn’t do the trick.
I was embarrassed as all hell, and turning to my fellow professors I exclaimed – sounding every bit like a Palestinian propaganda film but meaning every word of it –”Behold: The Lords of the Land!” At which point, disgusted with myself and overcome with Zionist zeal, I disrobed down to my shorts and – ignoring the pleas and admonitions of my more provident colleagues – approached the precipice fully determined to save our collective Jewish honor by making the leap. Alas, I cannot be described by any stretch of the imagination as “lean and sinewy,” and having gazed over the edge and made a split-second calculation to the effect that my chances of emerging from the experience as anything but a paraplegic were extremely poor – and having weighed this act of bravado’s contribution to the overall Zionist cause against images of my kids pushing me around in a wheel-chair for the rest of my life – I opted for the better part of valor. Turning to the Arab boys with a weak smile, I quoted one of my favorite Muslim traditions: “Muhammad said: ‘Having children makes you a miser and a coward.'” The boys dutifully recited the blessing over hearing their prophet’s name mentioned, feigned sympathy with my dilemma and ultimate decision, and graciously guided us back to the wadi’s main path, which for all our maps and apps and PhDs we simply could not locate.
My youngest daughter is something of an equestrian: it was my brilliant idea to drag her to a horse-riding lesson three years ago, and I have been paying through the nose for it ever since. The thing is, throughout all that time they have never let her or any of her friends out of the stables – company policy, insurance and all that. She has never ridden through a forest or across a field or off into the sunset, never galloped, only trotted, or at most cantered, and that in circles, rhythmically raising and lowering her rump in proper “English” style.
Now, for me, if you don’t go dashing over hill and dale leaving dust clouds in your wake to the tune of the William Tell Overture, stopping every so often in a tree-lined meadow just long enough to pop an equine wheelie and shout “Hi-Yo, Silver, Away!” – what’s the point? So about a month ago I took her out of school – where pretty much the only thing she learns, at any rate, is how to recycle, how to respect “the other,” and the extremely important information for a fifth grader that “boys wake up in the morning with an erection, from which several drops of semen occasionally emerge and besmudge their underwear” – and we headed due North, ultimately arriving at the sole stables that had been willing to take us outside the fence for an hour’s ride with only a single day’s notice. I guess the fact that they agreed to this should have been my first clue, but the voice on the phone spoke flawless, accent-less Hebrew. The owner of the voice, however, and of the stables, turned out to be an Arab, which is also why we received an extremely warm, hospitable welcome replete with pre-departure smorgasbord prepared by the owner’s wife and introductions all around to the twenty or so Arab eight-year-olds who were to accompany us.
Needless to say, these kids didn’t ride “English,” or even “Western.” They rode “If the Parthians or Mongols had gotten a look at this they would have dismounted in abject mortification and walked on foot with their heads hung low all the way back to inner Asia.” Racing and rearing were just the beginning: these fearless, bareback-riding elementary schoolers, who had never even heard of a helmet, actually stood up in mid-gallop, leapt from horse to horse while charging down a hill, and – having broken off bamboo sticks from the surrounding foliage and stuffed Styrofoam surf-boards into their shirts as breastplates – engaged in nothing less than a full-fledged Arthurian joust, in the course of which they were subjected to G-force levels that would make Neil Armstrong lose his lunch as they were flung five meters back through the air onto their backsides and invariably leapt up laughing.
Tamar has decided to take a break from this hobby.
Essentialism? Racist stereotyping? Wild overgeneralization? Of course. There are in Israel a goodly number of Arab doctors, lawyers, intellectuals, artists, scientists and the like who wouldn’t hurt a fly and couldn’t change a tire to save their lives, and there are not a few Jews – for instance, my friends and students from the IDF commando units – who can kill you with their pinky finger, perform daredevil stunts that make Evel Knievel look like a yellow-bellied mama’s boy, and who grew up milking cows, cleaning the chicken coop, harvesting wheat and operating and repairing heavy machinery on Kibbutz. Still, everyone who lives in Israel knows that, on the whole, the division is as I have described aboved, and the gap has widened noticeably of late, more than anywhere in the realm of violence.
This refers not just to Tel-Aviv University – or to the Betzalel Art School, where religious Jewish students admit to doffing their yarmulkas before entering campus (in the Jewish State) – but throughout the country. Jews are beaten up more and more often, and videos abound of be-gaberdined Hassidim on their way to the Western Wall who are suddenly set upon by Arab youths, knocked to the ground and then kicked and trampled upon by passers-by. The most famous of this genre involves none other than the second-generation heir of Israel’s fiercest general, Rehavam Ze’evi (whose nickname “Gandhi” was belied by his habit of dangling the cadavers of Egyptian soldiers from South-bound IDF helicopters in order to psyche out the enemy). Ze’evi’s grandson got religion, became ultra-Orthodox, and was on his way to morning prayers when a gang of our “cousins” showed up, surrounded him, hurled him down on his face, and kicked him over and over again before moving on. The scion of the great and terrible general, for his part, did not even try to fight back, waited for the attack to be over (and then for several more Arab youths to step on him), rose and quietly collected his books, and searched about for his hat. So much for the New Jew.
