Alexandre Gilbert

Dialogue with Dorit Shiloh

Dorit Shiloh is a Franco-Israeli writer, translator, and literary critic.

What do you think of the KAN article on the issue of suicides within the IDF?

Dorit Shiloh: The Israeli army has always struggled to acknowledge suicide as a prevalent phenomenon, likely due to the associated shame and guilt. Like any close-knit community or family, the military often avoids openly addressing the subject of suicide. However, suicides have always existed in the army, just like anywhere else. What struck me in the KAN article is that, for the first time, I believe, the army addresses suicide differently by recognizing not only its existence but also its prevalence among soldiers and officers, especially following the horrific events of October 7. What is also striking is that the journalist avoids using the word “suicide.” It is often said that the media prefers not to explicitly mention the word for fear of influencing vulnerable individuals, but they sidestep the issue by using all available terms in Even Shoshan (Editor’s Note: The official and most elaborated Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary in modern Hebrew) except for “suicide.” In the article’s title, they refer to “personal circumstances,” and in the article itself, they mention “personal reasons.” Often, the unsaid can be more powerful or revealing than the said.

A week after the Black Saturday (Editor’s Note: the October 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas on Israeli soil), I learned that a young woman I knew well, a poet and author, had committed suicide. She was a very fragile person who often wrote about her mental health struggles. And there, I read on my Facebook feed that she had passed away, but no one mentioned the cause. I thought the timing was a bit strange. Perhaps she couldn’t endure it anymore? Did the harsh events of October 7 weaken her even more? At the same time, one of my psychologist friends confided that her patients demanded to double the number of sessions, especially those prone to suicide, as they felt much more fragile than usual. It’s as if their internal world was visible to everyone and shared by everyone. I was surprised; I thought people wouldn’t want to come for therapy sessions to talk about their daily troubles anymore, but apparently, since October 8, melancholy and despair have become common words.

A few days later, I stumbled upon a Facebook post and discovered that an incredibly talented young musician, a gentle and fragile soul like my poet friend, couldn’t find the strength to continue, to fight for life, especially after October 7, and took his own life as well. That’s when I came across this Kan article talking about the unprecedented recognition by the Israeli army of soldiers and officers who died under “personal circumstances” or for “personal reasons.” For the first time, they will be called “Halalei Tsahal”: soldiers who died in the line of military service, equivalent to soldiers fallen in combat. The article emphasizes that the army acknowledges that these “personal reasons” are closely linked to the current reality in Israel. I find this both extraordinary and disturbing. Extraordinary because until then, it was like suicide did not exist anywhere, especially not in the army.

Disturbing because, as you know, I am a translator, sensitive to the choice of words. “Dying for personal reasons” is an expression I had never seen in the context of suicide. It signals that the IDF is becoming aware, unlike the Prime Minister and his government. On October 8, Israelis realized that not only did their state institutions fail, but also that their army, supposed to protect them, indeed abandoned them. I think this was the biggest shock; you see, the Israeli army is the people’s army relying on reservists. There is a pact between the army and citizens, and on October 7, the army did not fulfill its obligations; it did not honor that pact. We all felt betrayed and abandoned. The fact that shortly afterward, the army acknowledges the fragile soldiers who couldn’t cope with the atrocities and chose to take their own lives, is part, in my eyes, of the general questioning of the army. Moreover, the article doesn’t provide numbers, but I find it hard to believe that an article is written for a few isolated cases, and unfortunately, this is just the beginning, as the full extent of post-traumatic stress disorder consequences is not yet fully accounted for.

Acknowledging this suffering is also acknowledging your personal history. Do you think it’s a shift in Israeli mentality?

