Nationalism – Personal Account

NATIONALISM

 

A.

In the 1992 elections I voted for the NRP (National Religious Party).  I was 19 then (I’m from the children of the summer of 1973, those about whom a song has NOT been written).  I studied at the advanced yeshiva in Beit El , and although in the eyes of a son of Tehiya founders, the NRP was suspected of ideological instability, we said:  “who else will worry about religious education.”  When I returned to the yeshiva after voting in Kefar HaRo’eh, the moshav where I grew up, the study hall was still quite empty.  Many had not yet returned from voting at home.  But this emptiness was somewhat ominous, as if it predicted the outcome of the elections.

Little by little the rumors filtered into the empty Beit HaMidrash.  Worrying rumors.  One of the more realistic Rabbis of the Yeshiva said matter-of-factly, that now there will be no escape from autonomy for the Palestinians.  The content of his words, but even more his matter-of-fact tone, shocked me:  This is a retreat from what they’ve taught us!  From the process of Redemption!  But the shock didn’t last very long.  In those days I didn’t have time for political distress.

B

In the Fall of 1992 during the months between the pre-High Holiday break and Hanukka, I experienced a very compressed emotional and intellectual period, at the end of which I found myself looking at the fluttering holiday candles, and I was no longer a religious person.  With the surprising narcissism characteristic of perhaps everyone who undergoes extreme emotional changes, I analyzed and documented everything that happened to me in those two fateful months.  How I discovered emotional areas not “covered” by the religious life style and outlook with which I grew up.  How I began, in the wake of those discoveries, to attempt to “map”  these new emotional areas by reading poems, and eventually by writing them.  How the thought slipped in, that if so many emotional areas are not connected with “religion” (may I be forgiven the hyperbolic and superficial simplification, which was then typical of my fledgling way of thinking), then religion must not be so important and essential.  And if that is so – after several more days of concentrated tyro thought and emotional storm – perhaps G-d, too, Who still exists, is not so meaningful.  For life here on earth is so complex, stormy, afflicting and pleasurable even without Him, so that possibly G-d is the playwrite of this world, but His performance can now go on without Him (I was very proud of the latter metaphor back then).

At any rate, G-d certainly won’t be angry with me as I uncover more sectors of emotion and thought in the world that He Himself created.  Eventually, as winter in the mountains of Benjamin knocks wildly at my window, I thought:  Perhaps G-d doesn’t exist at all?  That doesn’t really matter, I told myself, maybe yes and maybe no, but maybe He doesn’t.  And I again found a simile that I was very proud of, which expressed the doubt in my faith and its results:  It’s like a trembling person who lurches forward in the darkness, and fears that he is lurching into the precipice, eventually finding himself landing on a step that is only a few centimeters from his jumping-off spot.  Yes, it’s also possible to live without G-d.

The transition, then, was sharp.  Within two months I found myself turning from a believer into a non-believer, from a punctillious observer of mitzvot to a non-observant person, from a yeshiva bahur to …to.what exactly?

C

Over the years, when I read in newspapers about innumerable ‘formerly religious’ people who were interviewed (and I read lots of newspapers in those years after my private “revolution”; that was the way to acquire education about the ‘non-religious’ world), I arrogantly despised  the inevitable passage in which the current ‘reformed’ person describes the first time he tremblingly lit a light on Shabbat.  I distinguished myself fastidiously from the rabble being interviewed, in that my process was philosophical and conclusive, and therefore when I eventually came to profane Shabbat or to transgress another mitzva, I (nearly, I must confess) didn’t have any pangs.  G-d cannot be angry with me about the path I have taken, because I had no choice but to proceed that way, besides which it will be hard for Him to be angry if He doesn’t exist.  However, although I finished this not-very-long process I underwent relieved of mitzvot, yet one small mitzva, not even a mitzva but a custom, remained fulfilled.  I continued to wear my kippa.

I was a 19 year old yeshiva student, and this, as I began to realize vaguely, was not only an ideological but a sociological definition.  I was almost totally unfamiliar with the secular world, I was afraid of army service; what options did I have? The kippa kept me sociologically and at little cost in my social group.  I decided to enter the army together with the Hesder yeshiva students, in order to moderate the leap into the outside world.  After the short term of service together with them (Hesder yeshiva students serve 16 months), I thought that I might be able to continue on my own in the army.