During the Arab riots of 5781 (2021), huge throngs of Muslim men marched and marauded through the streets of many of Israel’s major cities, torching, smashing, beating, and chanting in unison, like thunder: Khaybar, Khaybar, ya Yahud, Jaysh Muhammad se Ya’ud! – “Remember Khaybar, O Jews! The army of Muhammad is coming back!” (Khaybar was a town in ancient Arabia where a wholesale Muslim slaughter of Jews took place in 628 CE). Israeli Jews were instructed by police to remain in their homes, with their doors locked and windows shut tight (you know — like during the pogroms in the Pale of Settlement?).
Now, some readers are already thinking to themselves: everything you have described above, in terms of the dichotomy between Jews and Arabs in the matter of physicality and the use of violence, is part and parcel of a natural socio-economic breakdown that occurs everywhere on the planet and is basically unavoidable, and when things get out of hand, the more “civilized” portion of the population relies upon the various official enforcement agencies instead of “taking the law into their own hands.” They rely, that is – like polite, obedient, well-behaved and cautious boys and girls everywhere – on the kindergarten teacher. Put another way, because they are “civilized,” they trust in brain as opposed to brawn, that is, in the superior technology and firepower with which they equip those same official enforcement agencies: a kindergarten teacher armed to the teeth. This is, indeed, how Jewish Israel currently deals, and intends to continue dealing, with rising Arab violence. No policy or philosophy could be more misguided or dangerous.
The great Muslim historian Muhammad Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406 CE) identified the beginning of the end of every civilization with the stage in which individuals in society no longer try or know how to defend themselves, preferring to rely on “professional” elements to do the job. Some may say that while this theory might have held water in the fifteenth century, with humanity’s march forward it is no longer relevant. Those who say this are cruising for a bruising – literally. The truth is diametrically antithetical: Ibn Khaldun’s thesis is more relevant today than ever before, and indeed, the more “civilized” the society – that is, the more liberal and democratic – the more his thesis must be taken into account.
Say you have a “disturbance” on your hands. And since we are not talking in a vacuum, say it is a disturbance in which Arabs are marching, rather menacingly, through a “mixed” neighborhood in Jaffa, Ramla, Lod, Haifa, Nazareth or Jerusalem, waving Palestinian flags, chanting anti-Israel and anti-Jewish slogans, some even throwing rocks at apartment buildings (this scenario, as the reader by now knows, is anything but hypothetical). Now, there are, all told, still more Jews than Arabs living in every one of those cities, but the Jews are “civilized,” so instead of streaming out of their domiciles in their thousands and confronting their riotous neighbors face to face on numerically equal or even slightly advantageous terms, they bolt their doors, draw their blinds and turn on Netflix, leaving it to the Israeli police and national guard – many of whom are Druze, Christian and even Muslim Arabs themselves – to handle the situation (if they even bother to show up).
Now, this way of doing things is characteristic of good, law-abiding citizens everywhere, and is certainly nothing if not understandable. Not so much because of any “anti-vigilante” notions of “letting the police do their job” or “not taking the law into one’s own hands,” but primarily because of what it says about Jewish mothers, that is, what it says about our profound level of concern for the lives and limbs of our loved ones. This is, undoubtedly, one of the most important marks of being “civilized”: a strong reticence to risk the injury or death of living souls, those closest to us – and ourselves – most of all. The Qur’an even singles the Jews out in this regard: “You will find them the most covetous of all people for life, even more so than the idolators; each one of them wishes to live a thousand years” (Q. 2: 96). As the reader may have guessed, Allah did not intend this as a compliment.
“Cowardice” is a touchstone of high culture and morality: the richer life is, and the more we care about it, the more “cowardly” we become. Prima facie, this is a beautiful thing, a lifestyle to strive for, perhaps humanity’s greatest goal. Unfortunately, the whole business is circular, as we shall see in a moment: in truth, the more cowardly we become the poorer our lives will soon become, and the worse it will go for us and for those whom we care about. Eventually our very individual and collective existence will be in far greater peril than at the outset of the process.
Back to the “disturbance”: here are some of the short- and long-term negative consequences – for democracies in general and for the Jewish State in particular – of relying on superior technology and delegating to the official coercive bodies the task of suppressing hostile rioters:
1/ The whole world watches as what looks like a wealthy, gutless, racist, privileged aristocracy sends out its human instruments of repression to put down yet another protest by the deprived and enraged masses. Said human instruments, covered in state-of-the-art riot gear and equipped with sophisticated “crowd control” devices, generally hide in large, armored trucks and employ water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, as their steel juggernauts clumsily barrel their way through throngs of men, women and children, threatening, dousing, spraying and shooting while the uniformed troops in tow billy-club or shove into the back of vans those demonstrators who stubbornly refuse to disperse.
Selma, Alabama, anyone?
(Yes, I know there is a big difference between “We shall overcome” and “The army of Muhammad is coming to slaughter you,” but the world doesn’t. And yes, like a good Israeli I don’t give a damn what the world thinks, but lookit: I haven’t had Ben & Jerry’s “Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough” ice cream for close on a year now, and my joie de vivre is rapidly dissipating…).
2/ Not just the whole world watches this scene: the Arabs watch it, too. And what they see, in no uncertain terms, is weakness. From their perspective the oppressor consists of a tiny minority – otherwise, where are the rest of them? – or at least a majority that is not man enough to come out and confront them and is therefore forced to exploit its affluence and technological know-how to send mercenaries and stand-ins (many of them, as we noted, Arabs themselves) on board and behind massive machinery to keep the righteous rebels in check. But not for long: such an “unfair fight” not only stokes the fires of resentment higher and higher, it also reeks of a clear eventual triumph for the underdog. The Arabs smell victory.
