Views and Reviews: Politics and Culture in the State of the Jews

Views and Reviews: Politics and Culture in the State of the Jews

by Margalit

Hardcover(1 ED)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374249410
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/01/1999
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.31(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.19(d)
Age Range: 8 Years

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EVERY FOUR YEARS ISRAEL HOLDS SPORTS COMPETITIONS FOR JEWISH athletes from all over the world. This is the Jewish olympics—the Maccabiah. Since it is a Jewish olympics there is a bit of a discount on the notion of an athlete—even bridge players are considered athletes. The idea of the Maccabiah originated in the late 1920s, and after the first Maccabiah many of the athletes and their companions remained as illegal immigrants in what was then Palestine. One of them was my mother.

    In July 1997 the Maccabiah took place in Tel Aviv. A bridge was built across the Yarkon River for the athletes to march across on their way to the opening ceremony in the stadium. During this ceremony, as the sky was streaked with fireworks and the President of Israel sat with the Prime Minister in their box, while the Australian delegation was marching across the bridge, it collapsed like a pile of matchsticks, the marchers were tossed into the stinking, poisonous waters of the Yarkon, and five of them lost their lives. An investigating committee set up later determined that it had collapsed as the result of "general systems failure"—that is, everyone involved in building it was responsible for the calamity.

    At first glance this is nothing more than an embarrassing story about an organizational and engineering failure that ended in death --a tragic story, but not a tragedy. Yet on the very night of the event the collapse of the bridge was turned into an allegory. Even I, "as a philosopher," was asked to "reflect" in the media about the meaning of this event. A philosopher, in theIsraeli media, is a person who is expected to have opinions about everything in general and about nothing in particular. From one talk show to the next the symbolic meaning of the collapsed bridge swelled. "What does it say about us? What does it say about our existence? What does it say about Israel?"

    I tell the little story of the collapsed bridge, even though it is almost a "non-event" compared with many of the accidents and catastrophes that Israelis endure, because I detect a general trend in it: the tendency to describe and think about Israel in allegories. Nothing is what it is; everything is something else. This allegorical depiction of Israel is like a "general systems failure" disease—all of us who write and talk about Israel are infected with it.

    In the present book I have collected essays that I wrote about Israel over quite a few years. They deal mainly with politics and the connection between politics and culture in Israel. In a certain sense they are essays in social criticism. But basically they are a sometimes desperate effort on my part to understand rather than to criticize the society I live in, a society which my parents played a part in founding and whose future, I hope, my children will share. Putting them all together has forced me to think about the way I and others write about Israel. By way of introducing them, I am presenting these thoughts both as background and as "stage directions" for reading on.

    Writing for people who are not members of my community in a language which is not mine has advantages, apart from the obvious disadvantages. One advantage is that I have been forced to be explicit about issues familiar to all Israelis. Writing about matters familiar to the members of one's own community allows one to make do with lazy and cozy hints, an implicit kind of writing that is full of nuances but often based on the incorrect assumption that we all understand the obvious points. More often than not, the obvious is not obvious at all.

    The subject matter of many of the essays is history: both the recent history of Israel and the events that preceded the establishment of the state fifty years ago. There are two reasons for this. First, history is obviously important when one tries to explain what is happening in the present as well as what can be hoped for and what should be feared in the future. Second, the concepts of justice which are adhered to by those involved in the tensions and conflicts within Israeli society and between Israel and its neighbors are historical concepts. They depend on answers to questions such as who was here first, who did what to whom and why. As a result, historical arguments are central—probably too central—in Israel and the Middle East.

    Let us return to the bridge over the river Yarkon and ask what explains the tendency to write allegorically about Israel. At first glance it seems simple. Israel is the Holy Land whose every hill and stream is part of a sacred history and a sacred geography—an exposed mythological nerve. Sacred histories and geographies are made out of symbols rather than events, and therefore are fertile ground for allegories. The inspired historian Johan Huizinga claimed that in the Middle Ages people could not look at red and white roses blossoming among the thorns without transforming the flowers into tortured saints and virgins among their tormentors. This medieval way of thinking, in which symbolic associations replace the linking of causes with effects, is still prevalent in the Holy Land.

