Prompted by Israel’s invasion of Gaza in January 2009, the following text by artist Roee Rosen and the response by anthropologist Vyjayanthi Rao examine the public articulation of conflict, specifically the military acts in the current Israeli Palestinian conflict. Rosen posits that the comedic mode, which has yielded innocuous names for aggressive military actions, is a core trait of Israeli law in that it reaffirms itself by negating the premise on which it is built. Vyjayanthi Rao develops a narrative of the law as protagonist in a temporary situation. Sovereignity, electoral processes and performativity were alluded to in the exhibition OURS: Democracy in the Age of Branding.
Roee Rosen is an Israeli-American artist and writer, living and working in Israel.
Vyjayanthi Rao is Associate Professor of Anthropology at The New School.
Rosen’s text was written before Benjamin Netanyahu’s election as prime minister in spring 2009.
The Law is Laughing: Fragments Following the War in Gaza
1. The Comic Mode of the Occupation
The name of Israel’s recent war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, was taken from a Hanukkah nursery song that Israeli children know by heart. It was penned decades ago by Chaim Nahman Bialik who in Israel is known as the national poet (the complete line reads, “My uncle bought me a dreidel made of cast lead”). When a mass killing in which hundreds of Palestinian children are slaughtered in about three weeks has a name conjuring innocent childishness, we are faced with a vile joke. The comic bent of the occupation army and of Israeli law is persistent and has its own distinct literary style. Its poetics can be recognized in a long sequence of names offering a variety of reversals—a war being called “peace” in Operation Peace of the Galilee (the first Lebanon war, 1982); a destructive offensive rendered in terms of constructive defense in Operation Defensive Shield (2002); the horror of assault on the city of Rafah in Southern Gaza cloaked under a name of faux pastoral lyricism in Operation Rainbow in a Cloud (2004).
To set into relief the uniqueness of this comical lyricism, one need only mention the American offensive Operation Desert Storm, an infantile, repulsive name inspired by war movies, but undoubtedly a name without concealed smiles. In Israel, these reversals of meaning are ubiquitous and go beyond the naming of wars, so much so that they are routine presuppositions of daily life. In 2003, for example, I wrote about how a news story was seen as “positive” because it reported on the reduction in the jail-time sentencing for what are called “administrative detainees,” prisoners who are never put on trial, and hence for whom a legal sentence actually doesn’t exist. This amounts to a legal action that contradicts its own premise – or a joke by which the law negates itself.
2. The Comic Mode and the Law as the Criminal
A philosophical insight to which I frequently return is Gilles Deleuze’s claim that the comic mode is the only way to destabilize the law. A law such as “thou shalt not kill” is premised on the possible action of the killer. Thus, on the structural level, crime affirms, justifies, and solidifies the mechanism of the law. The comic response to the law (for instance, the masochist’s eagerness to be punished regardless of his innocence or guilt) may confound, confuse, and undo the structure and the meaning of the law. How then can one reconcile the comic mode of Israeli law with the transgression of law that the comic mode is supposed to entail? The answer lies in the fact that, with the advent of the occupation, Israel became a state whose law is based on its own negation. The occupation refutes the notion of the border as the basis of national sovereignty. Once the concept of the border has been negated, the state itself must diligently and persistently act to obfuscate its borders and disavow its sovereignty, from which follows the negation of the presupposition that the state’s inhabitants are its citizens, and thus the very concept of citizenship is negated as well. (It should be noted that, in Hebrew, the word “ezrakh” is used both for “citizen” and “civilian,” a subtle conversion that makes citizens into mere civilians distinct from military personnel.) The comic resonance is thus the result of a condition by which the state itself negates the concept of the law. The lawmaker—the state—is the criminal.
3. Without the Facade of a Law
National law, of course, is never innocent, but its rules and operations are premised on a simulation, appearance, and facade (of goodwill, justice, ideals, and values) that cannot be maintained once the negation of the foundation of the national law (the border) becomes the explicit appearance and the constitutive structure, that is, once certain crimes explicitly appear as law. In this sense, I do not wish to claim that Israel’s crimes are worse than those of other nation-states (for example, the United States’ crimes in Iraq), but rather to understand the special pathologies stemming from this disintegration of the relation between appearance and action, law and crime, transgression and comicality. Thus, for example, one can imagine an American citizen who actually believed George W. Bush’s axis-of-evil rhetoric, but it is impossible to imagine an Israeli citizen who would be deluded enough to think that the Israeli government would like to turn the Palestinians of the occupied territories into Israeli citizens. This is why the murderer is unabashed when joking: there is no facade to keep.