3/ Worst of all, the Jews watch this scene, both in Israel and abroad. And remember: the Jews are “civilized.” Civilized – and democratic. Now, whereas monarchies, tyrannies, oligarchies and dictatorships of all kinds can stomach unequal confrontations of this sort on a daily basis – can even put an end to them (at least temporarily) by slaughtering thousands and tens of thousands – democracies cannot abide such asymmetrical contests for more than a short period. Civilized people in democratic societies are increasingly demoralized by such phenomena, but they are caught in a trap set by a fundamental contradiction of their own making: their high level of civilization leads them, as we noted above, to rely for the maintenance of law and order solely on professional enforcement arms equipped with superior firepower – a kindergarten teacher carrying a really big stick – but that same high level of civilization makes the image of those professional enforcement arms taking advantage of that superior firepower in order to maintain that law and order more and more impossible to digest.
All of the above, however, represents the smaller problem. The far bigger problem is that, pace the conventional wisdom, on the domestic front – and in democratic Israel most of all – the lower-level, “illegitimate” street violence will unquestionably prevail in the long run over the higher-level, “legitimate” organized violence. Not only will the kindergarten teacher be unable to protect us forever from the class bullies; she will, sooner or later, end up having to take their side. Here’s how this works:
The police, as they themselves readily admit, cannot be everywhere. Indeed, they can barely be anywhere. The phrase “a cop on every corner” is meaningless not just because it never remotely corresponded to any feasible reality, but because (a) even if it did, there is a whole hell of a lot of outdoor and indoor space stretching between those “corners” where pretty much anything goes; (b) even if such a scenario – including its more technological versions, like the Chinese government’s ability to track the movements of its hundreds of millions of citizens – could actually be realized, democratic societies would reject it out of hand as the very essence of totalitarianism; and (c) the police and court system in democratic states are themselves so thoroughly caponized as to barely function as a deterrent.
For these and many other reasons, the law is abjectly helpless in this regard. “Culture” has always been more important than law in fashioning the character and trajectory of societies, and law – that ponderous, amaurotic, blundering, straight-jacketed beast – has always been the last resort: it only steps in when culture fails. And this last resort, bereft of the cultural companion upon which it must willy-nilly lean, will inevitably fail itself. Here in Jewish Israel, in the matter of increasing Arab violence, our culture is failing, and our law – and its enforcers – cannot in any way take up the slack.
In the North and South of Israel – in the Galilee and the Negev – Arab violence is, quite simply, driving Jews out. This includes not just the frightening demonstrations, but the daily harassment and even beatings of Jews in the centers of cities; the car-jackings on the highways that almost end in lynchings (so far Jewish families have been saved from this fate, not by the police, who are naturally nowhere nearby, but by Arab Good Samaritans, who spirit the shell-shocked Jews away to their own homes until law enforcement arrives); gangs of Arab kids on electric bikes circling or running down Jewish pedestrians on sidewalks, boardwalks and promenades; and the Arab protection rackets, which thoroughly immiserate Jewish business owners – large and small – and terrorize even just plain Jewish residents in many cities and towns in those regions (these rackets are increasingly prevalent in the center of Israel, as well, where – according to a deluge of relatively reliable anecdotal evidence – not a building goes up or a mall stays open without regular monthly payments to “the Bedouin.” But whatever the case may be in “the Dan Bloc,” i.e., in Tel-Aviv and its environs, the North and South are rapidly on their way to being overwhelmed).
In early July a family of Jews from Kefar Saba in central Israel drove North to enjoy a day of kayaking on the Jordan river in the Upper Galilee. Soon after they set sail, their boat was surrounded by dinghies full of young Arab boys from Umm al-Fahem who, together with their camp counselors, cursed, threatened and threw projectiles at the terrified Jewish family. Now, I grant that we are not yet in “Squeal like a pig!” territory (for young readers: the classic scene in the movie Deliverance in which hillbillies rape rafters), but hours after the incident became news – “Nightmare on the Jordan!” – hundreds of cancellations were reported not only by the kayak company, but by many of the surrounding hotels and resort villages. El-Al flights to Europe were instantly stuffed to the gills. The Jewish family filed a complaint. The same situation has for some time now obtained in connection with hiking and mountain climbing, the classic linchpin of the Zionist return to the Land: no Uzi, no excursion.
A student of mine manages a waterpark near Hadera – half an hour from Tel-Aviv – and last semester I asked him about bringing the whole family up for a day of fun in the sun (six free tickets in exchange for a measly “A” on a “Mameluke Aristocracy” paper. Win-win!). He discouraged me, explaining that over the last five years his clientele has gone from 80% Jewish to 80% Arab, because “the Arab kids are rowdy and violent and the Jewish kids – and their parents and schools – are scared.” I have since had it from reliable sources, including social media and two brothers-in-law who grabbed their progeny and fled the main Tel-Aviv water-park last week less than half and hour after arriving, that the same is true pretty much all across the country. Here we have a problem – and not a little one, but a major social game-changer – that not only cannot be dealt with by the authorities, it cannot even be spoken of by the authorities (or almost anyone else), for obvious reasons. Whether kayaking, swimming, riding on a bus or running a store (or shopping in it), Jews feel less and less secure in the Jewish state, and neither the police, nor the army, nor the General Security Service can do a damn thing about it, anymore than the teacher or the guard at the front gate of your kid’s school can stop him from getting bullied during recess.