    But the simplicity of this explanation is misleading. In a serious sense the modern Jewish settlements in Palestine, from the late nineteenth century until the establishment of the state of Israel, only barely overlapped the Jewish people's historical homeland; they were, in fact, at a distance from the symbolic regions of the "Holy Land." Take the example of the river Yarkon—in the Hebrew consciousness the antithesis of the Jordan River—and the city of Tel Aviv on its banks. The biblical Jordan River belongs to an enchanted world, with the Israelites' crossing of it on their way to the Promised Land deemed analogous in its miraculousness to their crossing of the Red Sea. The Psalmist writes, "The sea saw it, and fled, Jordan was driven back" (Psalms 114:3). The prophet Elijah struck the Jordan with his mantle and divided it in two (II Kings 2:8) just as Moses divided the Red Sea, then crossed the river with his disciple Elisha. Elisha, for his part, managed to cause the iron head of an ax, which had fallen off the wooden handle and landed in the Jordan, to float on the water. For Christians, Elijah and Elisha are prefigurations of another pair on the enchanted river Jordan—John the Baptist and Jesus. In contrast, the Yarkon River belongs entirely to the secular, nonenchanted world. The only mention of it in the Bible is as a river that runs to Jaffa. If the Jordan River is the hero, the Yarkon River is the antihero.

    Jabotinsky's militant, maximalist form of Zionism had a slogan: "The Jordan River has two banks; this one's ours, and the other one, too." The import of this slogan today is that the "Greater Israel" over which some Jews are demanding domination should also include the area that is now in the Kingdom of Jordan. When they wanted to ridicule less maximalist types of Zionists, whom they called "defeatist," the militants satirically ascribed to them the slogan "The Yarkon has two banks," meaning they were willing to make do with a smaller Israel, a mere enclave in the Tel Aviv area.

    When the Israelites crossed the Jordan on their way to the Land of Canaan, they came from the east. They settled on the hills of the Jordan's west bank, the same West Bank where Palestinians now live. They had almost no presence on the Mediterranean coast, where, in the western part of Canaan, on the banks of the Yarkon, lived the Philistines, a "sea people." The biblical Land of Israel, the Jewish people's "historic homeland"—the one saturated with symbolic meanings—is virtually unconnected to the land of the Philistines on the banks of the Yarkon. Yet the Zionist immigrations to Palestine, like those of the Philistines to Canaan, were from the west, from lands across the Mediterranean, and the Zionists settled mainly in the Philistine region, along the Mediterranean coast, nowhere near the Jordan. Even now, 80 percent of the Jewish population of Israel lives along the Mediterranean coast at a safe distance from their historic homeland.

    The Zionist settlers chose this particular area for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with the availability of land there. But one thing is very clear: they did not choose to settle in any of the four holy cities—Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, and Hebron and in general avoided the symbolic regions of the Land of Israel. It is hard to believe that this was for only or even mainly economic reasons. The truth is, these symbolic regions both attracted and repulsed them at the same time. On the one hand, they had sufficient attractive force to bring the Zionist settlers to Palestine rather than Uganda, which was once suggested as a place for Jews to settle. On the other hand, they had enough repulsive force so that the Zionists, wanting a new beginning, preferred to settle near but not in them. There was no symbolic fundamentalism in the Zionist settlement of Palestine. The ideological stance that insisted Jews must literally live in the symbolic regions took hold mainly after the Six-Day War in 1967 or, more precisely, after the Yom Kippur War in 1975. Until then living nearby was good enough.

    Just as the Yarkon is the antithesis of the Jordan, so Tel Aviv is the antithesis of Jerusalem. Present-day Tel Aviv is an entirely secular city that has nothing to do with sacred geography and has no sacred history—indeed, no history at all. The only Tel Aviv in the Bible was a Babylonian city on the banks of the Chebar River mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel. But even West Jerusalem, in which I have lived all my life, began to be built only in the late nineteenth century. This did not stop Jews from calling it, well before 1967, the eternal capital of the Jewish people. If the Jerusalem of my childhood was sufficiently close to the "Holy of Holies," Tel Aviv was not symbolically near anything. It was built on golden sand, not on symbols.

    Gershom Scholem claimed that it is impossible to create a Jewish existence free of heavy symbolism because of the very nature of the Hebrew language. Hebrew has been used as a holy language for too many generations for us to be able to slough off its symbolic aspects, he claims. When Israeli children play hide-and-seek they declare the game over by saying, "The vessels are broken and no one is playing." This apparently innocent interjection uses an expression, "the vessels are broken," which is a foundational expression in Jewish mysticism --an equivalent in the cosmogony of the Kabbala to the Big Bang in modern cosmology. As a native Israeli I can attest that Israeli children are able to play hide-and-seek without kabbalistic allusions. They are not alluding to anything, any more than English-speaking children playing cops and robbers and shouting "Bang bang!" are alluding to the Big Bang theory. And this is not only true of children. Israeli adults are able to fornicate, drink beer, and enjoy brass bands just like Danes, for instance, without any symbolic mantle covering their language. The tendency to use symbolism excessively is more prevalent among writers about Israel than among the people they write about.