Dorit Shiloh: I’m not sure because Israeli society is quite conservative. You mentioned my personal history; it’s true that I am probably sensitive to the subject because my father committed suicide when I was 30. This article on the Kan site, although one of the leading media, was not front-page news. So, I felt the urgency to share it on my Facebook page, accompanied by an introduction that announces that we haven’t finished counting the bodies. Certainly, this acknowledgment touched me because of my personal tragedy. For me, it’s a first step by the Israeli army towards, I don’t know, towards what… maybe towards redemption. I am, of course, talking about the first days after the terrible shock of October 7. I don’t think we can talk about redemption when dropping tens of thousands of bombs. In this context of violent and desperate war, the episode of acknowledging suicide, this ‘personal reason’ for dying, as if it were equivalent to dying on the battlefield, seems like an island of compassion and empathy in a bloody ocean.

And who knows? If the army takes this step, maybe society will follow. Many conceptions have been shattered during these three months: the idea that Hamas was content in its corner with suitcases full of Qatari money and had absolutely no intention of starting a war; the one criticizing the role of women in the army, claiming that women are not fit for combat. Today, we were just praising the courage of women, mostly civilians, and their heroism. Wherever a woman took the wheel, we managed to confront terrorists and save lives. Perhaps, therefore, we will also manage to break conceptions and preconceived ideas about fragile individuals. They are individuals like any others, wonderful beings facing constant pain, and breaking biases against them could be our next challenge. It gives me hope.

Besides, no one can live without hope: neither Israelis nor Palestinians, no one. If we continue to deprive people of hope, on a personal or national scale, we will continue to die under “personal circumstances,” as individuals, as societies, as states.

The circulation of firearms not only fuels terrorism and school shootings but also suicide and femicides. About 30,000 deaths per year by firearms in the USA, with 10,000 being suicides? What do you think of societies where gun ownership is allowed, such as Israel and the USA?

Dorit Shiloh: I’m not sure where that figure comes from. But of course, on the first day, that scoundrel Ben Gvir said he wanted to distribute guns to everyone, even before October 7. Women’s organizations were against it because we know very well what will happen when civilians, without training or knowing how to handle it, have a gun at home. In fragile family situations, they will target themselves first, women, and children. You know how many women have been murdered here? Before October 7, we couldn’t stop talking about it. And there goes Ben Gvir, already distributing 20,000 guns to anyone, just as long as they don’t have a criminal record, and poof – a gun at home. A journalist from Haaretz went to check how it was going, and he came back horrified. Everyone who applied received a private weapon within two hours, even a man who shot himself in the leg and a woman who never hit the target, not even once.

We tried to put a label on these attacks, ‘pogrom,’ ‘raid,’ in the words of Gilles Keppel. We compared it to Oradour-sur-Glane, the act of completely destroying a village.

Dorit Shiloh: Instantly, my mind turned to Kishinev, and then the conversation shifted towards the Holocaust. Not to mention gas chambers, but rather the sadism, mutilation of bodies, and rape. We discovered the bodies of young girls with legs spread, pelvis mutilated by a bullet. This senseless violence, this lack of compassion, even towards babies. In my view, it’s a pogrom, the return of the Cossacks.

Should we emphasize that behind the October 7 attacks, it’s also a matter of femicides?

Dorit Shiloh: On October 7, Hamas used various weapons such as Kalashnikovs, RPGs, fire, and knives, but an additional weapon was the bodies of women. It’s too painful for me to talk about it further.

Distinguishing a pro-Palestinian from an anti-Semite is simple: a true supporter of the Palestinian cause, like me, like many Israelis, also supports Israel. The future of Palestine as a sovereign, safe, and prosperous state is linked to the sovereignty, security, and prosperity of Israel, and vice versa. One cannot be a Zionist without being pro-Palestinian. Declaring oneself pro-Israel without considering a future Palestinian state is simply racist. Thus, protesters in the United States and Europe proclaiming ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ wish, like Hamas, for the extermination of all Jews. We have already tried this in the past; it didn’t work out too well.”

