The Jewish Experience - by Gilad Atzmon
Jun 10th, 2008
For more than half a century, those who have been trying to combat the forces that are behind the Israeli paradigm have been identifying Israeli policies and practice with Zionism and Zionist Ideology. I am afraid to say that they were wrong all the way along. Indeed, Zionism’s project dictates the plunder of Palestine in the name of Jewish national aspiration. It is also true to argue that Israel has been rather efficient in translating the Zionist philosophy into a devastating oppressive and murderous practice. Yet, Israelis, or more precisely, the vast majority of Israeli-born secular Jews, are not motivated or fuelled by Zionist ideology. Its spirit or symbols are virtually meaningless to them. As bizarre as it may sound to some, Zionism is either a foreign or just an archaic notion for most Israeli-born secular Jews.
Since the vast majority of Israelis are confused by the notion of Zionism, most forms of criticism that would label itself as anti-Zionist would have hardly any effect on Israel, Israeli politics or on the Israeli people. In other words, in the last sixty years, those who have been using the paradigm of Zionism and its antipode have been preaching to the converted.
A total review of the amalgam formed by Israel, Zionism and Jewishness is now overdue.
Once a year around Easter, my family leaves me behind for two weeks. My wife Tali and our two kids Mai (12) and Yann (7) make their way to Israel. My wife calls it a family visit, she insists that the kids must see their close relatives and my views on Israel, Jewish identity and global Zionism should never stand in the way or interfere with family matters. For the obvious reasons, I myself never go to Israel. I had decided ten years ago that unless Israel becomes a state of its citizens, I have nothing to do there.
In our first parental years in London Tali and I had some discussions about her favourite choice of Easter break. Initially I didn’t approve. I insisted that schlepping innocent youngsters to the apartheid ‘Jews only state’ would contribute little to their future well-being, and in fact, it may distort their ethical senses. In those early parental years Tali dismissed my fears, she argued that our kids should be treated as free human beings. They must be entitled to see their family and it is down to them to make up their minds when they are ready to do so.
When our kids were very young, I found it pretty difficult to sustain my argument. Mai and Yann didn’t have any interest in political or ethical complexities. However, as my kids grew up, their journey in and out of the Hebraic shtetl had become a major education chapter for myself more than for anyone else. Observing my kids transformed into light Israelophiles opened my eyes. I happened to grasp the impact of Israel and Zionism through the juvenile eyes of my British kids. I had learned to admit how easy it may be to fall in love with Israel.
My kids love it there. They adore the blue sky, they go on and on about the sea and the sandy beaches. I guess that they love humus and falafel. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that everything I have mentioned so far belongs to the land - i.e., Palestine rather than the state - i.e., Israel. However, it doesn’t end there. They also love to talk in Hebrew surrounded by Hebrew speakers, to laugh in Hebrew and even to get upset in Hebrew. They love the Hebraic Chutzpah that is inherently entangled with the Israeli openness. At the end of the day, Hebrew is their mother tongue.
When Tali and the kids land in cloudy London they happen to be confused and lost for a while. Tali becomes slightly nostalgic about the successful theatrical career she left behind. This obviously makes a lot of sense. The case of my kids is slightly more complicated. They are Brits. Though Hebrew is their mother tongue, English is their first language. In London they clearly miss some liberties they celebrated there: they want to keep on playing in the open fields, to bathe in the glorious Mediterranean sun overwhelmed by the dry spring blossoms. But far more noticeably, Israel resolves what seems as their inevitable emerging identity complex. While here in London they are troubled with their ethnic identity, they can never decide who they are, whether they are ex-Israelis, ex-Jews, Secular Jews, Christian by culture, the descendents of a Hebrew speaking Palestinian, the son and daughter of a notorious proud self-hater and so on. In Israel, and especially with their family around, none of those questions come into play. The Israelis tend to accept you as a qualified brother as long as you are not an Arab. While in multi-ethnic London my kids are often confronted with some obvious questions regarding their origin, questions they find hard to tackle a lot because of myself and my stand, in Israel those questions are non-existent.
