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Waltz with Bashir, Gaza, and the Post-Moral World

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I went to see Waltz with Bashir this week, not suspecting for a moment that the story it told would have anything to do with me.

That, it turns out, is precisely what the film is about. It has to do with everyone who has been in a war here, which is everyone here. It has to do with all those who have succeeded in getting on with their lives by turning a blind eye to, blaming away, repressing, or somehow ideologically reprocessing genuine, tangible horror. It has to do with the fear of memory here, the reluctance to look inward, the quiet terror over what one might actually uncover. And because it has to do with the moral failings of bitter enemies, we are, every one of us, in the movie.

I knew, going in, that the film had to do with the filmmaker, Ari Folman, and his inability to remember his experiences as a 19-year-old soldier during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and, in particular, at the time of the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp massacre.

What I did not know was that, scene by scene, the film was about to invade me, rumble over me and through me, corner me and take me over. I went to see Waltz with Bashir, but it wasn't really seeing that I did. It wasn't long before the film turned visceral. I saw armored personnel carriers and knew how to operate and load and clean the machine guns at their turrets, and I began to feel a fist inside rise from my gut upward until it took my windpipe, still from the inside, and strangled the air out of me, long ago, in a green uniform gone black with sweat, in what I would only later and only for that one instance recognize as claustrophobia.

The Christian Phalangists began emptying their AK-47s into the air, and I could smell the cordite as if they were in the next row.

For the time of war, adrenaline can seem good for whatever ails: claustrophobia, moral qualms, mortal fears, sleeplessness, free-floating anger, free-floating anxiety, depression. When it wears off, there are other palliatives for those of us who get off lucky, alive, limbs intact, minds formally whole. There is survivor guilt, which can manifest itself in self-delusion and/or self-hate and/or political activism and/or political extremism. There is denial. Then there is my personal favorite, a certain silence born of superstition, the sense that if you don't talk about a fortunate near miss, or those killed and crippled in a place you might have been, then it won't happen to you or your loved ones in the cumulative balance sheet of grief.

On January 11, when Waltz with Bashir won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the war in Gaza had been raging for more than two weeks. Without commenting directly on the fighting in the Strip, Folman told The New York Times that the film, which he has called apolitical but anti-war, "will always be up-to-date because something will always happen again."

In a modern climate of diminished reality and computer-generated truth, the honesty of Waltz with Bashir comes as an astonishment. The Times interviewer, somewhat taken aback, responds: "You mean the prospect for peace seems so remote? That's sad."

"But it's true," Folman answers.

Folman's comment, and no less, his film, suggest that we now live in a post-moral world, a world in which, if nothing else, we can discern that both sides to this conflict commit grievous crimes, to little if any lasting effect, other than the injury done the victims on both sides.

If there is to be peace, and this is one of the world's faster growing of all "ifs," perhaps it will be just this post-moral outlook which will save us. For far too long, the attitude of pro- and anti-Israel sides to the wrangling over the Holy Land, has revolved over sophisticated versions of an "I was right all along" approach better confined to a kindergartener's arguments in schoolyard fights.

Perhaps its time we surrendered to what we know to be true, Arab and Jew both: The leaders on both sides lie. That is their job. They resort to war to protect the lies. Lies like "We Will Never Recognize the Enemy." "Our Efforts Will Bend Their Will." "Only If We Demand Our Full Rights Will We Prevail."

We try to look beyond our leaders, to see someone better, but we can see little down the road.

There will be an election here in a week, but there will be no one to vote for. If the Palestinians were going to the polls on Tuesday to decide between Fatah and Hamas, they'd probably feel exactly the same.

The problem goes far beyond elected officials. We have learned from weary experience, that the apologists and apparatchiks on both sides lie. That is their job. We try to look beyond them, but there are too many of them to see beyond.

As Jews, we have come to see the post-moral world as caving in on us. On the eve of International Holocaust Day, the Vatican rehabilitated the post-moral British Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson, who had flatly denied both that 6 million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust, and that any had been gassed.

Classically anti-Semitic incidents have multiplied, with daily reports of hate crimes from Caracas to Turkey.

Meanwhile, Palestinians have every reason to echo the cries of a woman seen at the end of Waltz with Bashir, who calls, in her distress, "Where are the Arabs? They should be rushing here [to help us]!" For all of the concern and identification expressed across the Muslim world, the misery of Gaza remains a tragic constant.

Every night of the three weeks of hell in Gaza and the south, I had a different dream about the war. This is the one that, in retrospect, made sense:

As Ahmadinejad's campaign for June elections stalls, he orders the Hail Mary, ostensibly to avenge deaths in Gaza: a proportional military strike against Israel. He miscalculates, however, and annihilates everything in the Holy Land, Israeli and Palestinian alike, except for the three things that even nuclear holocaust cannot eradicate -- cockroaches, Qassams, and settlement outposts.

Years from now, we may well look back on Waltz with Bashir as a work of rare maturity, a signpost toward a future less enamored of military means to political ends.

Years from now, we may look back on the film not only as anti-war, but, perhaps even more usefully for our purposes and future, a message that our humanity is better left open to the air, than locked away for safekeeping.

This post originally appeared on haaretz.com.