You are also the Hebrew translator of Romain Gary’s first book, Gros-Câlin, published under the name Emile Ajar, with the cover by Folon, in 1974. That time resembles ours, after the Yom Kippur War, and perhaps even written during the Yom Kippur War. Gary committed suicide in 1980, after Jean Seberg, in 1979. Why did you want to translate this book?

Dorit Shiloh: The idea came to me when I was 19, a photographer in the army, living on a closed base. This means that I only went out on weekends. It was around 1990, a time without the internet, I remind you. During the weekend, we went to the cinema, the theater, and… Do you hear the helicopter? All the fighter jets and helicopters heading towards Gaza pass by here. Just thinking about what’s happening at the other end of their route… And at the same time, not being able to breathe, physically, from morning to night, because I think about all the hostages, all the hostages… about those 19-year-old girls with blood-stained pants in the back… So, I was talking about the theater. Gros Câlin has been translated little, but it has had several theatrical adaptations. It seems that the eccentric character of Cousin, this solitary Parisian in search of love and human contact, and his ability to evoke both laughter and tears simultaneously, naturally fits into the theatrical domain. Thus, in Israel, even though the book has never been translated into Hebrew, actor and director Niko Nitai adapted and performed it for decades. That’s how I, a 19-year-old soldier, not knowing French, got to know Mr. Cousin, and I was completely captivated by his charm.

At the time, my father was still alive, of course, and I knew very little about Gary, let alone suicide. Death – yes. Like Obelix and the magic potion – we Israelis fall into the cauldron when we’re little. Already in kindergarten, one of the Israeli athletes murdered in the Munich Olympics was the father of a schoolmate. During the Yom Kippur War, my father is on the northern front and loses many friends. At 12, my middle school teacher, Zvi Feldman, goes missing in Lebanon in the terrible battle of Sultan Yacoub. He never came back. I still think about him, by the way. And it was just the beginning. But suicide, I didn’t know.

“At the time, what tore my heart was the fact that Mr. Cousin lived in Paris, such a big city, with millions of inhabitants, and yet was so alone. He adopts Gros Calin, a 7-foot python, and no one understands him, but in his head, everything is clear; he is so unloved, if not at all, and yet happy. I saw the play four or five times, but I still haven’t managed to understand. That’s when I told myself that I had to learn French to read the book. However, I only managed to understand this extreme loneliness a few years later when I found myself in Paris, alone in a two-room apartment, like Cousin. But without a reptile. Gary signed it Ajar and published it in 1974. Six years later, he shot himself in the head.

Afterward, translating such a book is another story. Gros Câlin is an exceptional work. Its innovation surprised the French audience, and for a good reason. The French language in which it is written breaks all syntactic conventions. Fragments of words, fragments of proverbs, inventions and innovations that have everything: creativity, intuition, humor, and even morality, but no logic. The French language of this novel is as strange as its protagonist, Cousin. Often, I felt like I was translating the book not from French but from “Cousinese” into a Hebrew language that does not yet exist, and it’s up to me to invent it. The day the book came out was one of the most emotional days of my life, including defending my PhD thesis, marriage, divorce.

Speaking of my translations, the Hebrew version of Pierre Lemaitre’s “Au revoir là-haut” was released just before the outbreak of the war. Unfortunate timing for a 614-page book that opposes the war. The Haaretz review emphasizes that, although the book is praised, it is currently difficult for Israelis to read due to its graphic descriptions and scenes of war or terrible injuries. We are now 100 days after October 7, and we have not finished discovering the atrocities that happened here, in our home. We are still immersed in the graphic scenes of the massacre committed by Hamas. Add to that the images coming out of Gaza… it’s impossible to find a place in the soul for such a book. Too painful.

Previous articles:

*Dialogue avec Marie-Frédérique Bacqué
*Dialogue with Alexandra Fleischmann
*MBK: « le suicide est une forclusion de l’Autre »
*Y.M. : « La violence psychologique est la racine du mal »
*Margaux Mérand, la Maladie du Faux-soi

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.
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