All of this adds up to an exodus of Jews from the Galilee, Negev and other areas toward the comparatively safer center – a burgeoning trend that has been remarked upon for at least a decade now – where a new Jewish ghetto is forming between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem (a goodly number of Israelis, fed up with all the pressure, figure why stop there and simply emigrate). And all of that adds up to more and more territory inside Israel proper the Arab inhabitants of which are headed toward aggressive irredentism and secessionism (in Qalqilia, fifteen minutes down the road from my house, a Palestinian flag the size of half an Olympic swimming pool and flying fifty meters high has dominated the skyline for years now). Partially because of this process – whereby in almost every locale where Jews and Arabs live in proximity frightened Jews are leaving – the Arabs already have a majority in large swaths of the land.
With that in mind, let’s recall that we Israeli (and diaspora) Jews are civilized, and therefore democratic: it won’t be long before Arab demands for local self-determination and the increasing pressure they apply on the ground to give these demands teeth – pressure we can suppress only via the ugly means of superior firepower, and that only temporarily – will become all but irresistible for us. In other words, we will lose both the desire and the ability to enforce our sovereignty over considerable portions of the State of Israel, and sooner or later the levers of power in those areas – including the organized enforcement arms together with their superior technology and firepower – will be transferred in one form or another to the geo-demographic victors.
In short, as we said: the lower level, “illegitimate” violence – the fear factor that gradually makes the Arabs the owners of public and even much private space in more and more parts of the country – eventually trumps the higher level, “legitimate” violence – the official enforcement bodies, whether army or police, and their sophisticated hardware, from batons to drones and all the way up to nuclear weapons. All these coercive instruments deployed by “higher civilization” are ultimately irrelevant on the domestic plain: those who control the streets, the highways, the deserts, the forests, the fields, the mountains, the amusement parks, the stores and the streets will ultimately control the state.
(This claim should be qualified at least on one level: it is estimated by those in the know that the Arab civilian population in Israel is currently in possession of hundreds of thousands of illegal firearms, far more than what is in the hands of the civilian Jewish population. In this matter either the government will display the requisite courage and confiscate these weapons en masse; or it will arm the civilian Jewish population – a trend that has already begun in earnest; or it will have to send in the police and army to fight fire with fire. But this, too, is a subject for another composition).
The only way to avoid the creeping hegemony of the Arab segment of the population over large parts of Israel is to deny Arabs the monopoly on low level violence and the quotidian, pedestrian fear factor. Only a Jewish-Israeli population that frightens its Arab-Muslim counterpart – on the street level, with no “unfair” technological advantages to rely upon – to the same or a greater degree than the latter currently frightens the former, will have a chance of preserving Jewish sovereignty throughout the Jewish State over the long run and, for that matter, preserving a modicum of peace and quiet. Because while weakness invites violence, parity has the best chance of facilitating stability and even eventual detente.
When Arab youths see Jewish youths approaching from the opposite direction on the sidewalk, it is essential that they consider crossing the street no less – if not more – than vice versa, and when that happens, the way will be open to an eventuality in which neither group crosses the street, and instead they exchange: “Shalom Alaykhem” – “wa Alaykum al-Salam.” When packs of unarmed Muslim demonstrators are met, not by armored trucks, fire hoses and rubber (and sometimes lead) bullets, but by packs of no less numerous, and no less unarmed, Jewish demonstrators – the latter just as ready and prepared for a physical confrontation as the former – the ultimate result, after a certain period of inevitable scuffles and skirmishes (of which our side must make sure it wins a decent percentage), will be nothing less than the achievement of mutual respect, as well as a restoration of Jewish confidence, and Jewish comfort, in the streets, parks, wadis, pools, and shopping centers of the Land of Israel. Parity in low level violence is, in a word, the sine qua non of decreasing violent encounters all around. If we hit back, we won’t have to shoot back.
* * *
The illustrious Zionist philosopher Ahad HaAm complained that as a result of having been for so many centuries the “People of the Book,” we Jews long since lost the ability to react in a natural, healthy, instinctive and immediate fashion to various environmental stimuli. Among members of “normal” nations (to paraphrase his argument), if someone punches you in the face, you punch him back in the face. Among members of the “People of the Book,” on the other hand, someone punches you in the face; you head for the library, open a volume and peruse a passage; then you open a volume containing a commentary on that passage, and immerse yourself in that; then you pull down a super-commentary that provides context and several differing exegeses for the original commentary and study it closely; and if and when you finally reach the conclusion that you should indeed return and punch your assailant back in the face, he has already exited stage left.
Micah Joseph Berdichevsky, one of the “Young Ones” of the Hebrew literature scene who did not see eye to eye with Ahad HaAm on almost anything, unquestionably agreed with him here. He adduced a Talmudic dispute (Mishna Shabbat 6: 4) over the question whether a blade, bow or spear can be considered “ornaments to a man” – if the answer is in the affirmative, then he may go out with these implements on the Sabbath, for he is not “carrying” but “wearing” them – and fiercely laments the negative majority decision (based on Isaiah’s dream of beating swords into ploughshares) as symbolic of the end of Jewish vitality and, indeed, of Jewish sovereignty.
