Book Review: Waltz with Bashir

In conjunction with my post on graphic novels as pedagogical tools, what follows is my review of the graphic novel Waltz with Bashir, which I first read for my research paper.

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Addressing National Trauma through Personal Witnessing

Waltz with Bashir, illustrated by David Polonsky, depicts writer Ari Folman’s struggle to remember the events of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Having repressed the memories of his own participation as a soldier, Folman  seeks out fellow veterans and their memories of the massacre, trying to fill in the gaps.

Marked by a yellow sky, likely symbolizing an underlying sense of shame, the opening sequence strikes a fluidly wavering balance between dreams and memory, setting the tone for the rest of the novel. The first memory of the night of the massacre is prompted by a friend’s nightmare. Though it proves to be a psychological fabrication, in which Folman recalls himself observing West Beirut from the sea on the night in question, it triggers his search to uncover the truth.

Piece by piece, Folman is able to recall snapshots of his military experience: receiving orders from a commanding officer who has settled in an abandoned Beirut villa,  dumping the bodies of dead soldiers, an RPG attack on a young Arab boy. Most of his memories, though, relate back to idle moments spent at the beach, emphasizing his adolescent sense of obliviousness to the gravity of the war, even when steeped in it.

At the crux of the narrative, details of the massacre begin to unfold, and with them feelings of guilt resurface. Relating Sabra and Shatila to the massacres of the Holocaust, Folman’s psychologist friend Ori makes Sabra and Shatila relatable to an Israeli audience. He also reassures Folman, however, that his own participation was not an active choice, devoid at the time of a coherent understanding of exactly what was happening.  

This detachment is echoed in the memories of other soldiers, even the famed Israeli war reporter Ron Ben-Yishai. All claim not to have understood what was taking place until it was too late, having acted only as sentries for the Lebanese Phalangists.

Folman’s own voice similarly attempts to distance his actions from the massacre throughout the novel. He achieves this partly through the loss of memory, but also through hallucinations in which he is merely an observer from the sea, symbolizing fear and refuge, and more glaringly through his insistence that he didn’t understand the full gravity of what was at stake.

These distancing mechanisms allow Folman to question Israel’s security aims and ethics and analyze his own culpability in the war. As Thomas Juneau and Mira Sucharov note in their paper “Narratives in Pencil,” this suggests “an important link between government policy, societal moral identity, and collective memory.”

Interestingly, Folman’s depicts the trauma through the most realistic illustrations of the trio of graphic novels here analyzed. The artistic realism here plays an interesting role, culminating in a transition to real photographs of the aftermath of massacre.

Some critics have taken issue with Folman’s emphasis on the traumatic impact on “Israelis rather than on those who truly suffered: the Palestinian refugees and the Lebanese,” as Ethan Bronner noted in his profile of Folman for the New York Times. The illustrations and photographs portraying the Sabra and Shatila massacre and its aftermath, however, do afford weightiness and acknowledgment of the suffering of the Arabs in the camps.

At the same time, Folman’s intention was not to co-opt Palestinian and Lebanese suffering. Rather, as Ethan Bronner found, Waltz with Bashir, succeeds at reflecting on the Israeli perspective, and exploring “individual emotion in a national trauma.” In doing so, Folman questions whether intentionality can and should erase culpability and through his novel creates a space for collective acknowledgment of guilt and healing.

The Problem with Selective Storytelling

Still at issue, however, is the novel’s insistence on Israel’s passive, rather than active participation in the massacre. While the title itself, Waltz with Bashir, suggests a direct and active engagement on the part of Israel with the Lebanese Phalangists, alluding to equal culpability, the actual narrative presents Israeli involvement as near-accidental.

In the panels detailing changing perspectives of the massacre as it occurred, each voice, including two soldiers and reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, drastically downplays Israel’s military role in the massacre. In fact, Ben-Yishai’s memories depict the Israeli forces as the saviors come too late. Brigadier Amos Yaron alone is portrayed as the singular figure who brought an immediate end to the massacre.

For those who do not know about Sabra and Shatila, the massacre was the culmination of a chain of events that were sparked by the assassination of then newly elected President Bashir Gemayel (head of the Ktaeb Party, also referred to as the Phalangists) on Sept. 14, 1982.

Believing that the assassination was carried out by members of the PLO hiding in the Shatila refugee camp in West Beirut, the Phalangists retaliated by entering the camp on September 16, and massacring countless civilians. Although the exact number of those murdered is disputed, from Sept. 16-18, 1982, the Phalangists murdered and maimed between 800 and 3,500 Palestinian and Lebanese Shi’ites (Robert Frisk also cites 1,700 as the total estimate).

Following Gemayel’s assassination, Israel invaded Lebanon and occupied West Beirut, a direct violation of the ceasefire agreement negotiated by America. The Israeli government justified its military intervention, however, as necessary “to protect the Palestinian civilians remaining in the camps,” as Seth Anziska reported for the New York Times. The government further claimed that 2,000-3,000 members of the PLO had remained in Beirut, even though the U.S. had overseen their departure from Beirut only a month prior.

As Leila Shaid also noted in her account of eye-witness reports of the massacre, then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was among the first to insist that Gemayel’s murderer must have been Palestinian, hours after the assassination. Following this assumption, Sharon, laid out instructions on September 15 for the Phalangists to enter the Shatila refugee camp and act according to their own means, while IDF soldiers remained outside the camps as sentries. According to Shahid, this plan followed a meeting from earlier that morning at which “Phalangist entry into the camps was discussed” with “Phalangist military leaders, including Fadi Frem, the militia’s new commander in chief.”

So while it may be true that Israeli soldiers did not enter the camps and physically carry out the massacre, the degree of planning between high-ranking Israeli officers and Phalangist military leaders indicates a much greater level of complicity than the novel suggests.  

Certainly individual soldiers on the ground may not have been aware of what was taking place among the military high command at the time of the massacre. As the text aims to reflect on memories of collective trauma  so many years after the massacre, though, it becomes necessary to research and include these details in order to fully confront the tragedy. Certainly if the aim is to elucidate “the Israeli struggle with historical memory and the ways in which identity is shaped from moments of collective, cognitive dissonance,” as Juneau and Sucharov suggest, the details of political manipulation are a critical factor to consider.

This omission notwithstanding, Folman still seems to ascertain in the end, that even being a passive accomplice to the massacre does not absolve himself nor his fellow soldiers of the guilt of complicity, and this is perhaps the most profound examination the novel yields.

Creating a parallel between the Holocaust and the Sabra and Shatila massacre towards the end to acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinians and Lebanese, Folman problematizes national narratives that justify all military actions allegedly taken in defense of Israel’s borders. This is particularly necessary for a nuanced understanding of Israel’s military role in the Middle East for students looking to understand the region..

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