The Celebrated Murderer, A Phenomenon on Both Sides of the Israel-Palestine Divide

Yesterday, an old Israeli “war hero” died. His name was Meir Har-Zion. He was a veteran of the Israeli military in its formative

Meir Har-Zion in 1954

Meir Har-Zion in 1954

years after the creation of the state, and we should look very carefully at the re-telling, upon his death, of an incident that took place in 1954.

The incident was an act of vengeance that Har-Zion, along with several accomplices, enacted in response to the killing of his sister, Shoshanna. We’ll get to it in a minute. But first, let’s understand how Har-Zion is viewed in Israel.

Moshe Dayan called Har-Zion “the greatest Jewish warrior since Bar Kochba.” That’s a description we should take a close look at. Bar Kochba is a Zionist icon, and a symbol of the nationalist revision of Jewish history. For most of pre-Zionist Jewish history, Bar Kochba was a very divisive figure, but the majority view of him was negative. He was seen as a false prophet (which he undoubtedly was) who duped the greatest religious figure of his day, Rebbe Akiva ben Yoseph (though some argue that he was not actually involved with Bar Kochba’s revolt) into supporting him and eventually led the Jews to final defeat and exile at the hands of the Romans.

Modern Zionist historiography searches within Jewish history and mythology for symbols that show fierce fighters and intolerance of the view of the Jewish person as meekly accepting the life of an exile, the eternal “stranger in a strange land.” Bar Kochba is thus revised and presented as a heroic, albeit tragic, figure whose messianism is downplayed and his determination to free his people from Roman domination is his defining characteristic.

Bar Kochba’s failure against the might of Rome, long viewed by most Jews as a cautionary tale against following false messiahs (thus encouraging skepticism of any who would claim to be the long awaited descendant of King David who would lead the Jewish people back to Zion), thus became a founding myth of Israel. This transformation is also a powerful symbol of the negation of the Diaspora in Zionist historiography and ideology. And it fits with Har-Zion, who was a violent man who, to the end of his days supported the most violent and hardline Israeli policies.

Some other descriptions of Har-Zion:

Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s current Defense Minister: “(Har-Zion was) one of the greatest warriors in the history of the IDF — an audacious, distinctive commander whose influence in molding generations of fighters and units was pivotal.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres: “He was a legend already in his own time, and if not in his own eyes, then in the eyes of all those who knew his bravery.”

Ariel Sharon, Har-Zion’s commander in Unit 101: “In a short while, Har-Zion became the most daring fighter of Unit 101 and among the paratroopers, and also an excellent soldier, maybe the best the IDF has ever known.”

So that is how Har-Zion was viewed by Israel’s leaders. Now, as to that incident of revenge, I think it’s worthwhile to transpose the description of it that appeared in the Times of Israel. I’m changing names and a few other details to transform it from a report on an Israeli “war hero” to a similar one that could be written about a Palestinian “freedom fighter.”

I do this because when I see Palestinians who killed innocent Israelis, even women and children, I feel the same revulsion I think many in Israel do, although in a political context I often support the decision to do so. For me, though, that revulsion has no connection whatsoever to the identity of the killer or the victim. I see no honor and no glory in killing the innocent, nor any value in vengeance, especially against those who had nothing to do with the crime being avenged.

So I think it worthwhile to consider the story as if it happened with the roles reversed. Often that is an academic exercise, but in this case, reversing the roles conjures up images that fit very well with actual events. I encourage you to read the original Times of Israel article, without which the contrast is much less apparent. Here is my version:

On December 23, 1954, his beloved sister Suha was murdered along with her friend Musa Ibrahimi while hiking in enemy territory, in the Judean Desert.

Sa’adi retired from the armed brigades. His plan was clear: to avenge her death. His cell’s leader tried to talk him out of it but also told his commander to make sure that, if he set out, he be well equipped enough to return, too.

He left the West Bank with weapons and six of his mates from the brigades. The squad crossed into Israel, caught five men from the army unit that had killed Suha and Musa and killed four of them. They let the fifth go free and instructed him to tell the tale.

Sa’adi was arrested by the local Palestinian leaders in Ramallah upon his return. He was jailed for 20 days and banished from the militias for six months. 

If this man, Sa’adi, died today with this story in his background and was celebrated as a hero after murdering four innocent Israelis and facing almost no retribution for his acts, and was talked about in the Occupied Territories the way Har-Zion is in Israel…well, let’s just say the howls of “incitement” and laments over the “celebration of killing Jews just because they are Jews” would be deafening.

My friend Sol Salbe pointed out these articles on his Facebook page. My thanks to him for that, but let me also quote him, because his last sentence summed it up very well: “Keep this in mind if you ever post anything about Palestinians ‘praising their terrorists’ while I’m alive and at the key board.” Because, like Sol, I and all of us need to mindful of how it looks when the shoe is on the other foot.

End note: If you’re interested in the transformation of Bar Kochba, among other changes Zionism brought to the traditional Jewish understanding of our own history and mythology, I cannot recommend strongly enough the book by Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. It’s well worth your while and will help you in understanding the powerful impact (not all of it, I hasten to add, negative by any means) Zionism has had on the Jewish collective memory and, therefore, collective state of mind, in and out of Israel. 

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