Heroes and Failed Heroes


In every Hero cycle, the story starts with a disruption of the status quo. Whatever existed before that point in time is seen through the rose glasses of idealization, but that precise point in time when the status quo is disrupted is presented as an unmitigated catastrophe. It doesn't really matter whether the catastrophe is real or imagined – what is important is that it is felt as a major disruption by those who are listening (or reading). Those affected long to recover their (real or imagined) idyllic life.


Enter the Hero. The selected individual needs to first accept the task. It could be reluctant like Moses or Jonah, or it could be eager like Ulysses. But he (she) first needs to accept the charge of restoring life to its pre-disruption flow. Once the hero accepted the charge, it needs to be equipped with the tools to do the job. Moses gets the miracles to show Pharaoh, Ulysses the army to free Hellene of Troy, David the sling to bring down Goliath.


The Hero then confronts those who disrupted the status quo...the Trojans, the Egyptians, the Philistines. The confrontation takes on in later descriptions a life of its own and grows in the retelling. But this confrontation is the one who puts the Hero at the center of his people's minds and hearts. It is the battle for restoring normalcy that transform a simple person, chosen for a task, into a Hero in the minds and souls of the people. The Hero, of course, wins the battle (History is written by the winners, after all).


And then the Hero goes back to a normal life among his/her people, to resume the life as it once was (or as people believe it once was, since as Confucius once pointed out, you can never swim twice in the same river).


So how do we apply it to modern life? Mythical heroes are at the very root of National identity. The quintessential hero in Jewish tradition is Moses. After Joseph dies, life in Egypt for the Children of Israel is disrupted and they become slaves. In their minds, life before the disruption was the life of Egyptian nobility, so even after Moses leads them out of Egypt, they will continue to demand a life “like they had in Egypt”.


Through a series of episodic situations, Moses is forced reluctantly to accept his role as the emissary of God to bring his people out of Egypt. And Moses is given signs to show Pharaoh, and (step by step) given the miracles to battle the hardening heart (will) of the Egyptian king. Finally, in a final confrontation, Moses wins the battle and leads the people out of Egypt. There is, however, a final battle to be fought at the shores of the Red Sea, where God himself comes to Moses help and parts the sea to let the Israelites through, closing it down on their pursuers. God him(her)self acquires the dimensions of the ultimate hero!


After the epic liberation, the people go back to their life, as they imagined it was before slavery – power struggles, law, complains, etc. No wonder the story of the liberation from Egypt is central to Jewish identity!


So how about the modern Middle East? How about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?


The Jewish hero cycle is rather on the long side: the status quo is disrupted by the destruction of the Temple, Theodore Hertzl brings together the Zionist Movement, Jews recover sovereignty over their ancient homeland...we know this story; it is part of our modern Jewish identity. It might help, however, to understand the hero-cycle of the other side...


According to their National myth, 1948 marks the disruption of the status quo as they imagined it existed. In their minds, the status quo was an idyllic pastoral life. The reality was a life of poverty and subsistence for most people, with only a minority living comfortable in the cities as artisans and professionals – but reality tends to be bothersome when you're building a myth. The war of 1948 disrupted that idealized past, setting in motion the Heroic cycle.


After years, Yasser Arafat assumed the mantle of leadership of the PLO and came to be seen by many Palestinians as their National Hero who confronted those who disrupted their idyllic life. His methods (terrorism and violence) mattered to them as little as Moses' methods (mass destruction) matter to Jews.


After struggling for years, Arafat received the full support of the Arab league and the recognition of the existence of a separate Palestinian identity by the King of Jordan. He was given the tools to engage “the enemy”...


For many Palestinians, the Oslo process represented the victory of Arafat over Israel and his return to Gaza was seen as a Triumph (in the Roman sense). For them, that point in time represented the closure of the Hero cycle for the restoration of their imagined pre-disruption world. But it didn't happen.


Unlike Moses, or Hertzl, or Ben Gurion, who recognized the moment in time when their turn as the Hero was over and the mantle of leadership needed to pass to somebody else to address new challenges, Arafat perpetuated the violence and confrontation in order to retain the role – putting his personal ambition ahead of the wellbeing of his people and thus betraying their National goals. After his death, the Palestinian people struggled (it is still struggling) to leave behind violence and confrontation. They are still struggling to leave behind the attitude of “all or nothing” and embrace the idea of compromise. In a way, Arafat is a failed Hero. For the common Palestinians in the street from Gaza to Jenin to Jericho, however, he still embodies the ideal of the Palestinian leader – enslaving the Arabs to a never ending cycle of self-destruction.


Heroes – True Heroes, step down and resume a normal life. For most Arabs, unfortunately, a true hero becomes a martyr, dying to become a role model, to continue the cycle of death and destruction. Both sides listen to the same music, but they hear different songs...


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