The rise of the new, strong, Nietzschean Jew in the Land of Israel was Zionism’s answer to the rabbis’ “exilic” revulsion to physical violence and the sense of honor associated with it, a “negation of the diaspora” in favor of a new nobility of arms. Zalman Shneur’s “Muscular Judaism”; recently bar-mitzvah-ed David Gryn (later Ben-Gurion) taking his fellow Jewish adolescents out to the forests of Plonsk and training them in self-defense; Rabbi Kook’s analogy of the re-uniting of people with land to mens sana in corpore sano and his concomitant support for sports and the cultivation of physical strength; Vladimir Jabotinsky’s alternative conclusion to the world’s most famous Yiddish song: un de rebbe leren klayne kinderlach…tzu shiessen – “and the rabbi teaches the little children…to shoot” – pioneer after pioneer did their damndest to pull us out of our books and shove us back into the world, fists flying. In 1933 the chief rabbi of Hungary visited Palestine for the first time, and made a pilgrimage to Jabotinsky’s house. At dinner the host asked the guest if he would like to see the sunrise over Jerusalem the next morning. The rabbi responded enthusiastically in the affirmative, and showed up on the Zionist leader’s doorstep at the crack of dawn. Off they went together, walking through forest and field, up hills and down slopes, until they arrived at a cliff. The rabbi looked skyward, anticipating the first rays of the celestial orb. Jabotinsky said: “Look down, Rabbi.” The rabbi lowered his eyes and descried, in the valley below, the silhouettes of five hundred members of the Betar para-military youth group practicing with bayonets. “Here,” whispered Jabotinsky to the rabbi, “is the sunrise over Jerusalem.”
For a while, the Zionist project of re-masculating the emasculated Jews actually worked, and not just for boys, either. The scene near the end of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in which the debauched, perverted, sniveling American-Jewish protagonist tries to “cop a feel” on a young Israeli woman and receives a professional ass-whooping instead, is no exaggeration: female citizens of the Jewish State are, in general, no-one you want to meet up with in a dark alley. My (drop-dead gorgeous) teenage daughter walks home alone from the-Good-Lord-only-knows-where at three o’ clock in the morning, and my wife and I shluff soundly in the knowledge that any man who even casts a furtive glance in her direction will wish he and every one of his ancestors had never been born.
To this day, Israelis are pretty tough. Where I grew up, in Philadelphia, if a toddler was walking behind his Jewish mother and suddenly tripped and fell, the mother would let out a geshrei like the world had come to an end and rush back to administer aid accompanied by endless kisses, caresses and commiseration about the poor little child’s “boo-boo.” In Hod HaSharon I have witnessed the same scene many times, but here the mom – for the most part not even bothering to turn around, even if the kid is bawling his eyes out – shouts back: Kum! (“Get up!”). Berdichevsky would be happy to know that Israeli soldiers, at least early on in their service, strut with their weapons (although the term for doing this – wasikh – comes from Arabic and means “getting filthy”). Even the jungle-gyms in the Jewish State are designed to cultivate the rugged sabra ethos: they are death-traps, with not a few opportunities for children to impale themselves on metal spikes or plunge four meters onto hard concrete, the theory evidently being that if your kid survives playing on them with all his limbs intact he will become a navy seal.
In the middle of the previous century the Soviets used to say to their Arab clients: “Comrades! You can do whatever you want in the Middle East: we’ve got your back! But listen: you see that wafer-thin sliver of territory on the South-East shore of the Mediterranean, in between the river and the sea? Do not mess with those people, because they are completely and totally in-saaaaaaane (that’s the rep you want to cultivate if you wish to survive in our region). Israelis, from whatever walk of life, had become serious velociraptors, ready and willing to employ violence, hard as nails. Once when I was eleven, something got into me and I built a life-size dummy, hung it from the ceiling of my bedroom and started throwing a kitchen knife at it. My hippy, peacenik, kumbaya mom came in, freaked out, confiscated the knife, told me how shocked she was at my behavior, and slammed the door. A few minutes later an Israeli professor of archeology who was on sabbatical at the University of Pennsylvania and had befriended my family stopped by for a snack. I heard an increasingly heated argument coming from the living room, and after about half-an-hour my mom re-entered my room, tied the dummy back to the ceiling, handed me the knife and said: “Aim for the heart, kid.”
But the habits of 2,000 years of dispersion die hard: over the past several generations the Zionist ideal of the Hebrew Blond Beast has taken a severe beating. It has succumbed to everything from the lure of high-tech careers, the availability of cheap Arab (and foreign) labor, smart-phones (death to them), and the resurfacing of the millennia-old, endemic Jewish preference for word over flesh, for trading floor over threshing floor (or boxing ring). But nothing has hit it harder than the latter-day, Western liberal project – which, of course, few have taken to like the Jews – of hemming in the human personality with an ever-increasing number of strictures on “hurtful” behavior, and convincing all of us that we are ten times weaker and more vulnerable than we ever thought we were. This transvaluation of values is busy turning what might have been strong, fortitudinous Jewish men and women, throughout the world but especially in Israel, into touchy-feely, hyper-sensitive, delicate flowers shorn of thorns who can neither dish it out nor take it. Our hands are once again smooth and lily-white, no callouses on the inside – from manual labor – or on the outside – from jabs, crosses, or uppercuts. Our psyches are no more leonine than our bodies: witness the many readers who have already been offended, discomfited, pained, “triggered” or otherwise traumatized by statements made in this essay thus far, and who will need months of therapy in order to recover from the horrifying experience of reading words on a page. As kids we were taught to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Today the only Jew still associated with sticks and stones is David, in his face-off against Goliath (a story no longer taught in Israeli schools for fear of triggering…giants), and names, of course, have become infinitely more lethal than neutron bombs.