When my kids come back to London, for a week or so they make me feel as if it is me and my lunacy which imposed these winter exilic conditions upon them. Deep inside I know that they are absolutely right. ‘Tough’, is all I can say in my defence.
For a week or so after their return my kids become light Zionists. It is not that they dispute what I say about Palestine, it is not that they develop any sense of Jewish national aspiration, it is not that my kids are blind to the suffering of the Palestinian people either. In fact my seven-year-old son is horrified by the gigantic wall and can’t stop asking about the people who live behind it. But, there is something they experience in Israel, something that makes Zionism into the biggest successful Jewish Diaspora narrative for over two millennia. It is not the ideology that makes Zionism successful, my kids do not care about ideology, they probably do not know what the word means. It is not the politics either, my kids do not know much about politics. It is all about belonging. Zionism is a symbolic identifier and it provides the Diaspora Jews with a symbolic order. It gives a signifier to every possible appearance, it creates a coherent and consistent world. It gives name to the sea, the sky, the sun, the land, brotherhood, yearning and friendship. But it also gives a name to the enemy, the goyim and even the self-haters. Zionism is a lucid world order, unfortunately it is merciless and murderous as well.
Through the eyes of my young kids I have an opportunity to study the meaning of Israel rather than its politics or practices. Through them I can see what Israel is there to offer and how forceful it may be. Analysing my children’s empathic relationship with Israel, I have now grasped that the contemporary Jewish experience is premised on two inherent sets of dialectics. One is set between Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora, the other can be formulated as ‘love yourself as much as you hate anyone else’.
Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora
“I am a human being, I am a Jew and I am an Israeli. Zionism was an instrument to move me from the Jewish state of being to the Israeli state of being. I think it was Ben-Gurion who said that the Zionist movement was the scaffolding to build the home, and that after the state’s establishment it should be dismantled.” (Avraham Burg, ‘Leaving the Zionist ghetto’ in an Interview with Ari Shavit, 25 July 2007)
As far as Israeli-born secular Jews are concerned, Zionism means very little. If Zionism is there to maintain that Jews are entitled to national home in Zion, the Israeli-born Jew lives this very realty to start with. For him/her, Zionism is a remote historical chapter associated with an old picture of a man with a big black beard (Herzl). For the Israelis, Zionism is not a transformation awaiting to happen, it is rather a boring, tedious, dated and dull historical chapter on the verge of bla bla. It is far less interesting than contemporary Olmert’s cash envelops or Obama turning into an Israeli Spokesman. Indeed, for the new Israelites, Galut (Diaspora) has some bad connotations. It is associated with ghettos, with shame and persecution, yet, this term doesn’t ascribe to downtown Manhattan or London’s Soho. In other words, Israelis do not tend to identify their migration out of Israel as a return to the Galut. Like other migrant populations, they just search for a better life. It must be mentioned that for most Israelis, Israel is far from being a heroic glorious location. Naturally, after 60 years with the same woman, one may fail to see her beauty anymore.
The so-called ‘Israeli’ i.e., an Israeli-born secular Jew, the successful product of post-revolutionary Zionism, is now so used to his existence in the region that he has lost his Jewish survival instinct. Instead, he adopts the most hedonistic interpretation of Western enlightened individualism that abolishes the last reminiscence of tribal collectivism. This may explain why Israel had been defeated in the last Lebanon war. The new Israeli doesn’t see any real reason to sacrifice himself on a collective Jewish altar. He is far more interested in exploring the pragmatic aspects of the philosophy of ‘good life’. This may explain as well why the Israeli military cannot tackle the growing threat of Qassam rockets. In order to do so, Israeli generals need to implement some courageous ground tactics. Seemingly, they learned their lesson in Lebanon: hedonistic societies do not produce Spartan warriors and without real warriors at your disposal you may better off fighting from afar. Instead of sending special infantry units into Gaza at dawn, it is apparently far easier to drop bombs on populated neighbourhoods or alternatively to starve its habitants to submission. Needless to say, the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Hezbollah, the Iranians and the entire Muslim world see it all. Day by day they review the Israeli cowardice tactics, they know that Israel’s days are numbered.