4. The Unique Comicality of Criminal Law: A Nameless Comicality
When the law is constituted on its own negation, its comic mode is not set against the law (as Deleuze understands humor and irony). This comic mode is not driven by a discontent with what is (for instance, as a defiance against wrongdoing or a reaction to fear or horror), but is rather prompted by a paradoxical attempt to stabilize and preserve the law in its condition of self-negation. Such comicality, of a criminal sovereign, is akin to cynicism, but does not fully correspond to it. We are dealing with a nameless comic mode.
5. The Legal-Illegal and the Illegal-Illegal
In my novel Ziona™ (2006), there is a minor character, Ma’adan (formerly Gordon) Dukas, who settles in a caravan on hill number 547, which he calls Tel Or (Hebrew for Mount Light): “a one-man settlement of the illegal-legal-legitimate kind (to be distinguished from the illegal-illegal-legitimate kind, and from the illegal-illegal-quasi-legitimate kind).” When the law negates itself, it perpetuates a dynamic, ever-expanding system of legal activity aiming to establish comic distinctions between legally approved crimes (the crime that is not a crime), and between those crimes that are still defined as crimes. This legal bustle is characterized by dizzying hyperactivity, and even though, by its very nature, it aspires to remain discrete, its signs cannot help but pop up in the media. Thus one can read about the versatile actions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), specifically the department of international law and its attorney’s office, whose primary goal is to render kosher those illegal military actions such as the killing of civilians (Haaretz magazine, January 23, 2009).
Then there is the plan to “incriminate,” after the fact, every house bombarded during Operation Cast Lead—the creation of a dossier for each target that documents its hostile use—a plan whose natural offshoot ought to be the incrimination of every murdered child. There is also the exposure in the media of a governmental database, deemed secret by the defense ministry, that documents the fact that the vast majority of the settlements in the occupied territories—“The Legal Illegal”—are unlawfully expanding, building with no authorization on a massive scale, often on private Palestinian lots (Haaretz magazine, January 30, 2009). This database reveals that which is still “Illegal-Illegal” aspiring to become a “Legal-Illegal” as well, an activity in which practically all Israeli governments have engaged since the occupation, with varying degrees of concealment.
6. Values as Phlegm; Values as Zombies
When the law is its own negation, its comicality is like spasmodic coughing. The phlegm(s) secreted during such coughing fits are cherished values that are converted into refuse. In Operation Peace of the Galilee, the value that became refuse is the longing for peace. And in Operation Cast Lead, in its extraction of its name from a nursery song, the value/waste is the sensitivity to the lives of children. Values are the living dead—matter ejected that ever returns from within: an uncanny zombie. This explains why someone who holds the value as if it were fully alive (an Israeli mourning the murder of Palestinian children) might be intimidating and threatening, to the point of being called a criminal (a traitor). As zombie values resurge as the Unheimliche, there is a correlation between the Israeli psychological reactions used to cope with, for instance, the murder of children, and the major comic mechanisms described by Deleuze: disavowal as the mode of the masochist (e.g., we murder despite the terrible pain we feel; we murder because there is no choice; we kill as few as we can; our suffering and our attempt to save those we did not have to kill attest to our humanity; we, in fact, do our best to save lives by killing) and negation as the mode of the sadist (Hamas is responsible; it is the Palestinians who put the children in harm’s way; they murder themselves through the mediation of our weapons, hence, we do not murder).
Comic coinage in this situation is the zombie residue of values the law is supposed to affirm, that is, when it could still be “seriously” grasped as a law—the era when it could still be said without a bitter smile that Israel aspires to be a democracy, sovereign within its established borders. Think, for example, of a relatively bland product of the law, meant to signify humanism, abidance by international law, and the fear of hurting civilians: a procedure the IDF calls “knock on the roof,” that is, shooting “mild” ammunition at the roofs of people’s houses in Gaza before deploying heavy ammunition that will eradicate the house and kill those who stay inside it. The name “knock on the roof” cannot but be associated in the Israeli memory with the infamous “neighbor procedure” (the army’s use of Palestinian fighters’ family members and friends as human shields in the attempt to lure them out of houses during the second Intifada). These names remain as verbal comic loci of zombie values.