If you will it, you can be a wimp.
So what is to be done? Shall we change the government? Lobby parliament? Enact some new laws? Hardly. The whole point all along has been that the problem is a cultural one, and the solution must be cultural, as well. Culture is everywhere and immediate; law hides out among the baggage, and has a reaction time that rivals the life-span of Methusaleh. More importantly, law is, always has been, and always will be a function of culture. Whither culture goeth, law shall inevitably go. And our culture is currently in a really bad place.
For years, in order to make my take-no-prisoners policy on cell-phone use during lectures clear to my students, I have opened my first class with a short anecdote. One day my family and I were having lunch together at the kitchen table, when my eldest daughter pulled out her cell-phone and either texted a friend, or checked out some tik-tok video, or whatever. A powerful feeling of primal hatred that had been building up inside me for some time toward these accursed devices that utterly destroy family life and reduce all the wild, wonderful, colorful experiences and adventures of childhood to a tiny, one-dimensional screen full of pixel-generated drek came to a head, and I snapped. Grabbing the phone from my daughter’s hand I ran outside, where across the road from my house there is a large building site. Now, if you’ve ever seen one of those movies where some guy is about to push a button that will launch a nuclear missile that will thoroughly obliterate a mid-size country or some such, and his finger gets agonizingly closer and closer to the button, while those trying to avert this unspeakable calamity are charging toward him with arms outstretched as they shout in slow motion with full Doppler Effect: Nooooooo-aaaaaa-ooooooooo!!!!!!! — well, that’s how it was as I cocked my arm in readiness to hurl the Galaxy ZQTW whatever from my porch to kingdom come, and my family trailed after me gesticulating wildly and begging me to reconsider…and ah, my friends, that moment, that blessed, cathartic moment, in which — ignoring their heart-rending pleas and cries — I let fly the cause of all of our troubles and gazed dreamily as it sailed in a beautiful crescent arc deep into the building site, and I cocked my ears and then…smash!
Then I discovered that it wasn’t my daughter’s cellphone, but my wife’s. True story.
As I say, for years I have told that story to my Israeli freshmen, and it always gets big laughs (as well as achieving its goal: no one dares to even lower their eyes in my class. True, one day my own cellphone rang in the middle of the lecture, and I had no choice but to throw it out the window in order to practice what I preached. Luckily we were on the first floor, and it landed on grass). Last year, however, was the first year in which, immediately after the telling of the tale, no less than eleven students wrote a letter to the department head complaining that my story had, and I quote, “made us uncomfortable because of the level of violence involved.” (They subsequently discovered, to their chagrin, that I am the department head). Three of the eleven signatories were IDF officers. I can just hear our enemies shuddering in their boots…
What kind of culture, then, are we looking for, to replace the present-day, lily-livered one? How do we raise a generation that is (once again) gruffer, rougher and tougher? Do we Jews have to turn every one of our kids into “a wild ass of a man, his hand against everybody and everybody’s hand against him” (Genesis 16: 12) in order to resist the aggressions of – and eventually, perhaps, discover a modus vivendi with – our comparatively robust and feral cousins in the Holy Land? There are those among us who have indeed taken this tack, consciously or otherwise, and are known in Hebrew derogatorily, but with a hint of affection and even admiration, as arsim (rednecks, roughnecks, hoi polloi: as usual the term comes from Arabic, from a root meaning either “spritely” or “pimp”). And it cannot be denied that during the Arab rampages of 2021 it was they – together with some roving bands of settler youth – who finally stood up to the Arab demonstrators, rioters and looters and at least partially took back the streets.
But they also beat at least one innocent Arab man to death, and in general live lives and harbor values that are, well, not entirely my cup of tea. I do not believe that one has to be a boor in order to be a slugger, or a borderline criminal in order to give back as good as one gets. At the end of bootcamp in the IDF they ceremoniously hand you a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other. Albeit this was not, contrary to popular imagination, what the rabbis had in mind when they said: “The book and the sword came down from heaven entwined together” (Leviticus Rabbah, 35) – like good galus Jews, the rabbis meant that if we study the book, we’ll be saved from the ravages of the sword – but there really is nothing that says you can’t simultaneously be a reader and a wrangler, a poet and a gladiator, or that your ability to deck miscreants when they deserve to be decked must perforce go hand-in-hand with a tendency toward wife-beating, racism, thuggery, bullying or what have you. Nothing says this, that is, but the dichotomy set up by today’s progressives between being civilized and being intrepid, between being enlightened and being…badass.
