Television Under Siege
Recent Israeli and American Dramas Reveal a Common Mentality
by Nitzan Ben Shaul and Adva Segelman
Siege mentality, as defined by Daniel Bar Tal, is defined as the belief that a hostile world is bent on one’s destruction. This belief, once embraced, can create a new reality, distorting perceptions and prompting a total reorganising of social and political values. In over-reacting to perceived threats, the group under siege will insist upon absolute unity, tagging as a fifth column any individuals not signed up to the group agenda. Above all, preserving the belief becomes paramount, prompting the selective gathering of information and biasing of inconclusive evidence to this end. The mentality of siege may be triggered by an unexpected war or terror attack.
The 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center triggered a siege mentality in the US that placed it in direct sympathy with the ongoing siege mentality of Israel. In his address to the Israeli parliament’s ‘‘Special Solidarity Session’’ on September 16, 2001, Ariel Sharon was quick to frame their common cause: ‘‘Last week, the empire of terrorism struck at the heart of our courageous friend, the greatest democracy on earth—the United States of America. We have assembled here today in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, the capital of the only democracy in the Middle East, in order to bow our heads in sorrow and deep mourning over the deaths of innocent citizens in New York and Washington . . . The issue of terrorism—to my regret—is not new to us. The State of Israel has been fighting Arab, Palestinian and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism for over 120 years. Thousands of Jews have been murdered in terrorist attacks . . . The pain of the bereaved American people is familiar to us—very familiar to us . . . We were not surprised . . . actions against Israeli citizens are no different from bin Laden’s terrorism against American citizens. . . the President of the United States has warmly thanked us for the help that we have already provided. If we are invited, we will join because we are already fighting terrorism in any case.’’
Sharon’s address, an honest expression of solidarity, was designed to enlist the US support of Israel’s position during the Al Aqsa intifada (2000-2005), the Palestinian uprising characterised by suicide bombings that spread terror among Israelis. The intifada had rekindled Israeli society’s siege mentality and led to harsh retaliatory measures: aerial strikes, targeted killings and violent incursions into Palestinian towns. For Sharon, the crashing of Al-Qaeda’s suicide jet into the Twin Towers enabled the conflation of terror’ with Arab, Palestinian and Islamic fundamentalist’. For the US, the shocking attack on the symbol of American economic muscle created a siege mentality which, arguably, prompted the global war on terror—a series of ongoing military, intelligence, diplomatic, and financial operations worldwide; including harsh measures against Afghanistan (one of the world’s poorest nations) followed by the unrelated toppling of Saddam Hussein in a military invasion and consequent occupation that devastated Iraq. The war on terror ushered in a wave of unprecedented security measures designed to contain suspect fifth column elements culminating in the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, under whose authority the Bush administration placed the U.S. Coast Guard; Customs Service; Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol; the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture; the Transportation Security Administration; and the Secret Service.
Hatufim (Abductees) is an Israeli TV hit series created by Gideon Raff and is an eloquent, stylish and suspenseful televisual expression of Israeli siege mentality. The story of two captured IDF reservists who return to their families after seventeen years in captivity, the drama turns upon the tortuous reintegration process of these national heroes and the growing fear that they may have been turned’ during their captivity. The series presents Israeli society as encircled in a terrifying dead end, an effect achieved by the tight web of mutually suspicious, inter-related characters who drive the story forward. Instead of warmth and love, the family of the returning captives becomes a source of lies and mistrust; years of absence have wrought havoc on the psychic health of the unit.
The abductees themselves are physically and emotionally scarred. Beyond the ordeal of trying to re-enter into family life, their victimisation is compounded by relentless interrogation by the IDF psychiatrist charged with uncovering their suspected plot against the state. The ugliness of this suspicious mentality is highlighted by disturbing flashbacks of the abductees’ captivity—beatings, electrocution, a repeated close-up of the scar caused by an embedded screwdriver, twisted daily by changing captors. Could these miserable returnees really be agents of terror, a fifth column?
‘Instead of warmth and love, the family of the returning captives becomes a source of lies and mistrust’
Israeli siege mentality is a phenomenon derived from historical experiences, religious traditions and state ideology. It stems from recent experiences of conventional war and acts of terror, as well as from sporadic condemnations of Israel by world organisations. Combined, these evoke for Israeli Jews the long history personal and collective trauma that culminates in the holocaust. This history is codified via deeply ingrained biblical religious tenets based upon Jews being a chosen people (Am Nivchar), alone among the nations (Am Levadad Yishkon), with no one but God almighty and their own resources to protect them in a hostile world. The biblical people of Amalek who sought to destroy the Jews have become the symbol of Israel’s enemies, past, present and future. Furthermore, since the late 1950s, Israel’s dominant ideology has used the collective remembrance of persecution and suffering to sustain the idea that the world is against Israel because it is a Jewish state.
The symptoms of siege mentality embedded in the Hatufim narrative are enhanced by visual and aural configurations depicting slow paced, claustrophobic spaces; at Nimrod’s coming home party, he is recurrently shown in a blurred facial close-up that—along with the loud voices of the people surrounding him—convey a sense of suffocation. The scene cuts abruptly to a shot taken as if from below a water-filled sink into which Nimrod immerses his head until he cannot breathe.
