Our most primal right is the integrity of the Jewish body

Zionism stands for many things, but its deepest self is the assertion that if the world does not recognize this right, it stands condemned.

An image of a kibbutz worker on a 1958 Israeli banknote. Source: Shutterstock
An image of a kibbutz worker on a 1958 Israeli banknote. Source: Shutterstock
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

Some 10 years ago, a well-meaning American college student asked me why Israel did not employ a “long leash” strategy towards Palestinian terrorism. The “long leash,” he explained, is a policy of pushing ahead with a peace process while ignoring the terrorism that might thwart it. When peace comes, the grievances of the terrorists will presumably have been addressed, and the violence will end.

At the time, my response was visceral. Terrorism, I said, is an inherent evil, and must be treated accordingly. Moreover, peace is not and should not be an altar of human sacrifice.

Today, however, I believe there was something deeper at work in my reaction. It was connected to what one might call a primal right, which all people share, but which is particularly emotive, sacred and powerful for the Jewish people.

For Jews, this right is primal in the sense that it goes beyond ideology and pragmatic politics. It is literally a physical right: The right to the integrity of the Jewish body.

This right is sacred to us because, for centuries, the non-Jewish world egregiously violated it. The butcher’s bill need not be enumerated here, but the most monstrous example is obviously the Holocaust. An entire nation and then an entire continent declared that the Jewish body was nothing but an object to be violated—to be reduced to ash, to total nothingness—and then set an enormous mechanism in place to realize this demonic principle.

Today, this principle has become more than physical. It has transformed the violation of the Jewish body into spectacle, a great public event in which all can participate, even those who recoil from the Holocaust itself. The photographs and films of the Jewish body emaciated, slaughtered, reduced to slag or piles of violated bodies to be bulldozed into ditches have their importance—the world must bear witness to the physical reality of the abomination. But a disturbing fascination has grown up around such images that has turned them into a kind of corrupt entertainment.

This is not confined to explicit images from the death camps. I am reminded, for example, of a scene from Steven Spielberg’s film “Saving Private Ryan,” in which a Jewish soldier is stabbed to death by a Nazi. Although the film is, throughout, unthinkably gory, this scene is different. It is played at excruciating length and in relentless close-up, with the death screams and spasms of the Jew going on for an eternity of screen time as the Nazi pushes the knife ever deeper into the Jew’s chest while whispering perverted nothings in his ear.

Clearly, Spielberg had good intentions in this scene. He wanted to underline the sadism and cruelty of the Nazi. But when I saw the scene for the first time, all I could think was that this was fetishization. It would be all too easy for the non-Jew to take a kind of sick pleasure in what they were seeing, achieving a personal catharsis via yet another portrayal of the agonizing destruction of the Jewish body. The non-Jewish world, I sensed, was in love with this. It adored the spectacle of our crucifixion. This could not possibly have occurred to Spielberg, but it was there and it was very, very disturbing.

Above all, I felt, what the scene lacked was a sense of resistance. A sense of the Jew rising up against this fetishization and declaring that the Jews have no interest in seeing their bodies destroyed in order to satisfy such desires.

It is a comfort, however, that there has already been such an uprising. It was best expressed, perhaps, in the great Zionist poet Haim Nahman Bialik’s famous work “In the City of Slaughter,” in which Bialik described in excruciating detail the aftermath of a pogrom. But then he declares, “If there be justice, let it appear now! But if only after my destruction from under heaven, justice should appear, let the throne be hurled down forever!” He declared, in other words, that we are not going to stand for this anymore. If it is to be, then the world stands indicted, and if the world does not change, we will hurl down the throne of the heavens.

It is this primal right that Zionism asserts above all others. Its deepest self is not nationalism, not cultural revival, not liberation, not redemption, not even the land—but the right from which all those derive. It is the right to the integrity of our own bodies, and the assertion that this right is absolute and inviolable. We will not stand for the “long leash.” We will not submit to the violation of our bodies for the sake of the world’s self-regard. The world may refuse, as it often does refuse, to recognize this primal right. But if it does, it stands condemned, and its throne will be hurled down forever.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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