by Daniel Ming
Yonathan Lifshitz, the central character in Amos Oz’s Hebrew classic A Perfect Peace
, is an unmistakable representation of a crucial segment of modern Israel. He is a sabra
(prickly pear) in the most exterior sense of the classic metaphor: rugged, tough, and seemingly hostile. With his thick outer skin, Yoni is not the type of fictional construct that one could easily call a “buddy.” This complex protagonist is Oz’s unsubtle illustration of the archetypal young, native-born Israeli |kibbutznik
. He is disillusioned with the grand projects of his founding fathers, tired of the expectations that his society places upon him, weary of the burden of the hopes and aspirations of the wider Jewish Diaspora for a concrete homeland in which to cement themselves and each other. For the majority of the novel, we are shown a man who has almost literally lost the force of life in him, trapped in the daily motions of his isolated kibbutz and the constricting rituals of Israeli society.
There is a point, however, in which this young kibbutznik
reveals another side of himself. When Yoni finally gets up one morning and decides to leave his homestead, we are shown a much darker, handsome, promiscuous and aggressive man emerging from the repressed, lifeless cynic to whom the reader becomes accustomed. As he walks away from the place that he has long called home, Yoni assumes a long-forgotten identity. He becomes the confident soldier that we see glimpses of in his past; re-embodying the young man who was once decorated with medals for saving his friend during a bloody war and celebrated in a magazine article that he oddly (and at times loathingly) cherishes.
As observers who are occasionally granted access to his inner struggles, we get the sense that Yoni’s experience in the military was deeply disturbing and has left a lasting mental and emotional scar burned into his psyche. He recalls the events for which he was so triumphantly celebrated with an almost obscenely comical tone. These various recollections scattered throughout the novel brought to mind a quotation from Tim O’Brien’s pseudo-memoir of his experience as an American soldier in the Vietnam War. On the subject of war stories, O’Brien claims that, “you can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth…” Obscenity, or, at least a suspension of previously held moralities, seems to mark Yoni’s brief return to the military culture of modern Israel.
The image of Yoni standing by the roadside with his rifle casually hung across his body reminds me of the countless off-duty soldiers that I would curiously and cautiously observe while traveling throughout Israel. They stood, or, more often slouched, in their faded green uniforms with a youthful indifference, unaware of the disturbing symbolism that they carried so unwittingly around (and in) their adolescent bodies. These teenagers and young adults, many of them the same age as me, represented an almost universal Israeli experience of the sabra’s formative years as a soldier. Young men and women, temporarily enclosed within the confines of their nation’s demands, attempt to find a sense of carefree adolescence while enduring several years of mandatory military service. Such service has almost become ritual, a rite of passage in Israeli society that cannot be easily avoided without social consequences.
The implications of this process reach far beyond the simplest political idea of militarism, which is the belief that a people should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it against aggressors. Mandatory military service in the Israeli context forces us to consider militarism in a wider, more societal sense. In this country, it is hard to discern where civilian culture ends and where military culture begins. The reach of this concept involves militarism of the heart and mind, of desire, of the body and soul. Yoni’s entire manner of speaking changes; he becomes cavalier, arrogant and sexually provocative. On a desert army base, he is finally able to find a sexual partner who matches him in temperament, expectations and intensity. Here we can find Oz’s social commentary on the nature of military culture in the Israeli experience. Within this contained setting, a social space emerges in which one can find an accepted outlet for their most destructive self. The forces in this space become aggravated by the particular age group – youth in their ripest, most muscular form, ready to explore the world and themselves – processed through this compulsory service.
While reading the passage of Yoni’s departure from the kibbutz and sojourn to an army base in the Negev desert, my mind jumped once again across the ocean and back to Tel Aviv, where I had the opportunity to see the Batsheva Dance Company (an Israeli modern dance ensemble) perform a few months ago. I was reminded of a particular moment in a piece called “Deca Dance,” choreographed by the prolific Ohad Naharin – who is also quite the sabra himself. In this section, five or six men wearing grey boxer briefs and undershirts stood at the front of the stage in a tight row. With their confident demeanor, tanned skin, toned bodies, and buzzed haircuts, they projected an undeniably masculine sense of confidence to the hypnotized audience. They quickly assumed the idealized image of young Israeli soldiers: uniform, disciplined and sharp, combined with a peculiar quality of brazen, yet casual, poise.
The meaning that I discerned from their appearance became clearer when the men started executing Naharin’s trademark choreography. When the music started, they went through a repetitive series of movements in complete unison, ranging from strong self-affirming poses to slightly sexualized positions. The expressions on their faces were tough, their eyes staring out at the audience in a way that was sometimes confused and more often challenging – as if they were daring us to question the ceremony of their performance. The soundtrack accompanying their dance was a minimalist combination of sounds that could more accurately be described as “counter-music.” It consisted of an incessant ticking noise, making the movements seem all the more urgent and necessary.
One reviewer of the dance aptly claimed that Naharin’s use of repetition was fascinating and celebrated his “hypnotic incremental building up phrases of movement and words so that things change and intensify and become imprinted on one’s consciousness. ” Indeed, the use of repetition did
evoke the sense that these actions were some type of ritual for the men, a series of events that have been imprinted into their lives. In this way, Naharin expressed himself not only as a choreographer in the dance world, but also as an important voice of contemporary Israel. From the many stagings of his work that I have witnessed, I find my experience as an audience member to be much richer if I consider Batsheva as a distinctly Israeli company, and not simply as another random addition to the increasingly globalized modern dance scene. By applying a national lens to such an abstract art form, I am able to discern some sort of message in the forms and movements.
In comparing Narharin’s choreography to Oz’s writings, these parallel themes of militaristic masculinity and repetitive rituals emerge with a transfixing clarity, although I must acknowledge that my readings of both works have been heavily colored by my own experiences and associations. It is entirely possible that these common threads have nothing to do with the actual intentions of the choreographer and writer, and everything to do with my own intellectual and emotional entanglement in the perplexing space of Israel and Palestine. Either way, I believe that the subject of Israeli militarism is made much more intricate and multifaceted when approached through creative reflection. In dance and in literature, this crucial aspect of such an internationally emphasized historical conflict is finally endowed with a human voice.
His full blog can be read at: http://danielming.wordpress.com
1 Hedy Wess, “Batsheva dancers give masterful performance in ‘Deca Dance’,” Chicago Sun Times, February 9, 2009, Arts section.