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Jewish Journal

Post-Zionism in a diaspora world

by Tom Teicholz

May 15, 2008 | 6:00 pm

What does it mean to be a Jew in a Post-Zionist 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 Naïm, 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.In each country's annals, including those of the United States, we must accept those facts we can't ignore, the dark actions that stain our history. Individuals may argue their significance, sometimes for generations to come. But we need only accept them as our past -- we are not compelled to imbue them with any greater power in the present beyond accepting them and saying: How shall we go forward?

There will always be those, Jewish and not, who can only focus on Israel's wrongs as an indictment of all Israelis and Israel's right to exist. At the same time, there will always be those, Jewish and not, who will cite a double standard applied to Israel as a way to avoid confronting those wrongs in Israel's past and its present.

As each group gets more vocal, empowered by the Internet, blogs and a polarization that preaches opinion to its own fervent choir, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand up to the clatter and to voice a simple truth: That a true democracy thrives, regardless of the bad and regrettable actions of individuals in one regime's government (as is evidenced by what's going on right now in this country). That is the point of a democracy. A post-Zionist will continue to believe in Israel's dream of an open society, with truly democratic institutions and a democratic rule of law.

Herzl wrote his essay, "The Jewish State," in reaction to witnessing France's Dreyfus trial. Herzl felt that the only answer to the anti-Semitism he saw in Europe was to found a Jewish state. Today, we hear that anti-Semitism exists in Europe and elsewhere because of actions of the Jewish state (plus ça change.....).

By some accounts, there are now more Jews living in Israel than in any single country in the world, yet anti-Semitism continues to flare up even in countries with little or no Jewish population

How in this age of post-Zionism do we distinguish between criticism of Israel and its supporters (both Israeli and American), and criticism informed or motivated by anti-Semitism?

From my experience (and I have met quite a few Holocaust revisionists), more than anything, the issue boils down to the Gestalt, not the simple fact of criticism but the pattern, the language, the generalizations, the tone. Although that doesn't sound very precise (and I'm afraid it is not), let me refer you to someone who has done some serious research on the subject:

April Rosenblum, a Philadelphia-based progressive activist was troubled enough by her leftist friends not standing up to anti-Semitism that she produced a 32-page pamphlet, "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere." While critical of American and Israeli policies, the pamphlet explains in the language of the struggle how anti-Semitism weakens the cause of those committed to social action.

Rosenblum's is one response. But the point is that, for those imbued with the Gestalt of supporting and defending Israel, post-Zionism means finding a way to speak truth to Israel's faults as well as to those with anti-Semitic agendas.

As Israel turns 60, post-Zionism is a love of Israel without borders, unafraid to accept truth and confident that a democratic Jewish state, despite its imperfections and failings, will continue to nourish our souls, and will one day fulfill its promise; and that as part of our covenant, we will continue to dream and work and support Israel, so that promise may come true in our lifetimes.

These words, which for years I've mumbled in Hebrew, without paying them any attention, seem strangely appropriate. They were written by a Naftali Herz Imber in Zolochiv, Ukraine, in 1878. You may know them as the words to the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikvah":


As long as in the heart, within,
A soul of a Jew is yearning,
And to the edges of the East, forward,
An eye gazes toward Zion
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.


Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.



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