Dr. Diana Pinto is a French-Italian Intellectual Historian and policy analyst living in Paris. Dr. Pinto, who received her PhD from Harvard University, is a former senior fellow and board member of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. She is a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and was the editor-in-chief of Belvédère, France’s first pan-European review for a general public. She also worked as a Consultant to the Political Directorate of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe for its civil society programs in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
In part one of this exchange about her new book 'Israel has moved' (Harvard University Press, 2013), we discuss the idea that Israeli society is 'autistic'.
Dear Dr. Pinto,
In your new book, 'Israel has Moved', you vividly present your personal experiences in Israel and all the absurdities you encounter in it as manifestations of a heightened super-reality, products of a society which pretends it lives in a 'cyberspace of its own'. Israel in your book is depicted as a place which is- not unlike Jean Baudrillard's America- detached from time and space as the rest of the world knows them.
Facing the burden of an overwhelming past and a problematic present, Israelis in your narrative seem to be constantly oscillating between two extremes- escapist 'bubblesque' denial and borderline messianic fervor. This leads you to describe Israeli society as 'autistic'. You elaborate on the image-
This condition which occurs among the young (and Israel is both very young as a state and very old as a people), who are often quite brilliant in certain fields, defines those who cannot think of themselves as living in a world populated by others. They do not register the gaze or the emotions of others and are therefore unable to communicate or interact with them because they do not grasp or understand what might motivate them.
Throughout the book you continue to describe several examples of what you see as 'Israeli autism', but I must say that at times it seems that the 'autistic' behaviors you detect might be seen as such simply on account of the region of the world in which they occur and on account of what the world might expect people living in 'The Middle East', 'the Jewish State', or 'a country at war' to be like-
While being immersed in American pop-culture, organizing a consumer strike, or running an a-political jazz club would seem like the most legitimate normative thing in the world for a young person in 'the west', in Israel such activities automatically make the person who does them 'in denial' or turn him into an inhabitant of a 'bubble'. It's almost as if he is expected to constantly contemplate his Jewish identity and debate the Israel-Palestine conflict 24/7 instead (If he does, by the way, he might be described as obsessive and- once more- as autistic).
Don't you think you (and many other outsiders looking in at Israel) might be putting too much on the shoulders of people who, after all, are forced to do 3 years of mandatory military service and who get more news shoved down their throats than any other people in the world (whether they like it or not)? What kind of lives do you expect Israelis to live for you to reconsider your use of the 'autistic' label?
I'm looking forward to your response,
I wrote 'Israel has Moved' to come to grips with my own highly contradictory impressions concerning Israel in the last two years. I was caught up in a feeling of euphoria over the country’s amazing technological and scientific accomplishments, its vital and creative civil society, and its sheer existential energy. But I was also gripped by a feeling of total depression, even anguish, when I examined how Israel, as a country, went about interacting with the rest of the world, with its own highly different Jewish citizens, not to mention its own non-Jewish citizens, and the Palestinians next door.
At no point did I find anything in Israel “absurd”, not even the followers of the Temple Institute. Everyone in Israel seems to follow his or her eminently built-in logic stemming from a country that has no separation of Synagogue and State, has no clear borders, and is guided more by Memory and a long list of existential enemies than by conventional classical History with its pageant of wars, truces but also compromises and peace.
You compare my book to Jean Baudrillard’s America, an interesting take. The United States indeed shares many characteristics with Israel: the same biblical, Jewish and Puritan, understanding of its roots, the same sense of national mission, the same aversion to any supra-national interference. But there is a major difference: America is huge, with clear unthreatened borders, and with an inclusive understanding of citizenship. Israel is small, lives in a lousy neighborhood with unclear borders, and was defined from the onset paradoxically as a Jewish and democratic State, but not really as the country of all of its citizens. At a personal level, however, I am not sure my book can be compared to Baudrillard’s. His was a cold post-modern reading of a country toward which he felt distant. My reading of Israel may be critical, even anguished, but it is based on a very strong bond with the land and its people.
I came to the conclusion that Israel drew both its strengths and weaknesses from the fact that it thought of itself as living in a world of its own- not just because of its geopolitical surroundings - and in cyberspace (which is only its most recent incarnation). The reasons for this are far deeper, and may stretch back to Israel’s own biblical origins.
And this brings me to the “autism” issue. I put the term in quotes because as I mentioned in my introduction, this startling reference is not mine. It would never have occurred to me to define Israel as autistic. I was stunned by its use in the most casual and straightforward manner by several Israelis (both religious and secular) who tried to define their country. One in particular: an important religious Israeli educator who teaches Talmud to essentially secular audiences. The passage you quote from my book is thus not the fruit of an arrogant outsider defining Israel in some peremptory manner. Rather as an outsider, I was trying to understand the meaning of this home-grown Israeli reference. I reached the conclusion that one can also be autistically brilliant: doing things in one’s own way, positively, whether in the Jewish people’s unique link to God (implying virtually no conversions), in the founding of one’s own state, even if it was not “a land without a people for a people without a land”, in the most creative pursuits, but also negatively in the handling of recent wars or in the violent boarding of the Mavi Marmara.
I find the term ‘autistic’ useful to describe the Israeli State, but that does not mean that Israelis as individuals are autistic or that they live autistic lives. Many however, having reached the conclusion that the outside world is inherently hostile to them, no longer listen to its sounds, even when they incarnate genuine democratic critiques and no built-in anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic sentiments… and that is an autism of sorts. Conversely, ever growing numbers of Israelis step out of the country to breathe more easily, some even moving out in a more or less permanent manner, or simply enjoying the privileges of their second passports. It may only be true for a small (but in reality not so small) elite, but what elites do is not without symbolic value. I do not accuse Israelis of being autistic for wanting to live normal lives: that was the whole point of the state-building enterprise wasn’t it? If there is negative autism, it lies more in their inability, except for a few courageous NGO’s, to see that Israel cannot go on having its cake and eating it too, i.e., continue governing/occupying (the term here does not matter so much as the consequences) under the rubric of a Jewish State a land so full of non-Jewish citizens and of Palestinians or immigrant others.
As a foreigner, I would not presume to put any burden on the shoulders of Israelis who have to do three years of mandatory service nor can I judge when Israelis should stop defining themselves as autistic. But as a Jew I feel that I am entitled to examine Israel with a different set of glasses if only to offer an added perspective on a country which is not just ‘another foreign country’ for me.