"The Culture of Death in Israel"

Comments by a Canadian psychotherapist on Avi Mograbi's film about the Masada and Samson Suicide Myths

By Judy Deutsch | 2007-04-01 12:00:00

in his film Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, Israeli director Avi Mograbi documents what he calls the "culture of death" in the psychology of Israel the occupier. Mograbi does this by showing how Jewish youth at various ages are taught the Samson and Masada suicide myths. Briefly, the Masada story is a historically inaccurate account of 960 Jewish people under siege who decide to kill themselves rather than surrender to the Romans. Samson is a suicide hero - he is a powerful man turned humiliated prisoner and he pulls down the pillars of the Philistine temple with the intent of killing as many others as possible when he commits suicide. Mograbi juxtaposes scenes of adults inculcating and indoctrinating these myths to Jewish youth with other scenes showing how Israeli soldiers mistreat Palestinian civilians. He also records phone conversations he has with a Palestinian friend who is under siege by Israel in the Occupied Territories, to hear with immediacy what it is like to be humiliated and deprived of all freedom. In the film Mograbi shows parents, teachers and guides who glorify suicide terrorism by Jews while appearing to be completely oblivious to their own double standards.

The Israeli Palestinian conflict is fraught with a political and psychological complexity that is often reduced to simplistic polarities of good/evil, the clash of two civilizations, democracy/autocracy. When it comes to understanding and defending Israeli actions, the justification is usually the threat of suicide terrorism and Israel's need for security. Unchallenged is the corollary that suicide terrorism is the expression of fanatical fundamentalism, that it derives from Islamic beliefs or from the pathology that is attributed to religious extremist families.

Occupation and Terrorism

A very different finding comes from University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, who has compiled the largest data base on suicide terrorism. As published in The American Conservative, he finds that occupation and not fundamentalism is the common thread in suicide terrorists. When occupation ends, so does terrorism.

Overall, Mograbi shows the disturbing and ominous disconnect and denial by the occupiers, particularly by the adults who are in positions of authority vis-a-vis children and adolescents. On field trips to Masada, guides point out the watchtowers and "separation wall" that the Romans erected and of the heroic resistance of the Jews, and they speak of deprivation and humiliation suffered by Jews. Yet no one in the film connects these ancient watchtowers and walls with what current Israelis do to Palestinians. Instead, there is a pervasive reversal of reality in which the Israelis rationalize all manner of punitive behavior with the claim that they are victims. Mograbi shows adults' insistent and persistent identification with these ancient stories of endangered Jews. One effect of this fantasy of victimization is the sense of entitlement to do whatever it takes to ensure safety, to guiltlessly identify with the aggressor.

Can myths really have such an effect on behavior? Psychodynamic understanding of children and adults elaborates on Mograbi's compelling observations. To understand the effect on young children, it is important to keep in mind that children feel and think differently from adults -they have more confusion about what is real, have much anxiety about losing control, feel vulnerable to feelings of humiliation, and are completely dependent on parents and teachers. Mograbi shows in many scenes how adults stimulate or intensify the poignant anxieties of each phase of childhood. The adults recounting the Samson and Masada myths seem unaware that their children might feel frightened or confused. Parents do not "feel with" their children's anxieties. The disconnect between the adults and their children's feelings works against critical thinking; when children's confusions and fears go completely unnoticed, children also stop noticing and they too become unquestioning in their attitudes.

The psychological richness of Mograbi's observations comes from the day-to-day details of how grown-ups teach children. In one family, the father tells with relish that Samson saved Jews from extinction. When Samson went to Gaza, "the lion wanted to kill Samson the Hero but he tore him apart with his bare hands. When he returned from Gaza, Samson the Hero took the bounty of honey he'd found inside the lion. He had a spiritual power. Every punch of his would kill 10,000 people." What does it feel like for children to hear this from their father? At an early age when children's ability to control themselves is precarious and they fear others can be as out of control as themselves, their father tells them that it is heroic to greedily mutilate a lion's body and kill innumerable people.

Samson's Eyes

In another family, the parents tell their young son about Samson while they mold figurines of Samson and the temple pillars. The father repeatedly tells his son about Samson's eyes: "[Samson the hero] was blind.... They had blinded him.... They poked his eyes out. And he couldn't see ....[he]made everything tumble down, killing 3,000 people that day. That was more people than he'd killed in his lifetime. We have to make holes for eyes because he had no eyes. They had poked his eyes out. Look at the eyes mom made [she carefully pokes two holes]." For young boys and girls, hearing about body injuries is particularly frightening, and "eye for an eye" punishment still feels very real and possible. What is it like for a boy to see his mother so comfortably poke out Samson's eyes, even in plasticine? Again, these parents are out of touch with how the story could affect their son.

In a secular primary school, a female teacher evocatively lectures: "Imagine the situation. Samson is blind but he can still hear the crowd's cheers of jubilation, the mocking laughter. Do you think he accepts his fate? Try to get into his mind, into his thoughts. Who wants to imagine what's going through his head?

