Civilization, Savagism, and the Presence of Burning Children

By Smith, Robert O. | Cross Currents, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Civilization, Savagism, and the Presence of Burning Children


Smith, Robert O., Cross Currents


In the early morning hours of July 31, 2015, a Palestinian home was firebombed in the West Bank village of Duma. Flames killed 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabshe and severely injured his parents and 4-year-old brother. Two homes attacked that night in Duma were spray-painted with the Hebrew words "Revenge" and "Long live the king messiah," alongside a Star of David. Although Jewish settlers from a nearby outpost likely perpetrated the crime, no suspects were immediately identified. Ali's father died a week later.

The previous evening, an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish settler had stabbed six people attending a Pride Parade in Jerusalem. 16-year-old Shira Banki died from her wounds days later. The attacker had just been released from serving ten years in prison for attacking a similar parade in Tel Aviv.

These violent acts by religious settlers sparked a ferocious debate within Israeli society. Thousands of Israelis took to the streets and attended rallies in town squares in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, condemning these and other acts of xenophobic violence. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his condolences, it was President Reuven Rivlin who seemed to express the country's mood: "Flames have engulfed our country," he said in Jerusalem. "Flames of violence, flames of hatred, flames of false, distorted and twisted beliefs. Flames which permit bloodshed in the name of the Torah, in the name of the law, in the name of morality, in the name of a love for the land of Israel." (1) President Rivlin's reflections were rewarded with admiration from Israel's left wing and death threats from the Israeli right.

This paper seeks to understand how Israeli discourse in the days immediately following these attacks protected the unity of Israeli society by asserting distinctions between the civilized and the savage. In effect, this short-lived period of national introspection helped Israelis confirm the essential righteousness of their national project. Analysis of English- language Israeli news media informed by the framework provided by Roy Harvey Pearce in Savagism and Civilization (1953) shows how this episode reproduces, in miniature, how white American society engaged with its own indigenous populations. This approach deepens recognition of the United States and the State of Israel do not just share parallels, but are somehow, in the words of Steven Salaita, "confederated" settler-colonial societies.

Locating the savage

The spasm of violence in late July 2015 exposed a divide between Israel's largely secular society and steadily growing religious influence in Israeli politics. Contemporary Israelis are familiar with violence. They carry memories of terroristic violence perpetrated by Palestinians and largely tolerate Israeli state military violence against Palestinians and other groups popularly understood as threats to Israeli safety and security, whether within Israel's 1948 borders, in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, or in the broader Middle East. These particular acts of violence, however, were different.

Jerusalem councilman Arieh King, who had publicly opposed the Pride Parade, lamented, "Jewish blood was spilled on the streets of the Holy City. This time the murderer was not Muslim as unfortunately we have grown accustomed to; this time it was a member of our people." He added that the attack harmed "the unity of (Israel] as a nation" at a time when "we have enough hardships from outside and enough enemies trying to spill our blood." It is therefore important to act "only within the framework of the law." (2) In the days following these acts of Jewish terror, Israelis began to ask where lines could be drawn around such violence. What is the line between the acceptable and unacceptable, the cultured and the barbaric, the civilized and the savage?

Roy Harvey Pearce's Savagism and Civilization, first published in 1953, achieved for the American context what, more than two decades later, Edward Said's Orientalism achieved for Europe: a careful explication of how white civilization defined the "other" in order to better define itself and validate its hegemony. …

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