7. Measured Crime
The comic phlegm, as well as the crimes themselves, has a dimension of proportionality. Thus, for instance, exceedingly cruel and prohibited cluster bombs were used against the civilians of Gaza and phosphorous weaponry was used against Lebanon, however the criminal measures that will be taken against the demonstrators in Bil’in, Palestine, who protest weekly against Israel’s separation wall, will be more moderate (as many of the demonstrators are Jewish Israeli citizens)—with an occasional comic resonance. Among the diversity of such measures, the Israeli police recently introduced The Skunk, an armed vehicle splattering demonstrators with jets of noxious fluid. Thus, for humanitarian activists, the law reserves the more gentle reversal—that of treating protestors like criminals. This proportionality, however, is fluid, ever seeking opportunities to redraw its lines. War is such an opportune time. While the headlines were busy with Operation Cast Lead, tiny news items informed the Israelis that the Bil’in demonstrators were now being shot with 22 millimeter bullets, long declared illegal after their deadly potential was recognized.
8. Haaretz: The Criminal’s Expression
It is difficult to add much to Noam Chomsky’s exhaustive analysis of the way consent is manufactured by the media. Consent necessitates gaining the favor of those who perceive themselves to be critical and enlightened through a newspaper that has the appearance of integrity, criticality, and autonomy in relation to the law: in the United States, the New York Times (for example), rather than the tabloids, and in Israel, Haaretz.
During the war, the structures described by Chomsky were clearly reflected in the headlines of Haaretz. The daily number of Palestinians killed appeared customarily at the end of the bylines (if at all), and details of the killings were usually scarce and marginalized and accompanied by no images. The general composition of the daily, with the reports of Amira Hess (the only journalist who delivered substantial information from Gaza) relegated to page 8 or 9, reduced Hess’s contribution to almost that of an Op-Ed. But what went beyond Chomsky’s reflections were instances in which Haaretz portrayed the imagined nation as a singular, unified entity with its own collective psychology—that of the criminal. This is how, for example, Haaretz framed the United Nations’ call for a cease-fire in a big headline on page 2: “Israel’s Friends Sarkozy and Bush Disappoint in the UN” (January 11, 2009). The “disappointment” over the fact that the “friends” do not approve of the crime and decline to oppose the UN’s resolution is not given in quotes. The disappointment doesn’t even reside in dismay over the position of a right-wing leader. The disappointment is not a response to the news either (against which other reactions can be fathomed, such as relief and strengthened hope for a cease-fire). Rather, the disappointment itself is the news reported: “I” am disappointed¬—“I,” that is to say “we,” are disappointed, and we will to continue “our” war in Gaza by the criminal power that is the law.
From within the comicality of the law can be understood the radical dimension of the call of a thinker such as Ariella Azoulay who argues for a serious, willful return to the notion of citizenship, and for the active assertion of a civil domain. In relation to the law as such, the coinage “a good citizen” might indicate conformism, obedience, and a normative stance, but in a law-negating state, good citizenship might be seen as a mutiny.
10. War Crime as a Political Qualification; The Timing of War
If the state is criminal, it stands to reason that part of its leader’s job qualifications would include an ability to be a criminal, and since the problems at hand are no less than existential, white-collar crimes would not suffice: the leader should be a war criminal. This is why Ariel Sharon epitomizes the “leader” in the national imaginary. Sharon is the leader who was found unfit by a federal committee to serve as a defense minister following the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon (1982), and became a highly popular prime minister, not in spite of his crimes, but because of his proven ability to negate the law. This sheds some light on the timing of massive killings right before or after national elections: the second Lebanon war left about 1,000 Lebanese dead two months after an election and Operation Cast Lead left at least 1,300 Palestinians dead (of whom at least 410 were children according to Be’Tselem data of January 28, 2009) two months before an election. During election time the burden of murderous proof lies with the prospective leader, especially if the suspicion can be raised that his or her heart is not cold enough.