Several boys vie to answer. One boy says "He may think he'd better commit suicide than be defeated by the enemies who tortured him. Moreover, committing suicide means that he can control how he dies. If they kill him no one else will be hurt. But if he commits suicide he can kill a lot of Philistines." There is much pleasure and excitement in the class as teacher and children talk of vengeance. Sidestepped is the age-appropriate task of developing a working conscience and bearing moral tension. And certainly the teacher feels no uneasiness expressing excitement about suicide/murder.

When one group of teens is asked to choose how they would respond to siege at Masada, most cheerily opt for suicide terrorism. Mograbi films several groups of adolescents at Masada: one guide hypnotically instructs a group of coed teens to close their eyes and imagine what it felt like to be under siege. The guide's language is manipulative as he continuously switches back and forth between "you" and "we," pulling for identification with the ancient Jewish victims and blurring the option of personal choice and responsibility. Again, there is a powerful invitation to sidestep individual anxiety and join the group, whereas a central adolescent task is forming one's own ideals, which involves questioning authority.

For another group of young men, some with beards and dreadlocks, the aura of Samson provides a way to feel powerful, allowing their notions of masculinity to remain facile and undeveloped. They say to one another "Samson the Hero was one hell of a Rastafari." If people call for help, "Samson comes: boom!" "Samson was like Popeye." "The spirit of God took hold of him. Boom! Who will take me on?"

Mograbi shows adults who entice youth to group identification through sexualized excitement: at a far-right Kahane rally, an older rock singer arouses young males to a frenzy, singing "avenge but one of my two eyes upon Palestine Revenge, revenge, revenge, revenge....upon Palestine." There is an unquestioned conflation of ancient Philistine and modern Palestine -- a fast track way to feel masculine. An older male guide at Masada admonishes attractive female adolescents to avenge his sister's death, and Occupation is re-cast in sexualized terms:

"She [a mother at Masada] knows that she will become a sex slave, that her child will fall into the hands of some pedophile and who knows what'll happen to him. None of those occupiers enter a house as enlightened men. They didn't just move on when they saw a woman after fighting for years in some desert. No! They unleash their urges. They don't think twice. They are not like us."

There is no standard of objectivity here as the guide conflates Romans and Palestinians, depicting Jewish women as the sexualized objects of desire. He seduces these teenage girls into enacting a sexualized battle in which he is the excited voyeur.

By stirring up anxiety and offering heroic and exciting fantasy solutions, adults and children collude in not acknowledging reality and in not sustaining the personal tensions that go with real mastery. Emotions in this film are often inappropriate to the situation shown. Mograbi films Israeli soldiers who are emotionally flat, impervious to the personal experience of Palestinians. British sociologist Stanley Cohen also notices this:

"On many occasions in Israel, though - watching soldiers blow up Palestinian houses or bulldoze their olive orchards to make way for settlement - I cannot remember seeing shame in any soldier's face. Even when witnesses are noticed and allowed, they can be ignored."

The Power of Myth

Coming back to an essential question: what is the effect of these stories? The myths, and the way they are taught, provide a compelling enticement to disavow the facts, to opportunistically see themselves as victim and aggressor in order to feel both exonerated and powerful, and to experience pleasurable excitement in these roles. For a brief time last summer, the Israeli incursion into Gaza was called Operation Samson. As early as 1991, preeminent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh called Israel's nuclear weapons its "Samson option."

How does this become acceptable to individual people? Clinicians working with families often notice how disavowed wishes and character traits are foisted on other family members and become self-fulfilling prophecies. In families, the modes of manipulation are observable. Do Israelis provoke Palestinian aggression as a way to justify Israeli revenge and ambitions? Does this happen as Israeli's interact with Palestinians at checkpoints, in prisons, in the interchanges of daily life? Early childhood beliefs can continue to distort perception and influence behavior. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe writes that

"militarist nationalism was thus in constant need of achievement but also required, and was given, enthusiastic feedback from many young Israelis, whose indoctrination was underway from infancy."

Mograbi shows another way out - he himself comes to exemplify a morally engaged and appropriately enraged citizen. At the end of the film he confronts young soldiers with their shameless behavior toward Palestinian children at a checkpoint. And he dedicates the film "to my son Shaul and to his friends who refuse to learn to kill." Mograbi's courageous observations suggest that it is timely to look at the psychological mechanisms in dire situations, particularly when it involves conscription, incarceration, and killing of children.

Judy Deutsch works with children and adults in therapy and psychoanalysis.


Cohen, Stanley. 2001. States of Denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering. Oxford: Polity, p. 257.

Freud, Anna. 1965. Normality and pathology in childhood: assessments of development. New York: International Universities press.

Hersh, Seymour. 1991. The Samson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb. London: Faber & Faber.

Pappe, Ilan.2004. A history of modern Palestine: one land, two peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, p. 176.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2007

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2007, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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