As interesting as it may sound, the Israelis are not that concerned with their fatal inevitable emerging reality, at least not consciously. Because their tribal survival instinct has been replaced by enlightened individualism, the young Israeli is concerned largely with personal survival rather than with any collective plan. The Israeli can go as far as asking, “how the hell can I get out of here?” The new secular Israeli Jew is an escapist. As soon as he/she finishes his/her compulsory duty, he or she would either rush to the airport or learn how to ’switch off’ all news channels. The amount of Israelis who leave their homeland is growing by the day. The rest, those who are doomed to stay, develop an apathetic culture of indifference.
Beaufort and Sderot
I recently watched Beaufort, an Israeli award winning war film. Though I wasn’t at all overwhelmed with the cinematic achievement, the film is an astonishing exposure of Israeli fatigue and defeatism. The film tells the story of an IDF special infantry unit (Golany) that is dug-in in a bunker within a Byzantine fortress on top of a mountain in southern Lebanon. The plot takes place days before the 1st Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon (2000). As it happens, the Israeli platoons are surrounded by Hezbollah warriors. Days and night they live in trenches, hide in concrete shelters and are subject to constant barrages of mortars and missiles. Though they all plan life after that hell they are caught into, they happen to die one after the other by an enemy they don’t even see.
The Israelis loved Beaufort, the world was slightly less convinced of its cinematic quality. If you ask yourself why the Israelis loved it so much, here is my answer. For the Israelis, the situation in the Beaufort is an allegory of a state that comes to realise its temporality and futile existence. As much as the Israeli soldiers are dreaming to run away as far as they can get, whether it is settling in NYC or ‘getting stoned’ in Goa, the Israeli society is coming to terms with its doomed fatality. Like the soldiers in the film, the Israelis want to become Americans, Parisians, Londoners and Berliners. The numbers of Israelis who are queuing for Polish passports are increasing by the day. Beaufort the film is a metaphor of a society that comes to terms with itself being in a siege. A society that comes to realise that there maybe no escape route whether it is a physical one or by the means of growing indifference. The film can be interpreted as a parable of a society that comes to terms with the gravest notion of its own temporality.
Interestingly enough, as much as the soldiers in the Beaufort and the people of Sderot or Ashkelon are confused by their will to leave everything behind and to run for their life, as much as they can’t see the point in clinging to where they are, for the Diaspora Jew, Israel is nothing less than a lucid model of glory. Israel is both the meaning and the meaning in its making. For the Diaspora Jew, Israel is the symbolic transformation aiming at liberation and even redemption of the Jewish misery. Israel is everything the Diaspora Jew is not. It is full of chutzpah, it is forceful, it is militant, it stands for what it believes in. Accordingly, for a young Jew from Golders Green or Brooklyn, making Aliyah or even just joining what he or she mistakenly regards as the heroic Israeli army, is far more glorious than joining dad’s law firm, dental studio, or accountant company.
Being horrified by the remote possibility that my kids may surprise me one day by suggesting that they may consider spending some time in Israel on their own without their mother’s parental guidance, I recently started to grasp that which Israel is there to offer world Jews. In fact, not many Jewish parents would stop their son or daughter from joining the IDF, why should they? The IDF is a very safe army to be in, it avoids ground battle, it kills from afar, it values its soldier as much as it loves inflicting the ultimate pain on others. Every Jewish father must accept that it may be useful for his youngster to learn how to drive a tank, fly a helicopter or shoot an MK 47. Unlike the shockingly under-equipped Palestinian warriors who die in vast quantities on a daily basis, the Israeli soldiers hardly risk their lives. Hence, the heroic Aliyah and even joining the IDF, seems to be a safe adventure, at least for the time being.
Though it is rather clear that most young Diaspora Jews choose to get on with their lives wherever they are and to avoid ‘taking advantage of’ the Zionist Aliyah challenge, Zionism still provides them with a symbolic identifier. Zionism and its Aliyah operators offer them the opportunity to either identify with the few who went that far or to themselves become soldiers in one of the strongest armies in the world.
