I just can’t help myself. Whatever happens in life, no matter how trivial or grave, I always manage to relate it back to something in pop culture. As an adult, I’ve tried to take ownership of my Jewish self, to engage with Jewish history, texts and tradition.
But when trying to make sense of the senseless, I find myself reflexively turning not to the Torah or the Talmud but to a movie, a song, a television show — pieces of art or commerce that were designed not to explain the world, but to entertain.
Sometimes, movie analogies really do work, at least in terms of looking at reality in a slightly different light.
In 2008, Christopher Nolan gave us The Dark Knight, a superhero story for the post 9/11 age. The villain, the Joker — played so memorably by the late Heath Ledger — is essentially a terrorist for terror’s sake. With maniacal genius, he seeks to maximize death and destruction and create a pervasive fear that robs society of its way of life.
The Joker is also driven by a desire to provoke his nemesis, Batman, to bend the rules. The Joker goads the Caped Crusader into crossing the line, and thus prove a point about the arbitrary and hypocritical nature of reality. Batman breaks rules, does dirty work, saves lives and becomes vilified by the public in the process. But what was his alternative? Allow thousands of people to die? Allow a mad terrorist to eradicate a free society?
According to polls, a majority of Americans are siding with Israel in its latest war with Hamas. That is consistent with polls taken during previous conflicts. It’s a majority, but still there are too many people in the United States and around the world who simply don’t get it, or choose to interpret the facts in a manner that paints Israel as the villain.
Of course, no other global conflict serves as a sound analogy for the unique nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, for sure, no action movie — even one as textured and complex as the Dark Knight — captures, evokes or explains the deaths, injuries and psychological damage that Israelis and Palestinians have suffered. And then there is the whole idea that war is somehow now viewed as TV/ smartphone entertainment. I’m loath to add more fuel to that fire. Still, I’m drawn to this analogy and perhaps some of Israel’s naysayers should consider it.
Think of Israel, or at least the Israel Defense Forces, as Batman, a tortured hero who was born from trauma and a strong desire to protect those in need of protection. And think of Hamas as the Joker, pouring vast amounts of human capital, financial resources and brain power to conjure new ways to either kill Israelis or force them to seek shelter and abdicate normalcy. (In a further twist, stoppage of flights to Israel echoes the follow-up Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, in which a new crop of terrorists manage to cut Gotham City off from the world.)
Like the fictional Joker, the all-too-real terrorist organization and quasi-government Hamas feeds off death and creates scenarios where, even if they lose, they win. According to news reports, Hamas does have some tangible goals it hopes to achieve, chief among them opening up its borders and having the Gaza blockade lifted by Israel and Egypt. Yet the group seems motivated more by bloodlust than political calculations or religious piety.
The world should know by now that if Israelis die by suicide bombing, by rocket, by sea raid or via a tunnel attack, Hamas claims victory. If Israelis soldiers are killed or captured fighting in the streets of Gaza, Hamas wins. If Palestinians are killed despite Israel’s best efforts to protect them, Hamas wins. If Israelis must seek out arms and tunnel openings in schools, hospitals, mosques and private homes, Hamas wins. So why play the game?
Yishai Schwartz, a young journalist, addressed this question recently in the The New Republic: “The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground, but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally.”
Whether we know it or not, the IDF truly is fighting on behalf of all of us.
Back to the movies again: Col. Nathan Jessup, aka Jack Nicholson, in the 1992 film, A Few Good Men, once said on the witness stand, “You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”
Thank God, thank the resiliency of the Jewish people, we have real-life heroes who are doing what must be done. Because in truth, for Israelis, there isn’t a wall, or a front — not anymore, not with Hamas terrorists tunneling inside Israel, surely plotting a way to outwit the Iron Dome Missile Defense.
There is only a thin red line separating morality from immorality. The Jewish people have a citizen army, its finest young men and women, who are willing to walk that line because Israelis choose life.
May the IDF continue to protect life and thwart evil. Who needs Batman when we have the IDF? And who needs to invent a character like Joker in a world that already has Hamas?
Bryan Schwartzman, an award winning journalist and former Jewish Exponent reporter, lives in Philadelphia.