At any rate, it is our challenge and our imperative to re-combine the two, to aspire to the Davidic model: psalmist and general, musician and brawler, pietist and romancer (I say “model” without implying that we should bed our loyal servants’ wives or decimate our prisoners of war. We are free to choose from which aspects of our models we wish to take inspiration). We can be both officers and gentleman, amazons and ladies, we can listen simultaneously to our ids and our super-egos, we can be the rabbinic hero who conquers his urges – but maintains them intact, champing at the bit, ready to explode with all due force when necessary.
I will go a step further: because evil is really three parts selfishness and one part cravenness, and selfishness and cravenness can only be conquered by strength and will-power, people who cultivate mental and physical strength are some of the most moral people I know. Ayn Rand would be mightily disappointed by my fierce, virile, burly army buddies or my athletic, wiry, rough-and-tumble students from the various security services: they stand up for the feeble, give charity regularly, agonize about actions they are forced to take, share whatever they’ve got with their friends, forgive slights, volunteer at old age homes and centers for the handicapped – the works. In short, people who are capable of offering violence with effectiveness can also be really good people.
Of course, I am not arguing that we all have to be, or can be, Mike Tyson. Obviously, we were not all created equal on this score, and the present author has had his derriere handed to him since childhood far more than he has handed the same to others. The point is that we should raise our kids to be ready to try to defend themselves and others physically if and when doing so becomes necessary, and we should encourage them to do so. I wince when I walk past the huge banner hanging over the gate of my kids’ school that says: efes sovlanut le-alimut – “Zero Tolerance for Violence” – because while as a parent I certainly like the idea that their peers will think twice before throwing a chair at one of my children’s heads, I know that to the extent that this slogan is successfully implemented, graduates will most definitely not be ready to defend themselves and others physically out here in the big, wild world.
How much potential violence are we talking about? Well, obviously, as little as possible. But we must beware of taking the easy way out. The present day Western bottom line that discourages and penalizes physical violence under any circumstances is certainly cleaner, clearer, less subjective and simpler to enforce (especially in kindergarten). It is also safer – in the short run. In the long run, however, it is deadly, and so we must not be short-sighted or lazy in this regard. We must not cop out.
We must dive down into the question, realizing that hard and fast rules cannot be made here – we are, it will be recalled, specifically avoiding legislation – but that the creation of general guidelines, principles or parameters is feasible. On the defensive side of the spectrum, we might say that low-level physical violence – a shove, a slap, a punch – should, in most cases, be met with low level physical violence, a response at least equal to, or at most slightly stronger than, the original stimulus. If others can break up the squabble at that point, after tit has been given for tat, all the better: no one wants injury if it can be avoided. On the offensive side, we might de-anathemize the currently anathemized notion that there are indeed certain non-physical stimuli which may call for a physical response: a first strike should not always be seen as the epitome of evil.
Normative, cultural, “honor-based” systems designed to help identify situations in which defensive and even offensive violence is called for have existed in human society for millennia, of course, but nothing says that we must adopt their criteria or parameters: encouraging kids who get punched not to run crying to the kindergarten teacher but rather to give back better than s/he got is not the same as saying that what happened to Emmet Till – the fourteen year-old African-American boy who was lynched in 1955 for supposedly making lewd comments to a white woman – or the horrific, mostly Middle-Eastern phenomenon of “honor killings” of “unchaste” women – are acceptable on any level. We are free, and indeed duty bound, to evolve our own criteria. Is it a slippery slope? Will allowing for any violence at all lead to tolerance of excessive, devastating violence? Honestly, I don’t know. Ask the people who advocate legalizing marijuana and argue that it will specifically prevent the descent into hard drugs. (And perhaps also give a thought to the fact that when we were all kids there was a lot more shoving and punching, and a lot less knifing and school shooting). But at any rate, here in Israel, as we have maintained and striven to demonstrate repeatedly above, tough young Jews inured to low level violence are the best chance we have for avoiding escalation, while at the same time holding onto to the country that is so incredibly dear to us.
Violence must be contained, without question. But it must not be eradicated. The new generation must be toughened up physically and psychologically if it is to survive and flourish. (This is not just true of Jews. On the macrocosmic, international level, Europe and America have one last chance to dispense with their cult of civilized impotence before they are upstaged and overrun by a stronger, less sensitive alliance of China, Russia and the Muslim world).
One last thing: if it sounds like I am advocating that we put our children in harm’s way because what doesn’t kill them will make them stronger, then I deserve to be sucker-punched. God forbid. While we should not turn our kids into daffodils by protecting them from any type of painful experience, physical or emotional, none of us wants to take unnecessary chances, least of all this author. Is a devil-may-care attitude toward our children’s safety essential to the project of toughening them up sufficiently to stand up to the far less coddled offspring of our neighbors? Perhaps. If so, however, then this parent, for one, is ready to compromise the project. “Zero tolerance for violence” should not be our slogan, but neither should it be: “Full tolerance for violence.” I’m still a Jewish dad.