Zionism invented the Jewish nation and set its national home, Israel, into a devastating conflict that is now taking a global shape and has become a serious global threat. Yet, for the Israelis, those who happen to be in the eye of the storm, ‘Zionism’ means very little. Israelis join the IDF not because they are Zionists but because they are Jews (as opposed to the Muslims around them). This crucial realisation may convey a new meaning for the notion of the ‘wandering Jew’. The dialectic that is set between the Diaspora and Eretz Yisrael leads towards a counter flow of migration, aspiration and yearning. The Diaspora Jews are aspired by Israel in the light of the Zionist fantasy, the Israeli Jews, on the other hand, are determined to escape their emerging siege. The Diaspora is heading towards Eretz Yisrael, the Israeli Jews, at large, are desperate to get out.
This counter flow of migration/aspiration is far from being a matter of contingency, in fact it is the direct product of the holy Judaic scriptures. As I explored in my ‘Esther to AIPAC’ paper, more and more Bible scholars are now disputing the historicity of the Bible. Seemingly, the Bible is for most part “written after the Babylonian Exile and whose writings rework (and in large part invent) previous Israelite history so that it reflects and reiterates the experiences of those returning from the Babylonian exile.”
Consequently, the Bible, being an exilic text, leads to a fragmented reality in which the Diaspora Jew yearns for ‘homecoming’ yet once at home, the ideology loses its appeal. The case of Zionism is shockingly similar, it has managed to aspire some Jews about Zion, yet, once in Zion, the ideology fails to provide for the domestic adventure.
We can clearly detect a dialectic tension between Zionism, a Diaspora Jewish identity and Israeliness, which is largely related to the Hebraic project. Zionism and Israel are two diverse poles that together form the contemporary Jewish Experience.
Love Yourself as much as you Hate Everyone Else
Once we understand the dialectic opposition between Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora, we are ready to move on and reflect upon the unique complimentarily relationships between the two.
As much as Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora establish a counter flow of aspiration and migration, Israel is there to establish a coherent and consistent symbolic interpretation of Jewish tribal chauvinism and supremacy. Israel makes ‘love yourself as much as you hate everyone else’ into a devastating reality, in which the self-lover happens to be capable of inflicting the ultimate pain on his surrounding neighbours.
In order to understand the Jewish concept of self-loving, we may have to reflect first on the issue that makes this particular form of personal emotional consciousness take place: the issue of chosenness.
While the religious Judaic understanding of Jewish chosenness is realised as a moral burden in which Jews are ordered by God to stand as a model of ethical behaviour, the secular Jewish interpretation is reduced into a banal chauvinist form of racially orientated supremacy. It clearly encourages those who are lucky enough to have a Jewish mother to love themselves blindly. It is crucial to mention at this stage that in most cases Jewish supremacy would lead to a certain level of dismissal of the elementary rights of the other. In many cases it leads toward animosity and even hatred whether latent or manifest.
It is this supremacy which stands at the heart of the Zionist claim for Palestine at the expense of its indigenous inhabitants. But it obviously doesn’t end with Palestine, the radical manifestation of Jewish lobbying for extension of the “War Against Terror” as expressed, for instance, by the AJC is just another example. I would never dare say that this type of war mongering is inherent to Jews (as people), yet, unfortunately, it is rather symptomatic to Jewish tribal political thinking left, right and centre. Thus, it shouldn’t take us by surprise that at the forefront of the struggle for humanism and universal ethics we meet Jews such as Jesus, Spinoza and Marx. These people who went out of their way to introduce a notion of brotherhood stood primarily against the tribal supremacy they found in themselves and in their cultural heritage. They above all protested against what was familiar to them and suggested brotherhood and love instead.
