As an Israeli recently arrived in London, I decided to attend an event arranged by members of the London Jewish community.
It was a debate between four Jews – a novelist, two commentators, and a philosopher – on the question of whether Jews are “growing ashamed of being Jewish”. It was quite a strange experience for me; I quickly came to realize that the discussion had little to do with how Jews feel about Judaism or their identity, and that it had no relevance to questions of pride or shame; rather it was code for gauging attitudes towards Israel: whether as a Jew you should stand with it in its existential struggle; whether you have the right and duty to criticize it politically; and to what degree it is a victim or a regional power. “The growing shame” wasn’t about being Jewish at all, but about Middle East politics.
I sat in the audience for a few hours, confused and embarrassed. In front of me others were debating politely, arguing, asking questions, and applauding – about what (they think) is happening in my country. And I insist: my country, not theirs. Each speaker considered him or herself to know the “facts”, and his or her opponents to be ignorant and even dangerous. They all care about Israel, but their treatment of it made me very uncomfortable; I felt it was impudent and violent. They were arguing about the future of the country I – not they – live in, to which I – not they – pay taxes, and to whose army I – not they – gave more than five years as an officer (and may be required to send my children and grandchildren one day). If the consequences are felt by me, my family and my friends, what right did they have to argue so passionately and confidently as to what is in our best interests? Whether Israel should or shouldn’t negotiate with the Palestinians, must or must not sign a peace agreement, or how we should treat human rights violations in our own society.
Perhaps, if one day one of the speakers happens to be present at a panel discussion on “the Jewish community in London”, in a foreign country, in another language, they will begin to understand how odd the experience was for me, as an Israeli, to sit and listen to them analyzing Israel’s condition in the regional and global arena, and deciding what they should do with/for us. I felt like the object of othering and Orientalism, of glorification and of belittlement at the same time.
It seems to me that when they said “Israel”, they had in mind some imaginary place, constructed out of fragments of information, with a great deal of emotion and arguments, in support of one side or another. To some minds came images of the Kibbutz or of the high-tech industry, to others Ben-Gurion and Golda, Begin and Rabin, slogans, statistics and political clichés, semi-historical at best. “Israel” was a combination of symbols and ideas, not an actual society, with all its complexities. It was presented as static, not as evolving or continually undergoing significant changes, as indeed has happened in the past two decades (and, of course, beyond). There were no struggles, identities, interests, economic reforms, or meaningful geographic, demographic and cultural processes, only an “entity” that required action. Israel had been totally mystified. Certainly, they were all articulate and knowledgeable about many aspects of Zionism, “the Arabs”, international law, Judaism, 1948, and the Occupied Territories. But, even all these elements combined are not the actual Israel. At most, it was an attempt to construct a superficial discourse, to serve one purpose or another. The entire discussion objectified “Arabs”/”Muslims”, as well as us, “Israelis”.
We, Israelis, were all lumped together into one macro-form. Any analysis of internal and external migration, economic structures and power relations, cultural transformations, questions of racism and sexism, social gaps or global influences, were nowhere to be found. There was not even a discussion on the desired norms and values for the communities living in Israel. At most, there were questions of identity, survival, and security, and with it guesses as to what the military does or doesn’t do, and these too were discussed with reference to stereotypes and had little connection to the Israel of everyday .
Above all, the discussion failed to adopt an “Israeli perspective”. In fact, our borders of discussion are different, as would be our questions and our conceptual language, and meanings. At the very least, we hold less stereotypical perceptions of what “Israel” is. And given these differences, it seemed ridiculous to me that some of these British Jews actually believed that they had a shared “identity of interests, values and beliefs” with Israel. Even among Israelis there is no such thing. How can anyone “support Israeli interests” if Israelis themselves dispute what these interests are, just as there is no consensus in the UK over British interests?
