Ari Tatarka

The October 7th Documentary, Begin, and Israeli Identity

National Library of Israel$FL45797653

There exists a documentary, a compilation of the most haunting, blood-curdling, and nausea-inducing atrocities committed by Hamas. This video is just over an hour long, curated from what is reportedly days worth of footage. This film was and continues to be shown to select members of governments, media organizations, and NGOs but is withheld from the public.  

This is understandable, it is perhaps inappropriate to parade the dead for propaganda points, yet one may argue that it is necessary. Israel has been steadily losing the information war since October, the abominations committed by Hamas have been eclipsed in the public consciousness by Gazan casualties.

Despite the valiant efforts of Israeli representatives, it seems in the minds of the world October 7th has been reduced to a number to compare and contrast those of Hamas. Israel faces an uphill battle, humans are visual creatures; the suffering of Gazans is broadcasted on every screen and platform; Israel’s descriptions could never compete. 

As the world’s sympathy wanes the pressure to release the entire video has been mounting, but the decision to publicize is not one without costs. Though not said explicitly, that video is perhaps more deadly than any weapon of Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran can deploy. That video strikes lethal blows to the very soul of the Israeli project.

The question of releasing the video is reminiscent of one that split Israel in its infancy, a debate that questioned the value of Jewish dignity when compared to Jewish survival and what would define the new Israeli Jewish identity.  

In 1952 the young nation was bankrupt, barely surviving on the benevolence of the American Jewish community, the state was struggling to absorb the hundreds of thousands of refugees. In that moment of crisis, West Germany offered 1.5 billion dollars with the stated purpose of refugee resettlement. Only 7 years after the Holocaust, the offer seemed to many Israelis an attempt at exonerating the new Germany of their participation or complacency with Nazi crimes with money stained with Jewish blood. 

For a nation that sprouted from the ashes of the Holocaust, its purpose as a safe haven defined by the extent of its depravity, even speaking to the successors of its perpetrators was tantamount to betrayal.  

The debate tore the country apart, Menachem Begin, later to become the nation’s first non-Labour Prime Minister, stalwartly led the opposition to the offer.

In his dealings with David Ben Gurion, the leader of the majority faction before and after the state’s creation, Begin had repeatedly prevented civil war, placing his love for the Jewish people above political considerations. But for Begin, negotiation with Germany was a step too far. To a crowd assembled to protest the reparations he directed his comments to Ben Gurion, “When you fired at me with a cannon, I gave the order: ‘No!’ Today I will give the order, ‘Yes!'”.  

Begin, a devoted member of Betar, the revisionist Zionist youth movement, was committed to the movement’s idea of Hadar, the reclamation of the eternal dignity of the Jewish people. Begin was committed to the principles of the new post-exile Jew, who was no longer defined by his victimhood but by his strength and resilience, the prospect of Israel surrendering its dignity for survival was unconscionable. 

In his address to the Knesset, Begin emphatically rejected any payment for Jewish suffering. Characteristic of Begin’s traditional upbringing he employed Jewish texts in his speech, pleading with the Knesset, “if there is any substance to the phrase “rather to die than transgress” – then this is where they apply”.  

I draw the comparison to the video of October 7th because, at its most fundamental level, the debate asked what the new Israeli Jew was, a victim or pioneer, a nation of principles or survival. In 1953, Ben Gurion prevailed, the reparations were accepted by the Knesset by a margin of 1, 61-59. That money was essential to the survival of the new state and the resettlement of the refugees, yet the question remains.  In 2024 I believe the video of victimisation at the hands of Hamas revives this question of what Israel should stand for.  

October 7th was not just a physical attack but a spiritual assault on Israel’s identity; the end of the Jew as victim. In some ways, all subsequent actions taken by Israel and its people can be seen as an attempt to restore that identity and answer the question that has lingered since that day; What is Israel if not safety for the Jews?  

The video is that question personified in all its abhorrence, it is akin to watching the destruction of Jerusalem, the pogroms of Khmelnitsky, or the gas chambers of Auschwitz. It is looking unblinkingly into the face of Jewish history and confirming what every Jew has feared most for the last 76 years, nothing has changed, Israel has failed. 

This not to cast the slain as meekly subjecting themselves to cruelty and hatred, Kfar Aza was not Haim Bialik’s City of Slaughter, where “no mighty malediction” arose from the subservient and persecuted Jew. Israelis distinguished themselves for their bravery and resilience on that day of days; the project of the post-exile Jew is alive and well among Israel’s citizens. Yet still, the state failed, and Jews were subjected to the atrocities of Kishinev in the land of their supposed redemption.  

A country is defined by its national imagination. The image of 9/11, the Twin Towers burning as people jump to their deaths, shattered America’s belief in its invisibility and still haunts the American mind. The image of a Naama Levy-Shachar forced onto a truck, her pants bloody and ankles cut, is similarly burnt into the Israeli consciousness and continually assails Israel’s legitimacy.

 Is it the best course of action to tear open that wound wider? To force Israel to undergo further pain and crack its identity?

Publishing that video could help Israel fight the war of public opinion, it will undoubtedly reinforce the front on which Israel has been losing ground since October. But that video confirms our weakness to elicit the world’s sympathy, it is anathema to the self-sufficient pioneering spirit that once defined the nation and casts doubt on Israel’s core mission.  

But I am still unsure, perhaps we must face what happened, look unblinkingly at our failure, and devote ourselves to resisting the conclusion it imposes. Or perhaps the toll it would exact on Israel is too high, it is not for me to say.     

More than 70 years since the debate that divided Israel’s founders, and the question of principle or utility, Begin or Ben Gurion, and what will define the Israeli project remains unresolved.   

About the Author
Ari Tatarka is a student of Politics Philosophy and Economics at Monash University in Melbourne, He previously spent 2 years studying at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem and has been a life long student of the humanities.
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