However, we may note that Jesus, Spinoza and Marx, didn’t manage to transform the Jews (as a collective), though they had a bit of success with some of them. Seemingly, the move from hard-core dogmatic monotheistic tribalism towards tolerant pluralist universalism is on the verge of the impossible. Indeed, more than a few Jews have managed to leave God behind, as we know some had become Marxists but somehow even many of those remained loyal to their monotheistic tribally exclusive ‘Jews only’ philosophy (Bund, JAZ). Others moved as far as becoming a ‘nation like other nations’ (Zionism) except that they made sure they cleansed and killed those who didn’t fit ethnically to their vision of themselves (1948 Nakba). Some became so liberal and cosmopolitan that they managed to reduce contemporary global conflict into a simplistic take on ’soft drink’. “People who drink Coca Cola do not fight each other”, they informed us. This may be the truth, however, as it seems, the Coke drinkers have recently killed 1.5 million Iraqis all in the name of ‘democracy’.
It is extremely crucial to mention that many Jews have managed to assimilate and to leave their tribal traits behind, they operate as ordinary human beings. They have nothing to do with Bund, Neocons or Zionism. Seemingly, those truly liberated beings are not the subject of my study, and I can only wish them luck and success.
However, though Jews are divided between themselves on many things, they are united in fighting those who they collectively identify as their enemies. It took me a while to realise that those who operate under the exclusive Jewish banner within the Palestinian solidarity and the Anti-War movements are primarily concerned with fighting any references to Jewish lobbying or Jewish power.
One explanation was provided earlier on. Zionism per se, has little to do with Israel, it is an internal Diaspora Jewish discourse. Consequently, the debate between Zionists and Jewish anti-Zionists has no significance on Israel or the struggle against Israeli actions. It is there to keep the debate within the family while planting more confusion amongst the goyim. It allows the Jewish ethnic campaigner to maintain that “not all Jews are Zionists, in fact there are almost two dozen ‘Jewish Anti Zionists’ around the world”. As pathetic as it may sound, this dull argument has been good enough to effectively shatter any criticism of Jewish ethnocentric lobbying that may have been voiced the last four decades. Seemingly (and unfortunately), when it comes to ‘action’, the Zionists and the so-called Jewish ‘anti’-Zionists are acting as one people. Why are they acting as one people? Because they are one people. Are they really one people? It doesn’t matter as long as they themselves believe to be or act as if they are. And what is it that makes them into one people? They probably hate everyone else as much as they love themselves.
There is an old Jewish saying, “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are”, it would be most appropriate to amend it into a far more refined reading of Jewish contemporary tribal politics. “Just tell me who you hate and I’ll tell you who you are”. If, for instance, you hate Finkelstein, Atzmon, Blankfort, Mearsheimer & Walt and so on, you must be Jewish. If you just don’t agree with any of the above you can actually be anyone.
Hatred and even personal loathing is sadly symptomatic to Jewish tribal politics, probably something to do with Jewish politics being marginal and defined by negation. Noticeably, Israel has managed to perfect it and give it real new meaning. While the Diaspora Jew is entitled to love himself, his hatred to the other is largely suppressed. As much as some Jews may like to follow their religious calling and spit on churches or just destroy the lives of prominent academics and artists, hatred and violence is not tolerated within the contemporary Western discourse. This is exactly where Israel comes into play. As much as the Israelis love themselves, they are capable of hating anyone else. They are capable of starving millions of Palestinians, they are capable of killing when they feel like it. Israel made ‘love yourself/ hate everyone else’ into a viable practice. It resolved the most inherent ambivalent tension having to do with self-loving while being amongst others. Israel doesn’t just hate Prof. Finkelstein, it is capable of detaining and deporting him as well. Israel doesn’t just hate the Palestinians, it is equally capable of starving them, locking them behind walls and barbed wire, bombing them and even nuking the hardliners when the time is ripe.
This is the most frightening aspect of complimentarily between Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora. It is the materialisation of a hate-ridden society. After two millennia of wandering, the newly reformed national Jew is capable of not just hating but also of inflicting the ultimate pain on those he may hate.
Exploring the Jewish Question
Once a year, around Easter, my family leaves me behind for two weeks. My wife Tali and our two kids Mai and Yann make their way to Israel. I can clearly see how much they love it there. I can clearly understand what is it that they love there. Gladly, I can say that at least for the time being, my kids are not madly in love with themselves and do not see themselves as part of any tribal collective. Consequently, they do not hate anyone either.