Two months later, I was listening to an Israeli-Jewish sociologist speaking in one of the universities in London. More than in the details of his lecture, I was interested in his saying that he does not define himself as an Israeli (or Jewish), but as a “mensch”. It is, of course, his right to define his own identity, and I have no intention of imposing an identity on anyone. Nevertheless, as a sociologist, I cannot not doubt his non-Israeliness as a phenomenon. Is it the case that when I stop defining myself as an Israeli, and even if I leave the country, or participate in the Palestinian struggle, I stop being Israeli? I think that socially, my Israeliness is inevitable, as it is embedded in my ways of thinking and behaving, like water is for fish. It is the way I interrupt others in the middle of their sentence, or how I use my “sabra” humor, or my Israeli-Jewish concepts, or the things I take for granted, and my thoughts about my surroundings. We are all products of our social environments. Bourdieu called it habitus. The “mensch” sociologist was expressing himself, thinking and acting out of his experiences as an Israeli, and therefore he is one. His research was affected by him being Israeli-Jewish-secular-middle-class, and even his repudiation of Israeliness has to do with the social circumstances, and the constructions he is subjected to.
And just as he can’t not-be Israeli, I believe that the participants of that discussion in London cannot have shared “identity of interests, values, and definitions” with Israelis. While they are definitely Jewish, and they all (think they) want the best for Israel, they are British-Jews, of a certain class, with their own interests, and political, cultural, economic and religious outlooks, and these are necessarily different from those of Israelis, no matter how they have grown accustomed to thinking: “you are Israel”. They may choose one day to be Israelis (although for most that’s unlikely), but even then, it won’t be from the same perspective (certainly not of a Mizrahi, a member of the working class, or an Arab in Israel), because the views of typical Israelis stem from not having this choice at all. Their daily routine is different, their opportunities are different, their hopes and frustrations are different, and their interests are different from anyone whose centre of life is somewhere else. Actually, in Israel nobody asks if we’re “growing ashamed”, because Jews in Israel are shameless, sometimes to an outrageous extent.
And this is what I really cannot get: I am sure Jews in London have interests of their own to discuss, from their own perspective, that do not solely revolve around us. Yet, here they are, filling a city hall to the brim, investing time, money, and energy, at a late hour, to take part in the illusion that they are one with Israel, and to discuss the future of my life and of my loved ones.
The relationship between the Jewish communities in Israel and other countries is complex. Our interests are not merely different, but are sometimes in polar opposition.
For most Israeli-Jews the option of emigrating in case of disaster simply does not exist, not only legally, but also ideologically. The Zionist aspiration that Israel should represent all Jews, expressed in the assumptions of Israeli education and culture, keenly rejects the idea that there is any alternative, and has adopted the stand that Jews will never be able to live among the goyim. Anyone who visits Israel, will hear from any taxi driver, supermarket cashier, or passer-by, how much better it is for them to make aliyah and study Hebrew. And if someone finds love in Israel and decides together with him or her to move and live elsewhere, they will find that other Israelis consider the idea of leaving completely absurd.
The majority of Jews live outside Israel, among the goyim and the interests of the minority of Jews (i.e. those who live in Israeli) are not necessarily those of the others. This is especially true with regard to religious views: in Israel the legal authority lies with the orthodox establishment, many rabbis are ultra-nationalist, and proportion of secular Jews is diminishing; Jews elsewhere are, in general, more progressive and liberal.
There are other tensions, in politics, values, and prospects for the future. These gaps are big and growing, yet on both sides some persist in denying them, choosing instead to emphasize their similarity and claiming to maintain harmonious relations. If both sides continue to deny these gaps instead of being true to themselves, grave disillusionment is inevitable.
The event referred to by the author was an ‘Opinion Soup’ held on 25 October 2010 at the JCC for London. Speakers included novelist Howard Jacobson; philosopher at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, Brian Klug; former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, Antony Lerman; and journalist Melanie Phillips, with author and journalist David Aaronovitch as Chair.
Eyal Clyne is an Israeli researcher of society(ies) in Israel-Palestine. He focuses on the conflict and other Israeli political issues. Some of the posts on his Hebrew blog appear also in English and elsewhere, and some of his pieces for JNews are also cross-posted with other sites.