* * *
So how do we toughen up our culture? Three quick action items, for starters:
1/ First of all — and this is key, but most of us are too afraid to say what needs to be said out loud or in print — the ideological underpinnings must be transformed. In a word, we must stop “condemning violence in all its forms.” I will reserve judgement regarding Will Smith’s public physical reaction to Chris Rock’s joke at the Oscars (like hell I will: it was grrrrrrrrrreeeeaaat! Putting aside specific questions about whether the comedian meant to be nasty or nice, whether Jada laughed at the line or whether Smith himself later regretted what he had done, the bottom line is this: a dude stood up in front of a billion viewers and defended his wife’s honor by thwacking another dude. (And no, I’m not going to make that statement duo-directional or unisex in order to render it more palatable. Why? Because, without going all the way down into such an incomparably controversial subject, men and women are different – which is why we use two different words to describe them – and, well: vive la difference!). And while I know I will become a planet-wide pariah for saying so, here goes: I venture that – whether they will admit it or not – most women who saw that video fantasized about their husbands or boyfriends standing up for them in like manner, and pretty much every guy who watched the clip took a swing at the air with his fist and imagined himself having the requisite kahunas to do the same. (The fact that the set of syllables “defended his wife’s honor” – not long ago as basic and indispensable a concept as could be found anywhere in human society – is now enough to send certain readers into apoplectic fits of rage in the course of which tired terms like “patriarchy,” “misogyny,” “male privilege” and “objectification” are howled at the writer and the rest of the universe with a fury that hell hath not – is telling in itself). So let’s stop the knee-jerk, sweeping, catechetical “condemnation of violence in all its forms,” and while we’re at it, let’s reverse the process whereby the category of “violence” is extended to include the realm of the verbal or written, including words that are unpleasant to our ears or conflict with our ideologies, sarcasm, humor, “micro-aggressions” and the like, an extension that makes all of us into airy pieces of cotton fluff that a minor breeze can blow away. It’s not just freedom of speech and thought that is undermined by the new set of totalitarian rules and regulations about what can and can’t be said; it’s our fortitude.
Violence has its place. That doesn’t mean we have to “legalize” it: again, we are not talking about law, we are talking about culture, and whether or not one can sue or prosecute for getting slapped upside one’s head is not the question (whether or not one should sue or prosecute is the question, or at least part of it, and the answer in most cases, especially where no permanent damage has been done, is “absolutely not.” Do not involve the kindergarten teacher!). Rather, the most important question here is: are there times, even if they are few and far between, when relatively mild physical retribution – of the sort that does not maim or kill, God forbid – is warranted, and the answer is: “unquestionably.” The even bigger question is: do we raise our kids – especially (but not only) here in Israel – with the outlook and mettle necessary to make their way successfully through a violent world, and the answer again is: no choice, gotta do it.
2/ The second action item is that every Jewish kid, and Israeli kids even more so, should learn to do stuff with his or her hands, and we should probably have some kind of gap year or at least semester in which they apprentice consecutively to carpenters, mechanics, gardeners, farmers, plumbers, locksmiths, cooks, construction workers, you name it (the vessel for such a gap year actually exists – the fabulously successful program of mekhinot tzva’iyot or “army prep” institutions attended by tens of thousands of Israelis immediately after high-school – and such an apprenticeship program would be a terrific addition to the curriculum). This would be a major boon on so many levels, and who knows? Some of those youngsters might actually take a serious fancy to one or another of these manual professions and – horror of horrors – go on to make a career out of it, helping to fill out the wide bottom of the labor pyramid currently occupied in Israel almost exclusively by non-Jews. This is just classical Zionist theory, and it is still quite germane. As the Hebrew saying goes: mi sheh lo me’abed et ha-adama, me’abed et ha-adama (“Whoso does not work the land, loses the land”). Not just the book and the sword, but the book and the plough, came down from heaven entwined: safra veh sayfa and torah va avodah.
2/ The third and final action item – a complete no-brainer – is Krav Maga or martial arts training for all Jewish kids (and only Jewish kids) in school (maybe in place of “mindfullness” sessions). Again, here in Israel this is a lifesaving must – as well as the key to the “low level violence” that will help us take back our streets and restore our religio-national honor – and the diaspora should follow suit. Seven or eight years ago there was a rash of stabbings on Israeli streets, in which young Arab men would knife, quite often to death, old Jewish ladies, teenage boys and girls, any Jew they could get their hands on, and the Arabic internet was awash with you-tube demonstrations (on dummies with yarmulkas and tichels) of how to “send Jews to hell in two quick strokes.” At the time some friends of mine and I set up a bunch of informal classes for local kids on how to defend themselves from a knife attack and turn the attacker into the victim. That summer my family and I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, and I taught the class there (mixing it with stories of biblical tough types, from Deborah and Samson to Yael and Yiftach). It was a smash, and self-defense classes should be part of every Jewish school curriculum.
Yeah, yeah, I know: it’s really “militaristic,” “masculine-toxic” and just plain racist not to allow yourself be stabbed to death by an Arab assailant. Perhaps we should cease “perpetuating the cycle of violence” and – as Mahatma Gandhi was kind enough to suggest to the Jews at the height of the Holocaust – “offer our throats to the butcher’s knife”? Nah. The Christians never “turned the other cheek.” Why should we? There are, at any rate, no excuses for not knowing how to fight.
Done reading? Finished exercising your yiddische kopf like a good Jew? Now close the computer, go out into the fresh air, and exercise your body like a good Hebrew. Breathe in nature and feel the adrenaline rushing and cause yourself pain and get your hands dirty. Go further still and follow Confucius, who urged: “Act before you think; then, think based on your action.” Experience life immediately, vitally, powerfully, viscerally. And most important of all…
…put up your dukes!