Likewise, the room within the IDF treatment facility in which the returned abductees undergo assessment by the IDF psychiatrist is small, barren and dark, monitored through surveillance cameras that are also used to follow their every move whilst in the facility. Finally, intense claustrophobia is conveyed during the flashbacks to captivity scenes where we see dark, diminutive cells in which the abductees are being held and tortured along with facial close ups showing pain, tears, sweat and fearful eyes. The other characters are presented as anxious and suspicious: all appear lost, confused and in despair. These configurations formally and thematically embed the notion of Israel being a besieged nation. Through the societal repercussions of the abductees’ return and their vague threat to national security, Hatufim lays the blame for Israeli society’s moral, emotional and psychological scars squarely at the feet of terror’—an overarching unspecified Arab, Palestinian and Islamic fundamentalist terror organisation.
In recent months, Hatufim and its expression of siege has been reformatted for American audiences in a series (currently on Sky Arts) called, more appropriately, Homeland. The series is produced by Howard Gordon and Alex Ganza (who produced the earlier siege-determined series, 24) in association with Gideon Raff himself, and is a hymn to homeland security and the war against terror.As far as the first season goes, it provides a fascinating index of a shared yet divergent siege mentality.
Hatufim and Homeland both address the threat of terror and its devastating societal repercussions through the return of long-held prisoners of war and the problems—both familial and national—their return brings about. But the shows differ in thematic focus, refracting each country’s unique siege mentality through contrasting televisual and narrative configurations. Homeland encoded the US siege response to the trauma of 9/11—a hurried retaliatory response directed at concrete’ enemy targets (terror-hosting states)—in its narrative structure, characterisation and audiovisual fabric. In contrast with Hatufim’s multi-character development, legato plot line and claustrophobic spatial figuration, Homeland is a pacy, action-packed thriller in which individualistic heroes battle against the Al-Qaeda threat. The suffocating enclosed spaces of Hatufim are replaced by America’s expansive landscapes and Washington’s imposing urban monuments, underscoring the primacy of homeland security and American super-power status. Accordingly, Homeland focuses most of its attention upon one of the turned’ POWs—U.S. Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). Contrasting with Hatufim’s returnees— broken men, unable to engage with their families, the media or their cheering public—Brody assumes the role of the all American hero, manipulating the press and society with panache. In Homeland, POWs are not, as in Hatufim, the wounded children of the state, but autonomous and independent individuals. While the Israeli army is mostly based on an obligatory three year service for everybody, followed by a month of reserve duty up to the age of 45, the US army is professional and does not involve the entire population. As a result, the two governments have quite different responsibilities to their soldiers; in Israel, a captured soldier occupies headlines on a daily basis, pressuring the government to negotiate and pay a high price for his release. Conversely, the American press hardly mentions POWs, and the US government conducts its tough negotiations far from the public eye. Consider the media campaign and unprecedented price paid by the Israeli government for the recently released soldier Gilad Shalit (held in captivity by Hamas during the production of Hatufim), as opposed to the case of US Army soldier Bowe Robert Bergdahl, still held by the Taliban after his capture in 2009. Negotiations stalled over the Taliban’s demand that he be exchanged for five Taliban detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay Military Prison (Bowe Bergdahl’s family is the first in years to mount a meaningful public campaign for his release).
Homeland eschews the complexity of Hatufim’s web of social and familial links in favour of a simple cast of individual characters. Countering Brody is CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), still traumatised by her part in a botched mission in Iraq that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Determined to make up for her mistake, she locks upon Brody, striving to uncover his turn’ and block his scheme by any means possible – including an affair. Symptomatic of the siege syndrome, both Carrie and Brody are traumatised individuals, her wide-eyed, frantic expression hints at a bi-polar disorder and she operates at a high level of constant stress.
Above all Homeland is a masterful thriller, packed with suspense and episodic cliff-hangers, through which Carrie, the CIA and the FBI conspire to stop Brody’s suspected Al-Qaeda directed scheme. During Brody’s interrogation by Carrie, he denies ever having met Al-Qaeda chief Abu-Nazir but towards the end of the episode, Brody is shown jogging, intercut with flashbacks of him with Abu Nazir. In a surprising end to the episode, the action cuts to a long shot of Brody after his run in front of the Capitol, drawing a link between his contact with Al-Qaeda and the possible target of his suspected terror attack. This surprise/suspense story structure, characteristic of US televisuality, also echoes the format of the US siege mentality of surprise-to-targeted-action.
Finally, contrary to Hatufim’s suffocating and claustrophobic spatial deployment, the space of Homeland is agoraphobic, accentuating, through long aerial or craning shots interspersed with scenes of murderous conspiracy, the threat upon the expansive American landscapes and the imposing urban monuments of Washington DC.
Over the decades, the special friendship of Israel and the US can be measured in favours from the latter to the former: in money, arms and abstentions at the UN voting chambers. But since 9/11 the relationship has become inverted, as republican policy makers have used the language and techniques of the Israeli security discourse to establish their own. In the name of America’s domestic security and global war on terror, Israeli companies have been called upon to provide anti-terrorist advice, technology and intelligence services. Through the combined impact of Hatufim and Homeland this process reverberates both culturally and ideologically. Captivating a new generation, for whom the terrorist attacks of the early 2000s are a blur, the siege mentality is created anew and the work to build a national culture of fear continues.
Nitzan ben Shaul is Professor of Film and Television Studies at Tel Aviv University. He has authored six scholarly books, most recently Cinema of Choice: Optional Thinking and Narrative Movie (Berghahn, 2012).
Adva Segelman is a film and television undergraduate student at Tel Aviv University.