    But another tendency associated with allegorical writing does indeed infect both commentators and ordinary Israelis—the tendency to see everything as a symptom. The collapse of the bridge was perceived as a symptom of the gap between Israel's pretensions to be a technological power and the reality in which a structure whose construction should have been presumed safe nevertheless collapsed. This symptom reveals a deep anxiety in the Israeli consciousness—the fear that everything we do is a khaltura. Khaltura is the Israeli word for moonlighting. It comes from Russian, apparently from the name of a revolutionary named Khalturin whose every attempt at assassination ended in grotesque amateurish failure. Many Israelis, in my impression, fear that Israeli culture, the child of the Zionist revolution, is a culture of khaltura—of amateurs dressed up as professionals. Amateurs have the charm of spontaneity and an ability to improvise, and they sometimes even attain amazing achievements. But these achievements are sporadic, and the drop-offs in performance can be great and painful. Professionalism raises the general level of performance.

    The idea of amateurism arouses existential anxiety because Israel's security doctrine is based on a belief that it has a "qualitative edge" over its hostile neighbors, a qualitative edge that is supposed to inhere in "islands of professionalism" such as the elite units in Israel's army and the air force, as well as in its advanced industries. When two helicopters of the Israeli Air Force collide on their way to Lebanon and seventy-five soldiers are killed, or when Israel's best naval commando unit fails in an operation in Lebanon, or when Mossad agents embarrassingly bungle an attempted assassination in Amman, the event triggers anxiety that Israel's qualitative edge has eroded. Given Israel's long record of violent conflicts with its neighbors, this existential anxiety heightens a hypochondriac tendency to find diagnostic symptoms for the "Israeli situation" everywhere, even in the collapse of the bridge. My own use of the story of the bridge may attest to this tendency.

    People write about Israel in clichés. But, then, people write about every country and every issue in clichés. Many clichés are written about Israel because so much is written about Israel. For a long time Israel was the third-greatest newsmaking country in the world, after the United States and the Soviet Union. The need to avoid clichés leads writers to make desperate attempts to find "interesting angles" for describing Israeli reality. They resort to writing about Israel in paradoxes, which has itself become a sophisticated cliché. Once upon a time, in our age of innocence, there were cute paradoxes: it was a country where mothers learned their mother tongue from their children; or—the mother of all clichés—the native Israeli was called a Sabra, from the word for prickly pear, which is thorny on the outside and sweet on the inside, a cliché that gives all clichés a bad name. Nowadays the paradoxes are based on striking contrasts between the "old" and the "new," on "historical ironies" in which every action leads to results opposite to those intended by the agents, and on other kinds of backward somersaults that are supposed to present Israel as more exotic than it already is.

    One finds the tendencies to write allegorically, symptomatically, and paradoxically about Israel among all writers about this country, including myself. But it is always difficult to write simply, directly, and informatively, especially where Israel is concerned. These are problems not of style but of content, and the content involves mainly the underlying concept of Israel's history.

    Zhou Enlai was once asked whether the French Revolution was a good or a bad thing. "Too soon to tell," answered the aged leader. This is a long view. From an equally long perspective the question of whether or not the "Zionist revolution" in Jewish history succeeded surely does not yet have an answer. Yet we have an understandable, if illusory, wish to get a prompt answer to questions that can truly be answered only in the long run. But in the long run, as Keynes remarked, we shall all be dead.

THE ESSAYS COLLECTED here discuss leading figures in Israeli history, problems of the Israeli polity, matters of Israeli culture and ideology. I have the impression that there is a clear dividing line between the historical consciousness of the political leaders I have written about—Sharon, Shamir, Peres, Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak—and that of the writers of the books I also discuss (excluding, of course, the books written by the leaders themselves). To use Nietzsche's terminology, the line is that between the monumental and the critical approach to history.

