The cyclical nature of Israel’s wars of aggression in Gaza is increasingly starting to look like a case of collective ouroboros.
In Greek mythology and philosophy, the ouroboros — a serpent devouring its own tail — symbolized the cyclical nature of being: the eternal return of the same phenomena that start afresh as soon as they come to an end. In biology, actual instances of ouroboros are known to occur when pet snakes, coldblooded creatures that cannot regulate their own body temperature, are kept in small cages and begin to overheat underneath their external heat source. Unable to to cool down and with their metabolism artificially ramped up, the creatures become dazed and aggressive. Not finding a prey to feast on, they turn on their own tails and begin to self-cannibalize.
For lack of a more humane metaphor, the cyclical nature of Israel’s wars of aggression in Gaza is increasingly starting to look like a case of collective ouroboros. Overheating with hatred inside the physical and mental confinement of its own occupation, Israel has become so dazed and aggressive, so hungry for land, blood and revenge, that it now finally appears to have turned on its own children — especially those who still have the courage and conscience to speak out against their government’s atrocities in Gaza. In the past month, anti-war protesters have been attacked with sticks and stones by ultra-nationalists in various cities. In Tel Aviv, some of the attackers wore T-shirts bearing anti-leftist slogans popular among European neo-Nazis. It is difficult to imagine a more tragic case of symbolic self-cannibalization.
Of course, protesting war has never really gone down well in Israeli society. A commentator once captured the public attitude towards anti-war protest in a simple catchphrase: “Quiet! We’re shooting!” In recent years, though, Israeli society has made a dramatic lurch to the right. Today, to oppose the war as an Israeli is to invite social exclusion, public ridicule and — if you persist in being reasonable — even physical aggression. Ask Gideon Levy, the well-known Haaretz columnist and an outspoken critic of the occupation: he knows all about it. Levy has been verbally assaulted on live TV and has received death threats in response to his hard-hitting criticism of IDF atrocities. He can no longer walk the streets without being cursed or spat on, and his employer recently saw itself forced to provide him with a private bodyguard.
Far from condemned by the political establishment, the cult of ouroboros is actively encouraged by those in power. Prominent Knesset member Yariv Levin has publicly called for Levy to be tried for treason — a crime that is punishable by death in times of war. Eldad Yaniv, a political adviser to former Premier Ehud Barack, supposedly a moderate, wrote a highly suggestive message on Facebook: “The late Gideon Levy. Get used to it.” Even Levy himself, no stranger to public ridicule and threats of aggression, is taken aback. “I’ve never had it so harsh, so violent, and so tense,” he recently told Foreign Policy. “We will face a new Israel after this operation … nationalistic, religious in many ways, brainwashed, militaristic, with very little empathy for the sacrifice of the other side. Nobody in Israel cares at all.”
And why would they? Most Israelis do not have the slightest clue what is really happening on the other side of their security fence. On the one hand, the national media consistently keep them from seeing it; on the other, many are so brainwashed as to refuse to even acknowledge the atrocities when they take place right in front of their eyes. This is not even to mention those — like the far-right extremists rampaging through Jerusalem screaming “death to Arabs” and looking for Palestinians to lynch — who would happily commit such atrocities themselves.
Like a pet snake, the majority of Israelis today are trapped either inside the intellectually stultifying cage of religious extremism, or inside the hateful mental life-world of belligerent secular nationalism. With the loudmouthed warmongering of the media, the racist rhetoric of the political establishment, and the coldblooded profit-seeking of the military-industrial complex (subsidized to the tune of $3 billion dollars in annual US military aid), the martial metabolism of this Spartan warrior society is being artificially ramped up to boiling point. Dazed and aggressive, the occupier first and most viciously assaults its neighbor — and, before long, turns on itself.
Like the ouroboros, the logic of Israel’s occupation is circular. Its atrocities must be permanently reproduced for the colonial order to sustain itself. Round and round it goes, repeating the same sickening cycle of aggression over and over again. Every day the occupation persists, however, Israel loses a little bit more of its own humanity. “Occupation has made us a cruel people,” a former chief of the Shin Bet security service recently admitted. What is different this time is the anti-democratic spirit,” Gideon Levy tells The Guardian. “Zero tolerance of any kind of criticism, opposition to any kind of sympathy with the Palestinians. You shouldn’t be surprised that 95% [are in favour of the war], you should be surprised at the 5%. This is almost a miracle. The media has an enormous role. Given the decades of demonisation of the Palestinians, the incitement and hatred, don’t be surprised the Israeli people are where they are.”
Of course, none of this is unique to Israel. War and occupation have always brought out humanity’s inner bestiality — from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib, from Hiroshima to Vietnam. (And no, observing that simple historical fact is not the same as equating Israel’s actions in Gaza to the Nazi Holocaust.) The same fundamental human bestiality has been a feature of all massacres and all colonial regimes. Not too long ago, great thinkers like Paulo Freire, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon observed with great lucidity how the European colonizer, by brutalizing the colonized, ended up brutalizing himself. Running a colonial regime, they noted, requires not just the dehumanization of the oppressed, but — much more importantly — the active dehumanization of the oppressor. Human affects like empathy must be actively repressed to keep the colonial order intact; not only to justify the brutality ideologically, but simply to cope with one’s own atrocities emotionally.
In the long run, this endless cycle of aggression will end up harming Israel more than it can ever return in terms of “security” or “quiet”. Indeed, the hundreds of dead children in Gaza pose a more existential threat to the country’s future than any of Hamas’ bottle rockets ever could. There are already signs that Israel has truly crossed a line this time around. Its relations with the Obama administration have never been this frosty, and public support for Israel within the United States — historically unquestionable — has hit an all-time low, especially among a younger generation that is not as beholden to historical sensitivities surrounding Jewish victimization and that witnessed the carnage in Gaza unfold real-time in its newsfeed. Internationally, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is gaining traction, and a number of Latin American and even some European governments are pursuing diplomatic and economic sanctions.
Still, it would be a mistake to expect the cult of ouroboros to swallow itself whole. Israel may be turning on itself, but to wait for this horrific process of mutual dehumanization and collective self-cannibalization to run its full course would be a dangerously naive approach. Nor would it be wise to wait for Israel’s handler — the US government — to somehow come riding to the rescue, as it now pretends to do with the Yazidis in Iraq. When all is said and done, and the international community has finally defanged the python and fully isolated the cult of ouroboros within the cage of its own occupation, the only ones capable of breaking the cycle of violence and redeeming the humanity of both oppressor and oppressed, are those who are currently bearing the full brutality of colonialism in their flesh and bones. As Frantz Fanon so powerfully wrote:
Although oppression dehumanizes both parties and stifles their humanity, the oppressed has to lead the struggle for a fuller humanity for both. When the oppressed seek to regain and deepen their humanity, they must not in turn oppress the oppressors, but rather help to restore the humanity of both. The contradiction between the two classes is resolved by the appearance of a new kind of human being, one in the process of liberation. It’s not possible to eliminate oppression just by a shift of roles in which the oppressor becomes the oppressed and vice-versa. In such change we can’t say that one person liberates himself, or another, but that people in communion liberate each other.
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.