Israel, the War, and Jewish Identity
Reflections on the crisis
I ventured into a dangerous mental labyrinth over the last few weeks. I will write about it as honestly as I can, with trepidation and, I hope, humility. I have been reading – reflecting on – a very well-researched, very negative assessment of the Jewish people as historical agents, from ancient Biblical times until the Zionist adventure. The author, a paranoiac Frenchman (he apparently believes the Apollo moon landing was faked, among other red flags), makes a separation between the Jews as a whole and a small Jewish financial and priestly elite, who, he argues, have guided (misguided) their people from ancient times until today.
I do not believe reflecting on this to be an exercise in Jewish self-hatred (although it is, at times, painful), but, instead, a kind of healthy immune-system response to a perceived threat. I feel it is useful to reckon with the best case “against” the Jews, to understand this nebulous nemesis that seems dormant, until, like a Southern California forest fire, a spark leads, suddenly, to a massive conflagration. Since anti-Semitism isn’t going away, we need to understand its roots – the irrational and, perhaps, in some areas, not-entirely-irrational ideas behind it. The great, the good, the bad, the moral, the amoral and even the evil are all inextricably tied together in the individual soul, as well as the “group soul” of a people or a nation.
As I noted in previous essays, I never dug into the history of Israel enough to have a perspective on it, which I am developing now, as a result of the current and ongoing horrors. I admit I knew so little that I didn’t even know (or had forgotten) that Zionists intentionally resurrected Hebrew, for many centuries mainly used for religious purposes, to be the language of Israel. This, in itself, is a singular achievement, as languages, once dormant, rarely come back to life.
What I have discovered as a result of this immediate conflict is that I – as well as, I think, many other partly or fully assimilated, diaspora Jews – identified with Israel more than we realized. In my heart, I want Israel to be good – to be something beautiful for the world. This has been a widely shared sentiment among Jews, going back to the utopian socialist ideals of the original kibbutzim. David Ben-Gurion, national founder and first prime minister, according to his biographer, “felt he was destined to create an exemplary Jewish state, a ‘light unto the nations’ that would help to redeem all mankind.” I find myself disturbed at the idea of seeing this dream forever shattered — the light finally snuffed out — with Israel becoming a widely hated, fanatic, nuclear-armed, apartheid state.
In my heart, I want Israel to be good – to be something beautiful for the world.
The footage from the Hamas massacre at the Supernova music festival impacted me viscerally. I don’t know if we carry “epigenetic” memories of ancestral trauma, but it felt a bit like that. Suddenly I had to reconsider the Holocaust, not as distant history, but as something that could happen again, in the near future, in more than one way. Not only is another Holocaust, another genocide, a horror the Jews could experience again, it is also a horror that this hyper-militarized Israeli state, rife with zealots, could inflict on the subjugated Palestinians. The eruption of anti-Semitism around the world, of course, intensifies the anxiety.
I would say this is one of the most charged political moments that many of us have experienced in our lives, because it is so personal, revealing jagged fault lines between friends, families, colleagues, and communities. One friend’s indie rock band just broke up over two musicians’ irreconcilable differences on the subject. The editor of ArtForum was forced out due to a letter he published in the online magazine supporting “Palestinian liberation,” which upset prominent Jewish art dealers. Most of the staff resigned in solidarity.
In The Nation, Barry Schwabsky sees the ArtForum breakdown around the Israeli / Palestinian conflict as cutting through the art world as a whole, revealing contradictions it has tried to gloss over:
We seem to be witnessing the breakdown of a modus vivendi that’s made possible the art world as we’ve known it. We can’t quite see it yet, but artists on the one hand, and the collectors and patrons of their work on the other, are no longer willing to overlook the fundamental incongruence of their respective sympathies and world views. How strange it is that wealthy businessmen have been sponsoring the efforts of artists who imagine their work as a critique of neoliberalism, racism, and colonialism—and that neither side of this compact seems to have noticed it until now?
As an utterly nonreligious Jew living far away from Israel and its Byzantine political and religious intricacies, I have felt a range of responses to Israel’s retaliation to the Hamas attack. The bombing campaign seems to have revealed itself to be an intentionally barbaric, reckless assault on the civilian population of Gaza, with 45% of buildings damaged and 70% women and children killed, out of an estimated 15,000 casualties so far. Beyond this particular devastation, there is the much longer story of conquest, dehumanization, and control of the Palestinians that I admit I am still catching up on (I recommend Sylvain Cypel’s The State of Israel Versus the Jews for background). I’ve toggled around a number of positions in the last month, and can speak to many of them personally.
As religious and ethnic groups go, the Jews remain a small community (although you wouldn’t know that growing up in New York City, as I did): there are 16.6 million Jews in the world, compared to 1.8 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians. Considering the small number of Jews, our community’s power and influence — in tech, finance, real estate, the arts, and so on — is extraordinary.
While I am Jewish through my mother’s side (my father came from Brighton, England, with an Irish Catholic mother), I grew up without any relationship to Jewish religion or ritual. I never had a Bar Mitzvah or anything like that. I always felt like an outsider, a bystander — even, in a sense, an exile — from the worlds of more serious, committed Jews. I have tended to see these Jewish enclaves as somewhat insular and, if I am honest, kind of irritating (my inchoate reason for that irritation is, perhaps, one of many things I hope to bring to the surface here).
At the same time, I always identified with the modern cultural, literary and intellectual legacy of the Jews — as well as the Leftist, rebellious, seditious, anarchist/socialist part of the modern Jewish tradition (Karl Marx, Rosa Luxembourg, Abbie Hoffman, Murray Bookchin, Paul Goodman, and so on). From this background, I felt intrinsic specialness as an outsider, a watchful observer, along with a vague sense of what Walter Benjamin called “a weak Messianic power” in his essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:
There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
As far back as I can remember into childhood, I always had the feeling I was meant to do something important for the world, in the cultural sphere. Somehow, my mother imprinted this onto me: It was her desire, which became mine, that I accomplish something creative, meaningful. I never considered being anything other than a writer, even though I don’t think I had a particular aptitude for it. Her mother, similarly, had fostered this kind of ambition in her.
In my tiny family, our ambition was pointed toward culture and the arts. In other Jewish families, parents drive children toward excelling in finance, medicine, science, and so on. Alfred Kazan (1915 - 1988), son of Jewish immigrants, brought up in Brownsville, wrote about this in A Walker in the City:
I worked on a hairline between triumph and catastrophe. Why the odds should always have felt so narrow I understood only when I realized how little my parents thought of their own lives. It was not for myself alone that I was expected to shine, but for them—to redeem the constant anxiety of their existence. I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God; I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being—what they were.