The narcissism mentioned above may perhaps be forgiven if you understand that for the newly secular (and for the newly religious as well), it stems from the person’s feeling that he is at the height of a cosmic drama.  Indeed, through Akiva Zelemayer or Yehuda Gabai, the fate of the universe will soon be decided.  Is there a master in the castle or not?  Is it the Big Bang or the Holy One, blessed be He?  Is it tefillin or Kant? Mussels or gefilte fish?  The painful landing occurs during the years after this cosmic decision.  Only then does it occur to Akiva Zelemayer and Yehuda Gabai that they have human proportions, and that the transition they have made in their lives is not at all so simple; it is more a sociological than ideological transition, and its price is very dear indeed.

D

In the 1996 elections I had already voted for the “Third Way” (Remember? There was such a thing, and I was the one who voted for it!).  I was no longer a Right-winger but I also wasn’t a Leftist, and I was searching… And so, I searched for a third way.  As in the 1999 elections I sought some kind of centrist party, and therefore I voted mirabile dictu for the “Central Party.”  But why didn’t I actually become a “leftist”?  I began to examine myself.  I couldn’t deny that a certain “leftward” erosion had occurred in my attitudes over the years, but it was very, very slow, and had clearly defined limits.  Why, I asked myself, did my ideological-spiritual transition last maybe 60 days, two months that transported me from one extreme to the other, from plus to minus or vice versa, whereas the “political” transition which is far less significant and touches less on my personal life, occurs so sluggishly?  Why does the abysmal skepticism I discovered towards religion, and in fact since then towards all ideologies, every claim of “spirituality” of whatever type, including secular “spirituality,” including pretensions of “spirituality” regarding literature and art toward which I found myself attracted, — why isn’t this skepticism focussed on my political attitudes?  Why, then, don’t I find myself voting for “Meretz” or even better, for “Hadash,” which are the parties constituting the political parallels to the extreme spiritual attitudes that I had reached?

E

Perhaps it’s not true that the spiritual transition I made was so extreme?  Perhaps it actually matches the more moderate political change?

When I finally finished my overly long army service (I was released, due to my studies at the yeshiva, at the age of 23), I looked for a job and found myself working at a sort of secular House of Study (Beit Midrash), working with secular youth on the subject of their (secular!) “Jewish identity”.

However, even during the period of work in the secular Beit Midrash I was feeling uneasy with myself.  The skepticism gnawed and gnawed.  I was preoccupied with it.  What does “Secular Jewish identity” mean?  Should skepticism have to stop right here?  Aren’t the undermining and dismantling that served me so well and so terribly in the collapse of my spiritual world useful here as well?  What is the advantage of national identity over religious identity? The worst thought of all was, for that too young and too idealistic person that I was, was it just my biography that caused me to educate adolescents regarding the importance of  their “Jewish identity”?  Was it just the advantage of my greater expertise in the pathways of Judaism that causes me to exploit my knowledge in order to convince them that “Jewish identity” is something important, and therefore I who am more expert than them, am also a bit important?  Did I arrive at this job simply because my qualifications fit it, and not due to inner conviction of its worth?

In those years I attempted to formulate my position on national identity as one that derives from the individual’s personal needs, not as the dictate of a greater force, whom I didn’t accept and in whom I didn’t believe.  I invested considerable emotional and intellectual effort in this.  I needed to justify myself.  Several years later I published a passage in my novel, “In Those Days”, in which I tried to explain the nature of my Jewish identity in those years.