However, through their experience I can see what Israel is there to offer, especially to those who do not dwell there. I can see how successful the Israeli adventure looks from afar. Through their experience I learn about the dialectic between the Israel/Hebraic domestic quest and the Zionist/Diaspora aspiration. The negation and complimentarily between the Hebraic and the Diaspora is the essence of contemporary Jewish experience.
If we want to tackle the crimes committed by Israel and the evil promoted by global Zionist lobbies, we better initiate a profound study of the Jewish question and the Jewish experience. It is not just Israel or Zionism but rather the unique devastating amalgam of complexity formed by both. Unless we question the Jewish experience, we are doomed to continue wasting our time employing irrelevant archaic 19th century terminology that has nothing to do with the conflict.
Once we are brave enough to explore the Jewish question and Jewish identity we may be able to understand that Israeli apartheid is not just political circumstances, it is actually a natural outcome of a particular racially orientated tribal philosophy. The Israeli wall is not a political measure but rather a manifestation of an exclusive racist attitude that stands at the core of the Jewish notion of segregation. Once we stand up and insist upon interpreting Israeli/Zionist scrutinising of the Jewish question we may as well grasp why Senator Obama rushed to the AIPAC conference three hours after his nomination for the Democratic Party was secured. The set of promises made by Obama, Clinton and McCain in AIPAC a few days ago is in fact a true reflection of the contemporary Jewish experience. The senators feed the Jewish American prominent lobbyists exactly with the food they want to swallow. At the expense of the Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, Iranians and billion Muslims, American politicians openly promise that America will keep being biased. Seemingly, America prefers to appease its tiny Jewish minority instead of being an international mediator and a true genuine negotiator.
I would strongly argue that in the light of the crimes committed by the Jewish state in the name of the Jewish people, we are perfectly entitled to question the philosophy and praxis involved with Jewish experience. We should never be intimidated by Jewish ethnic activists and Zionist smear campaigners.
Since Jews do not form a race but largely succumb to some different forms of collective, racially orientated politics, we shouldn’t be afraid of touching the matter. Once we take it as a given that Jews do not form a race, the study of Jewish identity and politics is neither racism nor essentialism. It is actually the very opposite, it is in fact a critical reading of racist ideology and its inherent supremacy.
Those of us who regard Israel and Zionism as the grave danger to world peace must pursue in this study. Rather than focusing separately on Zionism or Israel, we must learn the unique amalgam of complexity that is formed by both. This dialectic compound shapes the contemporary notion of Jewish Experience. Zionism in itself is no more than a decoy. It is there to grab our attention and divert our focus. Seemingly our attack on Zionism has no significance on Israel, its policies and its people. At the most, it disturbs some Zionist Jews.
As much as the study of the ‘Jewish Experience’ may help us to save millions of lives of Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians, it is also a Jewish collective interest to understand the true nature of the Jewish experience and politics. At the end of the day, it is Jewish politics (rather than religion) that may eventually demonise the entire Jewish collective for the next millennia to come. It is a Jewish collective interest to stop the political beast before it is too late.
I owe it to my Palestinian brothers and sisters, I owe it to myself, I owe it to Yann and Mai, I want to make sure that by the time they protest against my own ‘anti-Jewish experience’ I’ll be clever enough to discuss it all with them in an open and thoughtful manner.
 According to Dr. Israel Shahak, in his book Jewish History, Jewish Religion, this practice has ancient roots and has become increasingly commonplace: Dishonoring Christian religious symbols is an old religious duty in Judaism. Spitting on the cross, and especially on the Crucifix, and spitting when a Jew passes a church, have been obligatory from around AD 200 for pious Jews. In the past, when the danger of anti-Semitic hostility was a real one, the pious Jews were commanded by their rabbis either to spit so that the reason for doing so would be unknown, or to spit onto their chests, not actually on the cross or openly before the church.
Top Image by Ben Heine