May 15, 2008
Post-Zionism in a diaspora world
For centuries, for Jews, the notion of living free in Zion was a dream. In Theodor Herzl's famous essay, "The Jewish State," the journalist and playwright transformed the dream of living in a Jewish state into a goal.
"Next year in Jerusalem," the words we say at the end of every seder, was in those days a true aspiration for nationhood. Today, it is often treated as the lead-in to a joke whose punch line is, "And if we're lucky, next year at ... (fill in the blank for someone's home or any luxurious destination)."
The notion that all Jews should one day live in Israel was very much part of my own childhood Hebrew school education, and I recall many elders talking about their dreams of retiring to Israel or being buried in Israel.
As I was growing up, it seemed that Jewish immigration to Israel, making aliyah, was the silver lining to be found in every contemporary Jewish Diaspora calamity: Soviet Jewry is suffering? Then let them go ... to Israel. Ethiopian Jews in trouble? Airlift them ... to Israel. More recently, after calamities in Argentina and anti-Semitic attacks in France, incentives were offered to families to move to Israel. Yet I imagine these campaigns were less successful than those of my youth. In part this has to do with the global community we live in now.
Here in Diaspora Los Angeles 2008, Israeli culture is woven into my daily fabric: On any given day, I can find myself watching an Apple Computer commercial featuring "New Soul" by French-born Israeli singer Yael NaÃ¯m, or watching HBO's "In Treatment," which is based on an Israeli show. A recent L.A. Weekly issue carried a profile of short story writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret written by film critic Ella Taylor, who once lived in Israel herself.
Israelis seem to be everywhere -- at the mall, all the kiosks are manned by Israelis; the most popular vendor in the food court sells shwarma; and Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art, is taught just down the street. Santa Monica might be home to more British citizens, but I just seem to notice the Israelis.
Once upon a time, Israelis living here would have been viewed as disloyal -- dropouts. Today, they are just another ethnic community placing a stake in Los Angeles.
This is post-Zionism.
As Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary, it seems that we have entered an age where living in Israel is no longer the goal of all, or even most, Jews in the Diaspora -- even for some born there. This begs the question, what then is Israel in the hearts and minds of today's Jews? What should it be?
Israel was founded as something of an agrarian socialist utopian society -- its form of government inspired by the Mensheviks. The kibbutz was the soul of the country. But that hasn't been the case for several decades. What is the soul of the country today? Its high-tech industry? Its army?
Perhaps it is Israel's diversity.
In a recent interview in Germany's weekly Die Welt, author Amos Oz said, "When I look at the German or other European media and see that image of Israel it creates, I learn that Israel supposedly consists of 80 percent religious fanatics, 10 percent settlers in West Jordan, 9 percent brutal soldiers and 1 percent intellectuals who criticize the government and who are wonderful writers. This is of course a distortion of reality."
The reality is that Israel is a country that prides itself on having at least one of everything (from ski mountain to Dead Sea, from tofu factory to star fruit farm); what doesn't Israel produce, manufacture and what can't you do there? Israel has produced world-class literature and has a vigorous free press that voices every opinion on every side of every issue and uncovers every scandal, and it has a Supreme Court that has come to be the moral conscience of the country.
Nonetheless, one can argue that the main impact of post-Zionism has been to make Israel less self-absorbed and the Diaspora more so.
In Israel itself, 60 years of existential peril have created a sense of living in the moment -- currently there is a surprising sense of well-being among certain strata of the Israeli population that comes from focusing on family, on work and on materialistic concerns divorced from national and political concerns. When you live in the moment, you can live anywhere: This, in part, explains the lessened stigma of being an Israeli who chooses not to live in Israel.
By contrast, for Jews in the Diaspora, while Israel remains a touchstone in their hearts and minds, and the life-changing trip to Israel is a de rigueur experience, there is nevertheless a growing malaise about Israel and its policies, whether you are on the far left, or the far right. This is true even among people like me, who consider themselves centrists, but who are too left for the right and too right for the left.
I am reminded of the Israelites in Exodus who, when delivered from Egypt, began to complain, and continued to complain at each turn -- about being in the wilderness, about the food, about their thirst and on and on. In a similar vein, it strikes me that the age of post-Zionism is also the age of complaining. There may even be a reason for it.
In the mid-1980s, Israeli archives adopted a liberal policy of declassifying official documents, giving historians and journalists access to troves of official papers related to Israel's founding and early years. Many historians, most notably Tom Segev and Benny Morris, began to search out the truth of those early years. In time, they and others, collectively referred to as "the New Historians," wrote a series of books about the mandate era, the war for independence, and the 1967 Six-Day War -- revisiting the pillars of Israel's national story -- the most recent of which is Morris' just-published "1948 -- A History of the First Arab-Israeli War" (Yale University Press). As these accounts have been translated into English, journalists, historians and readers alike have had to confront some difficult facts.
Contrary to the national narrative of manifest destiny that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora had come to accept as gospel, the history of Israel turns out to be far more complex. The historical record reveals what had been hidden or glossed over in the service of nationalism: That in birthing a nation, the Israelis did not all have clean hands -- Arabs were expelled, their villages destroyed, massacres and rapes occurred. These are anguishing events, and we are too close in time to not feel their blot on the collective self-image. They are fresh enough to color and contribute to a sense of existential crisis about Israel on its 60th anniversary.