Israel's onslaught on Gaza may well do permanent damage to one of the most effective tools in its propaganda kit: the image of the morally handsome, ‘shooting and crying' Israeli soldier.
Three weeks after the 1967 War, Avraham Shapira and Amos Oz, then a rising young author, were summoned to Labour Party headquarters. They were asked to make the demobilised soldiers from the kibbutzim break the wall of silence and discuss their war experience. Soldiers' Talk (Siah Lohamim), the collection of interviews they edited, was a national and international success. The book, which forged the image of the handsome, dilemma-ridden, existentially soul-searching Israeli soldier, was a hymn to that frightening oxymoron, ‘purity of arms' and the ideal of an exalted Jewish morality.
It was also a kind of ‘central casting' from which Oz drew many of his fictional protagonists. Rabin (when he was ambassador to Washington) and Elie Wiesel read extracts in the US ‘in order to present the Israeli soldier's profile'; and Golda Meir called it ‘a sacred book': ‘we are fortunate to have been blessed with such sons.' The latest version of Soldiers' Talk, in terms of register and success, is Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir.
Given the might of Israel's warriors and the vulnerability of their targets, now that the country no longer engages in wars against other state armies, the image is hard to keep alive. At the same time it no longer matters in the way it once did: for political and military elites in Israel, and the War on Terror constituency in the US, the killing of Arabs and Muslims no longer requires any weeping or soul-searching. It's just what freedom-loving people do. The war adulation of the recent pro-Israel demonstrations in Los Angeles is chastening but you couldn't call it hypocritical.
Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, the attack on Gaza will be seen as the action of a colonial power that is running out of ideas; not unlike France in the final stage of the Algerian war.
Gabriel Piterberg teaches history at UCLA. The Returns of Zionism was published last year.