“At the top of the page he wrote in large letters, “Why am I a Jew?”.  Here he paused, suddenly afraid that he would really stop here, too, but he immediately knew that from the very moment he marshalled the strength to raise the question, he knew that  he would in fact find an answer.  But this fact, that as it were nullified his daring skepticism, didn’t really bother him.  He bit the pen between his teeth and then wrote in small letters: “Bible,” and drew a line under the word.  He let his thoughts drift freely, to be anchored only on what attracted them by itself, without navigation of the will.  Now he wrote down the number 1, circling it with a pencil.  Next to that he wrote “Abraham barters with G-d over Sodom,” and next to the line, in square brackets, he wrote “Morality.” Below that, next to number 2, he wrote “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting the Song?”, although the verse quoted digressed beyond the small headline, beyond the category.  Now the thoughts flowed more easily. Next to number 3 he wrote “The Story of Joseph and his Brothers,” and next to that line in square brackets, he added “the literary value.”  He wandered along and wanted to write down the poem “Ha’azinu” (Deuteronomy 32, “Give ear O Heavens”), but avoided doing so. He suddenly didn’t know, didn’t remember, whether the pleasant feeling welling up within him was connected to the passage being short, which augured a shorter morning service at the synagogue, or because of its beauty.  Instead of this, next to the number 4, he wrote “David refuses to harm Saul, in the cave.”  At 5 he wrote two verses from the Book of Kings that occurred to him:  “Ours are more than theirs,” as the prophet asked that it be made known to his young man, and “We knew that the kings of Israel are benevolent kings,” but then he hesitated for a moment, extended his hand and paged through a Bible.  He rebuked himself (the correct quotes are “Those with us are more than those with them,” and “We have heard that the kings of the House of Israel, that they are benevolent kings,” but nevertheless he left the text as he had recalled it.  For 6 he wrote “David and Batsheva” and in square brackets he recorded “Both the sin itself as well as the allegory of the poor man’s lamb.”  For 7, without checking the accuracy of his memory, he recorded the words of Samuel to Agag, “As your sword has bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women.”  For 8 he decided suddenly to digress from the category, erasing the subtitle “Bible” and wrote next to the number, “Nachmanides Commentary on the Torah,”  On the side in square brackets he wrote, “A scoundrel in the realm of Torah, introduction to the Book of Genesis” (….) For 9 he wrote “Maimonides’ Hebrew.”  At 10 he wrote “Job Chapter 3”, but did not restrain himself, and added, smiling to himself in amazement, produced by the initial meeting, “May the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said , ‘A man-child is conceived’”.  For 11 he wrote “Midrash of the Sages”, but suddenly couldn’t remember any specific midrash, thinking with some anxiety, that perhaps there are only a few score appropriate midrashim, that have already been over-discussed in various situations, when people came to glorify the value of Judaism, and so over used and embarrassed due to their false representation, they evade him.  (….)  He became a little impatient, and decided to skip ahead hundreds of years.   For 13 he recorded “Hasidism” and in square brackets he wrote “Kotzk, the Hasidic stories of Rav Zevin” and also “Joy”, but immediately erased the word in disgust (….) Finally, at 16 he wrote, “Modern Hebrew Literature.”  And when he asked himself whether it is possible to lay responsibility for his pride and the sense of his belonging on the shoulders of seven or eight people, he replied to himself immediately, almost without hesitation, that Yes (…)  And then he thought, that actually the whole essence of this matter, the entire essential importance of these things written in your language, all the rich “cultural heritage” that is always found there, that one can always return to, all this is perhaps no more, but also no less, than a sticky infusion, warm and pleasant, swishing around in the abdominal cavity.”

F

I stand behind this passage even today, despite a certain kitschiness and arrogance, that I admit it contains.  (Wasn’t  it Tolstoy, no less, who said: “I hate Russia, but love Russian literature”?)  But is my national identity really just a textual-cultural-physical identity?  What kind of pale national identity is this?  I don’t particulary like Israeli folksiness or “folklore”,  I abhor many aspects of Israeli elite groups, I don’t accept any version, however secular and sophisticated it may be, of the “Light unto the Nations” doctrine, and I view it as a ridiculous and disastrous conceit.  And what about the existential heritage that I admire so much?  The emphasis and the self glorification of the insight regarding man‘s being alone in the universe?  And aside from that, the question remains valid, Why can’t such a refined identity fit the post-Zionist or the the more radical Zionist Left world-views?

Over the years I thought of several solutions for this gap between the religious-ideological revolution that I underwent, and the slow political change.  Of course, the least flattering solution of all pops into my head, the utilitarian solution.  Performing mitzvot is a demanding life style, as compared with observing political commandments.  And therefore, remaining within the bounds of the political camp, I can, for a small price, remain in the bosom of the society within which I grew up.  Once ever few years I vote for a consensual, “Nationalist” party, spout off a few appropriate bon mots at social and family gatherings, and I get to be part of the camp.