    Nietzsche distinguishes three human situations: acting, respecting others, and suffering. Monumental history is associated with the acting hero. People who create this type of history are in situations of great conflict and need heroes from the past to identify with. In the face of difficulties and obstacles, these past heroes demonstrate that the difficulties are temporary and that once they are overcome there is greatness to be attained. David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, served as a monumental hero for political leaders like Rabin, Peres, and Sharon. The Maccabiah ceremony begins with a torch relay, in which the torch is handed on from Modi'in, the place where the Maccabees' revolt against the Greeks broke out in the second century B.C.E., until it reaches Tel Aviv. The monumental approach sees history as a relay in which the historical heroes are the torchbearers. In Ben-Gurion's monumental perspective his predecessors were Moses, who took the Israelites out of Egypt and handed the torch to Joshua, who conquered the Land of Canaan and handed the torch to rulers who handed it on to King David, and then to Judas Maccabaeus, who rebelled against the Greeks and established the Hasmonean Kingdom; the torch was then handed on to Bar Kokhba, who rebelled against the Romans, but then it was extinguished for two millennia, until finally it was rekindled by Ben-Gurion himself.

    Critical history, on the other hand, is a response to moral distress. It attempts to settle accounts with the past, indeed to serve up indictments against the past. Critical historians select facts about the past the way prosecuting attorneys do: to make a convincing case against the accused. They consider themselves the exact opposite of antiquarian and monumental historians. And the monumental and critical approaches clash not only over what happened but also over what might have happened instead. Israeli historians who take the critical view stress the opportunities that were missed—for saving Jews during the Holocaust, for making peace with the Arabs at various junctures, for establishing a more just socialist society or an open liberal one. (Sometimes the two types switch. Critical historians, who in principle underplay the importance of individual will in shaping history, nevertheless blame the heroes for various failures, as if life had been subject to their will. And monumental historians, who supposedly give decisive weight to the will of leaders, tend to present those leaders' cruel decisions as a manifestation of the inevitable course of history.)

    Both monumental and critical histories of Zionism are largely reactions to its pretensions of having brought about a revolution in Jewish life. The state of Israel is the product of an ideology whose standard-bearers considered themselves revolutionaries. The combination of ideology and revolution on the one hand gives rise to monumental history, and on the other invites a sharply critical view. Indeed, the very use of the word "revolution" is suspect because every historical event that people want to invest with drama and importance is given the honorific title "revolution." "Revolution" is especially suspect in the case of Zionism, for Zionism does not fit the stereotype of a revolution at all. Many of the early Western European Zionists were more like Victorian philanthropists than revolutionaries. And the Zionist movement in its early stages was so full of idle chatter it could not be seriously considered revolutionary. Just looking at the photographs of the representatives at the First Zionist Congress, mummified in their stiff collars and black frock coats, is enough to suggest that the combination of "Zionism" and "revolution" is as oxymoronic as "cold fire." In fact, most of these early Zionists were philanthropists who considered the "Jewish problem" to be not their own personal problem but rather the problem of their poor relatives in Eastern Europe, to the solution of which they had to contribute something.

    The Hebrew author S. Y. Agnon, a Nobel laureate and a committed but ironic Zionist, wrote a story in which an implicit comparison is made between a group of Zionists who travel to a Galician town and a Bundist socialist who happens to be on the same train on his way to the same town to meet his fiancée. (The Bund was a radical Jewish socialist movement that in prerevolutionary Russia was at least as large as the Communist Party.) The day they arrive there is a pogrom against the Jews in that town. The Bundist, who rushes to their defense, is arrested by the police, and his shackled hands are bleeding. At that very moment the Zionist leader arrives, carrying a bouquet of roses he has received at a Zionist banquet. The Bundist turns out to be the true revolutionary who is willing to sacrifice himself. His hands are red with his own blood while the Zionist's hands are red with roses. Agnon suspected that only socialists were capable of total devotion whereas Zionists were destined to hold ceremonies.

    Nevertheless I believe that the Zionist movement at its practical level, putting its ideas into action, had true revolutionary zest and great willingness to endure personal sacrifice, no less than the Bund. This Zionism considered the "Jewish problem" its own problem and aspired to revolution in the deep sense of the word—what Nietzsche calls a "reevaluation of all values." Practical Zionism tried to promote a radical transformation of values in Jewish life, not a mere change --even if a fundamental one—in the social order in which Jews might find a solution to their problem. But it did not aspire to be revolutionary in the sense of violent action. The French Revolution, which was very bloody indeed, has become a paradigm for revolutions in general, and the trait of violence has taken over the concept of revolution to the point where they are generally conflated. But I believe that violence is linked with revolution only correlatively, not essentially.


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