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Drawing National Boundaries for Israel

The influence of myths and emotions

RUBBER BULLETS: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel

By Yaron Ezrahi

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Farrar, Straus & Giroux 308 pp., $25

In "Rubber Bullets: Power and Conscience in Modern Israel," Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli academic and peace activist, combines remarkable imagination and insight with a graceful, evocative style. His superb book offers perhaps the wisest exploration thus far of the deep emotional factors underlying the continual dispute within Israel over national boundaries.

Should they be those of l967 or those of the Bible? Secular moderation or uninhibited Old Testament imperialism? Cautious restraint or grandiose speculations? Throughout, Ezrahi functions brilliantly as a literary investigator, deconstructing the language, the vocabulary, the very discourse of this great debate.

Ezrahi's title refers to the rubber-coated bullets with which the Israeli security forces responded to the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in l988. Was this a war, in which an all-out military response, i.e., shooting, was appropriate?

If so, its ultimate objective would be the grandiose territorial aspirations of an Arab-hating zealotry. But if it was perceived as something less than war, then anti-riot measures, such as rubber bullets, were applicable.

As we know, rubber bullets carried the day, not least because unrestrained shooting against Arab civilians was anathema to ordinary Israeli soldiers. While it stretches a point for Ezrahi to perceive in this simple military device evidence of a changing Israeli consciousness, it provides the basis for a remarkable assessment of the very soul of modern Israel.

In so doing, Ezrahi offers a remarkable literary critique of the myths that underlay the Zionist state, myths of heroism and idealistic self-sacrifice, of an emerging nation struggling alone for survival against an uncaring, even hostile, world: first the British mandate, then the Nazis, and finally the surrounding Arab states.

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Overcoming these forces required the virtually total mobilization of the nation, not only through military service, but in the creation of military and political elites drawn from the kibbutz, the Palmach (Israel's first elite military unit) and - more recently - the paratroopers.

In the process, the role of the ordinary individual, the private person whose yearnings, characteristics, and personal goals form the very basis of democratic society, has been undermined, writes Ezrahi. The state, its leaders and their great, noble objectives, has become all-encompassing, while the individuals who constitute society are shunted aside.

Witness, for example, the Israeli fascination (obsession?) with "The News," as disseminated over the transistor radios that every Israeli whips out as the hour approaches. Is there space here for private goals? Or consider the story of Tirza Porath, a young girl whose accidental death during an Arab-Israeli altercation in l988 was seized upon by right-wing Israeli leaders to score political points at her funeral.

Ezrahi offers a lofty critique of the pompous high-mindedness of much Israeli discourse in his portrayal of the real, the intimate - and the human.

* Leonard Bushkoff regularly reviews books on history.

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