That solution to the riddle would have been valid in the first years of the transition I made.  During those years I was in any case quite indifferent to politics, and was focussed on my life that was turning over in front of my eyes, and thus for a negligible tax I was able to create “industrial peace” for myself at least in this sector.  In the years of difficult separation from the world I grew up in, that seemed an appropriate explanation.

But as the years went on, as I entered a new world at Tel Aviv University, in the city of Tel Aviv, this solution seemed inadequate to fully exhaust the issue.  During those years there was sometimes a price for political “centrism” from the opposite side of the socio-political map: a ticket to enter the club whose price I refused to pay, in the hard cash of political extremism.

G

Two year ago I sat together with friends in a Tel Aviv flat.  It was Saturday evening after Shabbat, and the friends were getting organized to go to a huge Left-wing demonstration, that took place at Rabin Square, and they suggested that I accompany them.  The declared goals of the demonstration were not so remote from my political positions, but I hesitated nevertheless.  I had never been at a Left-wing demonstration until then.  When I finally did join them, I escaped as soon as I could.  It was a really huge demonstration.  Tens of thousands.  And I felt that I didn’t belong.  Other. I felt like the enemy.  It was an obviously irrational feeling.  First, as noted, ideologically I was not far from the declared goals of the demonstration.  Second, I’m already a pretty veteran Tel Avivian, and I lead a Tel Aviv life style.  So why this foreignness?

The foreignness, of course, derived from the thick tribal feeling at this demonstration.  Israeli society, as you know, has become a tribal society and what is less well known, is that this process has not skipped over the “rational”, “universalist” Left, as it were.  The tribe I encountered at the Square is fighting against the tribe in which I grew up, and I couldn’t bear being present there.  The early hour, relative to the end of Shabbat, also determined that I would not meet religious people, Leftist members of my tribe, at the demonstration.

Another incident:  Seven year ago, my first long trip abroad.  Erev Yom Kippur and we were in Paris.  I don’t fast, on principle (I can’t forgive the discomfort and guilt that were laid on my skinny shoulders before and during the “Day of Judgement”), but at my mother’s request, we went to the synagogue for Kol Nidrei, and afterwards reserved places at a restaurant.  The service begins and I begin to weep.  Why? What’s happening to me?  But I can’t stop myself, weeping and weeping.  I recalled my late father, I recall myself with him in the synagogue, I recall later on, myself alone in the synagogue.  It’s stronger than I am.  The weeping is over, the prayers have concluded.  Yes, we went to eat.  But as Kosashvili showed so beautifully in “Late Marriage”,  we apparently have powerful, hidden forces, familial and tribal, that are greater than us, than the autarchic individual that we in our arrogance imagine ourselves to be.

Is this the solution to the riddle? Do my relatively centralized political positions stem from my difficulty in changing tribes? That is, my positions don’t stem from a “rational” analysis of Israeli reality, but rather from a sense of tribal belonging that I am unable to uproot from within myself, and that the ‘receiving’ tribe cannot help ease my transition into itself.

That is certainly a partial solution.  The process of becoming secular is a migration process that lasts many years and perhaps an entire life time.  However, the fact still remains that I have already forgone many dimensions of my tribe, and if so, what keeps me from collapsing into the open arms of my new tribe?  To peg my refusal on the noble motives of someone that does not wish to betray his origins, would be too flattering an explanation for myself, and inaccurate.

H

One of my criticisms of the religious Zionist public, is connected with their exaggerated idealism.  This desire “to be OK”, to be “good”, to be “excellent”.  This super-ego type approach places unbearable pressure on a portion of the children of this public, particularly on the sensitive and excellent among them.  Aside from the pressure, it is also unrealistic, and does not fit human nature.  However, after many years I understood that the source of this approach isn’t specifically “ideological,” it doesn’t necessarily flow from the specific spiritual springs that nourish the religious public.  I understood that it would actually be worth analyzing the relations between

religious Zionists and the secular majority, using structuralist tools that are not connected with the specific content of religious Zionist ideology.  In brief, I understood that this need “to be OK” originates primarily from classical majority-minority relations.  The minority, in order to justify its way of life to itself and also in order to find favor with the powerful majority, must always be “representative,” always “idealistic”, always having “pure” motives, always “successful” and “better than all the rest.”

