(Looking for the Open Thread? Click here).
I’ve been observing Israel for more than a quarter of a century, and I’ve noticed a thing or two.
Last week, a handful of these noticed-things suddenly knit themselves together in my cluttered mind and I realized: This refusing to admit that the Palestinians are a people as worthy of a home as the Jews? And this assumption that Israel can set the parameters of Judaism for every Jew every where?
They’re the same thing.
Or, rather: They stem from the same cultural attitude.
Before I returned to the states in 1998, I had lived in Israel for 14 years, and been obsessed with it for 16. In that time, I got my bachelor’s degree from Tel Aviv University, battled the bureaucracy of the Interior Ministry on the regular, absorbed the heat and humidity into the very center of the marrow of my bones, and fell in and out of love with a short list of men (one of them Palestinian) born and raised within its narrow green lines. Which is to say: I was of the place.
I think I’ve already established that I love Israel and still feel the Jewish State to be my one true home. And I think that I’ve further established that my peace advocacy comes not just out of burning sense of shame over the injustice handed the Palestinians, but from a bottomless longing that Israel might one day be truly free of the dysfunction that characterizes it now. Free of fear, free of falsehood, free of responsibility for the disaster of other peoples’ lives. Free to finally, truly, flourish.
But dude, I’ve always known that the place wasn’t perfect.
What place is? No place is. But one of the Israeli imperfections that most plagued me, all 14 years that I actually lived there, is something that I see in virtually every news-cycle these days: a powerful, almost frantic urge that Israeli society in general and Israeli individuals in particular have to label everyone.
Americans are this, Germans are that, European women one thing, mizrahi women another, Tel Avivis are such-like, Jerusalemites something-else-again. On and on and freaking on. And if you argued? You were told that you were wrong. About yourself.
It occasionally drove me to absolute, teeth-grinding, tear-shedding distraction. I remember writing about it in my journal, saying something to the effect that we were all constantly being “put into these boxes all the time!!” I don’t remember what set me off that day, but I can imagine.
But — one begins to wonder — why on earth did this surprise me? For as long as I’d known Israel, it’d been telling the Palestinians that they weren’t a people; the Arabs that they were an undifferentiated mass; and the Jews who weren’t Jews like them that they were not very good Jews at all. It’s a country, for heaven’s sake, which calls its-teeny-tiny-self Ha’Aretz — The Land — and everywhere else on the globe Hootz La’Aretz — Outside Of The Land.
The through line appears to be that Israel as a society, and many Israelis as individuals, believe that they can write the narrative. I’m sorry: The Narrative. Not just for themselves, but for you, too. Oh – and you.
I can only venture a guess as to why this is such a powerful characteristic of the entire nation’s character, but I think it’s a pretty good guess: Back in the day, when some Jews began to take on this newfangled notion of “nationalism,” they saw that their people shared the characteristics of a modern nation state: language, culture, and land (if only in memory).
But the way that these things had long been handled was as relics. They bound the people as a people, they kept alive the memories of all that had been lost and lost again, and they gave people joy and identity — but the culture, the language, and the memory of the land had not yet been seen as a doorway to something new.
Judaism’s pioneering nationalists had to look at the old texts, the old stories, the old rituals, and find new meanings. Judaism is eminently suited to such new readings of old materials (it’s not for nothing that we say HaTorah sheevim panim la, the Torah has 70 faces), but I can imagine that in those early days, the newness was of such a magnitude that it had to be very forcefully argued.
They were, after all, bound and determined to build a new Jew — one who farmed and fought, one who read scripture as history, not holy writ, one who based a democratic and egalitarian ethos in the very same Scripture that led their brethren to keep women behind a wall at prayers.
And they were doing so while millions of people continued to think them beneath contempt, or even worthy of slaughter “because of their peculiar noses.” The narrative had to be written hard, and fast, and it had to be powerfully felt.
Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t believe there’s anything more imagined in Jewish nationalism than in anyone else’s (including the Palestinians).
Nor do I think that Israelis are the only ones to play Subject to their Other, to tell an oppressed minority or conquered citizenry that they are not who they think themselves to be. Men have been telling women who they are through the ages; American whites have long been telling American blacks; the Chinese today tell the Tibetans — on and on.
But nations do manifest certain characteristics more than others, and having spent more than a quarter of a century watching Israel, I’ve finally seen what I believe to be the genuine through line in its most recent — indeed, its most enduring — controversies.
Israel thinks it can tell the world the way the whole story goes. In working so hard to establish its own story, it has forgotten that it’s not the only one with a narrative — and that more often than not, the Other knows him or herself better than the Subject can ever hope to.
It’s not, as so many in Israel believe, that no one understands them — it’s that they have no idea how badly they’ve misunderstood everyone else.
Just as I was pulling all this together in my head last week, Yediot (one of Israel’s rather-less-leftie dailies) ran this commentary: “The tragedy of arrogance: Israel’s troubles rooted in belief that we are better, wiser than Arabs, gentiles” — what can I say? Other than: Yup.
Israel/Palestine: the basics.
Israel/Palestine peace advocacy – places to start.
Israel/Palestine – a reading list.