Israel, Macbeth, and the March Toward Catastrophe
At the beginning of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the Scottish nobleman Macbeth is introduced as a human being of contradictory but predominantly good character: he is courageous, sensitive, noble and loyal. Due to a vision by three witches predicting the royal crown for Macbeth, possibly misinterpreted, he commits a fatal error. Another one follows, a third, and a fourth. Each new breach of the law is aimed at covering up preceding ones. Macbeth commits murder himself and lets others commit murder for him, he lies and he plants spies in the homes of other rulers. In his desperate, paranoid condition he imagines enemies everywhere. The more desperate the situation becomes for Macbeth, the more he loses his sense of morality. He sees no possibility of turning back. He must continue to kill others until he is killed himself when in battle with the enemy image.
Disguised with branches from the nearby wood, the hostile army approaches Macbeth’s castle, fulfilling another vision of the witches: Birnam Wood is closing in for the destruction of Macbeth.
A vision was also involved at the start of the first Zionist immigration wave: Eretz Israel. As part of this vision of a new country was the hope of the settlers, after centuries of persecution and cruel pogroms, to achieve at last an untroubled life where it would be possible to pursue endeavours always barred to them in the countries where they had lived, such as agriculture. But in fulfilling this vision the new settlers committed a fateful error: they excluded the Arab population from their agricultural activities. The Arab farmers who had tilled the land as tenants until the big landowners sold it to Zionist agencies were not only deprived of their means of livelihood but saw an alien mentality pushing into their country in steadily growing numbers. They fought back with attacks; counter-attacks by the immigrants were the result. These first mistakes went unrecognised or were (deliberately?) ignored.
The scope of the violations increased. The destruction of Arab villages was begun before the new state was founded. In the war of 1948 the programme of destruction and expulsion was continued. During the years that followed the evidence of this destruction was concealed; parks and forest were created to cover over former Arab villages and cultivated fields. The need to cover over mistakes required falsifying propaganda. Israel saw enemies everywhere; it felt compelled to kill and to have others kill. Had Israel become a reincarnation of Macbeth?
Israel is not Macbeth. Aside from the question as to whether a mythological figure can really be compared to a political system, it would also be unjustified to point only to Israel. But what is it which leads one to even consider such a comparison, even though it must be criticised as one-sided?
An analysis of both the similarities and the differences between Israel and Macbeth can help in finding a way out of the Middle East dilemma. Like the literary figure, Israel lacks friends who can act as wise advisers. Israel is poorly protected; as the rabbi of Bacherach says in the unfinished novel of the same name by the poet Heine: „False friends are guarding its gates from without”. Its alleged friends are helping Israel build up an arsenal of weapons of dangerous enormity. This delivery of armaments may be useful in assuaging the conscience of those with “historical guilt”, but it does not banish the fears of its recipient, which sees itself surrounded by enemies. Its anxiety is furthered additionally by the feeling of having no one to rely upon. The experience of the holocaust proved that this anxiety is not baseless: even after the extent of the atrocities had become known, there was hardly a single country willing to accept the fleeing exiles.
Even those pro-Israel lobbyists, groups as well as individuals, who proclaim their unreserved solidarity with Israel, can be “false friends”. A mentality based on the premise that “Whatever you do, Israel, we will always support you” – whether it is a result of sympathy based on common suffering or on religious ideology – can serve to accelerate the path to catastrophe. Another menace, just as dangerous, is created by those people, striving for peace, who are sworn to pursue the goals of law and justice. This seemingly paradox situation can be understood in the light of the growing polarization between Israel supporters and Israel opponents. Among the latter there are alleged “peace-fighters” who, striving for justice, have covered themselves with branches of the “Birnam Wood”, which in Shakespeare’s drama led to the end of Macbeth. When actions in support of one side in a conflict are not accompanied by simultaneous talks with the other side then new dangers can arise: they can force the other side into a corner and prompt it into taking an unconsidered act of defiance in its defense.
Peace cannot be won by force, it can only be approached step by step, calmly and patiently. The path to peace demands an effort to approach “the other side,” the courage to voice facts openly, and a feeling of empathy with the adversary which can enable a joint search for solutions. This must be done very soon on all levels, both individual and political, because Birnam Wood is moving closer and closer and Macbeth, in his fear, is becoming paranoid.
The growing polarisation among pro and contra groups, like that on the broader political stage between Israel and Palestine, has reached a level of escalation where dialogue is no longer discernible. If the situation develops further in this direction then the conflict will soon have reached the final step in the conflict escalation model: Together into the abyss.