Part of this idealism, with which I was educated, had in the past made me despise the newly secular who simply wanted to be “like everyone.”  Not like those who became secular from apparently complex emotional and philosophical motives, like me, but rather “simple” people that found it hard to bear their differentness in the army or at work, and therefore became secular.  However, observation of this phenomenon along with an understanding of majority-minority relations between the religious and the secular in Israel, has brought me to the solution of the personal riddle that has troubled me with regard to my political and national positions.

 

I

The thought that the attitude toward the religious in Israel is at times parallel to the treatment Jews received in the Diaspora, flutters in the consciousness of nearly every religious person, and in recent years has also been voiced aloud and in public forums.  This claim is sometimes self-righteous and sanctimonious, but more frequently it fails to find the reason for this feeling.  The relation between hatred of the religious and antisemitism is sometimes similar (I refer, of course, to very moderate disclosures of antisemitism, and not to its harder manifestations, and certainly not the murderous type, as there is no place for such a comparison), not because of hatred for Judaism or specific religious content, but because that is the character of  majority-minority relations, that is the character of human nature.  Differentness creates curiosity, attraction but also alienation, separateness and sometimes hostility, and the majority is naturally perceived of as threatening on that account.

I therefore wish to argue, and I attest for myself, that a religious person, or one who had been religious, is better prepared to understand, instinctively, the secular Zionist Fathers (primarily: Herzl, Pinsker, and Brenner) who spoke of the pathology that exists from the very character of Jewish-Christian relations, which is unconnected with the specific content of Jewish religion, but is rather structural and derives from Jews’ differentness, from their being a minority in their places of residence.  That person is more prepared to understand the Fathers, just as he is also better prepared to understand Frantz Fanon, who about 50 years after Herzl’s analysis, analyzed in a very similar manner the pathological relations between blacks and whites in his book, “Black Skin, White Masks.”

Incidentally, the newly secular person is also better prepared NOT to enthuse about the post-modern existential proposal.  The newly secular person is already a “disassembled and torn subject”, and he is aware of the price he pays for that, and is therefore very skeptical regarding the colorful, joyous whirpool of identities, as it were, heralded by several post-modern thinkers.

J

I am planning to vote for Peretz in the 2006 elections.  In the previous elections I also voted for “Am Ehad” under his leadership, so that the Leftward erosion has apparently reached its limit.  If Peretz were to lead the Labour Party, I wouldn’t vote in the upcoming elections. Even though I am politically leftist, I don’t feel I belong to the Labour “tribe” and certainly not “Yahad,” and the economic positions that I support wouldn’t have a spokesman without him.  But my reservation about the post-Zionist Left is not just tribal.  As a member of a minority I am prepared to understand better what it means to be a minority, and what type of pathology this situation creates.  Solutions like “A State of all its citizens”, various sorts of multi-cultural solutions, seem to me naïve, and the post-modern minorities festival seems childish to me.  I want to be in the majority, and am therefore a Zionist.

K

“There are worlds,” wrote Brenner with bitter sarcasm in 1908, “in which total silence rules.”  Due to acknowlegement of infinite pain, endless injustice, or due to some non-existent ephemeral enthusiasm, that one way or the other, are essentially one (…) In that world people don’t talk and don’t argue, not about national Jewish morality (…) and not even about that we were given Erez Israel.”

Indeed, at the conclusion of this personal discussion of politics and nationalism, I remind myself that there are not a few hours in which national and political identity are quite secondary to my ongoing existence. Yes. However, on the other hand, there are moments when my national identity, both that which derives from the emotional layer, from the sense of belonging; and that which derives from the cultural-physical stratum, from Hebrew culture; as well as that which seeks to exit the minority trap, which is very essential.  I have tried in this paper to describe the journey of one man through Israeli society.  It seems to me, nevertheless, that in recent years increasing numbers are proceeding down the path sketched above.          

 

 

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