Brian Klug responds to Eyals Clyne’s post above
In our last post, Eyal Clyne described his experience of an ‘Opinion Soup’ held on 25 October 2010 at the JCC for London. Speakers included Howard Jacobson, Brian Klug, Antony Lerman and Melanie Phillips. Brian Klug responds:
It is good of you to invite my response. My first response is that I am glad you have put me in my place! I mean this quite literally: you put me in my place (England) and you in yours (Israel). Israel, you insist, is “my country, not theirs”. I insist too. Here is how I put it in my very first essay on the subject: “Israel is not my country and I am not its citizen” (‘A time to Speak Out’, Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2002-3).
When I got to the end of the first part of your piece I had a similar experience of deja vu. You point out that “there is no such thing” as a shared identity of interests, etc., among Israelis, and you ask: “How can anyone ‘support Israeli interests’ if Israelis themselves are disputed over what these interests are …?” Compare with the following: “Israel is not a monolith and Jewish Israelis do not form a single bloc … The divisions pit Israeli Jew against Israeli Jew. Consequently, not only do I not feel under an obligation, as a Jew, to show solidarity with Israel, but there is no such thing as ‘solidarity with Israel’ : it is a sentimental illusion.” (Ibid., emphasis in the original.) We even use the same phrase: ‘no such thing’!
And yet I think you are right to lump the members of the panel — and the audience — together and to talk about all of us as ‘they’. For, whatever our differences, we were all speaking as Brits — whereas you were listening as an Israeli. In a way, in saying this, I am applying the analysis you give in the second part of your piece: if your Israel-Jewish sociologist “can’t not-be Israeli”, so the British-Jewish speakers, myself included, can’t not-be Brits.
However, there is a curious tension between the third part of your piece and the first. In the first, you are indignant: about non-Israeli Jews who speak about Israel as though they have a stake in the country. But in the third part you, as it were, enfranchise the Jews who live around the world, authorizing their interest in Israel. Of course there are (you point out) “gaps between Israeli and other Jews” in relation to the state. But no longer is this the gap between reality and fantasy.
As I see it, the complexity in the structure of your piece — especially the tension between the first and final parts — reflects the complexity in the real world. For, when it comes to Israel and Palestine, fantasy is an integral part of reality. Take the question of Jerusalem. In reality, it is about the lives of people who live there or work there. So, it is a question that belongs, primarily, to Palestinians and Israelis. Other people can take an interest in the question, but this is secondary. Fundamentally, it is not their question. Except that it is — because this is a city whose reality overflows the limits of the interests of its inhabitants. The point does not apply to Jews alone. The entire Muslim world feels that it has a stake in Jerusalem — not a material stake but a fantastic one. Were it not for this, control of the Haram al-Sharif would not be such a sensitive issue. In Muslim communities too there are panel discussions “filling a city hall to the brim” where the local speakers objectify ‘Israelis’ and ‘Palestinians’. Yes, Israel is your country, not mine, nor theirs. But, unlike my country, yours is Holy or Magical — not only for people who are religious. That’s as much a fact, a given, as “the actual Israel” to which you refer.
When I try to put myself in your shoes, I find it utterly understandable that you felt the way you felt at that event in Hampstead Town Hall. You’re right: the topic of the meeting was supposed to be about being Jewish and feeling shame, but the conversation was about Israel. So, how do you think I felt? I’ll tell you — and I’ll be as forthright as you are in your blog. I am fed up with discussions about Jewish issues gravitating towards Israel. I am tired of Israel taking up all the oxygen. I feel indignant about Israel claiming to be ‘the state of the Jewish people’, claiming to represent me. I wish it could see itself as its own state, pursuing its own good for its own people: the Israelis. Israel is indeed your country, not mine. I insist on it. And since you insist on it too, I suggest that we both continue to press the point, insisting on a parting of the ways — even though it’s not going to happen.
‘A Time to Speak Out’ is Chapter 1 in Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life, London : Vallentine Mitchell, 2010.