TAU Philosophy Dept.
To unlearn the language of occupation
The protagonists of Silvina Landsmann’s film were born two or three years before the end of the first Intifada, the uprising of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories. They are the new Israeli citizens, for whom serving as soldiers in the occupied territories is a natural part of their upbringing – a phase separating childhood from citizenship. Their mother tongue is the language of occupation – that of structural injustice and daily human rights violation, of oppression and disregard for the Other’s right to freedom, dignity and prosperity – and studying civics is, for them, the acquisition of a foreign language, that of liberal democracy.
The film is a depiction of a civics studies course, i.e. of the process by which soldiers are re-introduced into civic life, but it is also, in itself, a study in civics – a radical attempt at defining a new notion of citizenship suitable for our times. Israel’s abnormal political status – a liberal democracy engaging in an ongoing occupation – should in my view be seen more generally, as a symptom of the practical bankruptcy of the liberal democratic viewpoint nowadays. The occupation is in many ways – legally, officially, and even, in a way, morally – an exception in the Israeli social and political landscape. Israeli democracy has allowed this exception to take place for more than four decades, through a series of double-standard policies that maintain democracy, freedom and human rights within Israeli society, while denying these same rights, suspending the implementation of the same values, in the occupied territories. Such a double-standard morality is typical, in my view, of contemporary liberal democracies in the West. The case of Israel is no doubt an extreme one. Two major examples – less strikingly acknowledged – of the same fallacy are the United States’ war politics of the last decades, and the European Union’s profit-oriented policy underlying the inclusion of new member states and its policy vis-à-vis the financial crisis of recent years.
The collapse of liberalism emerges in Landsmann’s film in almost every interaction between teachers-citizens and pupils-soldiers. To put it bluntly, the teachers – as good as their intentions may be – are helpless. They master, and full-heartedly cite, the textbook of liberal democratic maxims, but their pupils seem to know much better about civics, inasmuch as this discipline aspires to reach reality beyond the textbook.
Struggling with notions such as freedom, human rights and equality, they try to reconcile them with the hard reality of occupation – unwilling to cooperate with the implicit liberal democratic requirement of liberal democracies today, to turn a blind eye to “exceptions” and adhere to a double-standard morality.
The filmmaking of Landsmann is a brave attempt at reviving the humanist position of the intellectual as a critical observer and reformer, involved in her flesh in the fabric of society. Here, the filmmaker, rather than the school teacher, paves the way for these soldiers to become citizens – offering the society in which the film was created a clear view of the impossibility of citizenship as it is prescribed in the textbook, and suggesting a framework for the emergence of a new notion of citizenship, fit for our times, and of new citizens – ingenuous, responsible, human – for the times that will come.
Nimrod Matan, January 2012