Friday, May 19, 2006

A long attempt at a follow-up

Since there was some debate on the subject, I'll make clear once and for all that I am not under the impression that Matthew Yglesias is Israeli. Nor, much as I appreciate the culture, the language, the food, and the actors (especially the actors!), can I claim to be Israeli. In Haaretz, Bradley Burston gives a good explanation as to how Israel might serve as a homeland of sorts for American Jews, coming to a similar conclusion as I do but for different reasons. But the question here, more specifically, is what makes Israel the center of the Jewish nation:

To assume the Jewish national center to refer to wherever your most immediate non-American ancestors happened to come from, or to wherever the most Jews live at any given time, is to ignore history. Jews and non-Jews, anti-Semites and philo-Semites, have long considered Palestine/Jerusalem the "home" of the Jews, no matter how few Jews lived there or how many generations a given Jewish family or community had been in whichever non-Middle Eastern nation. This notion pre-existed modern ideas of the nation. As for why Israel and not, say Belarus, this is not even up for debate--Israel is the only actual, political state claiming to be the Jewish national center. Zabars, Dalton, and Bloomingdales are perhaps Jewish cultural centers, synagogues and temples worldwide are Jewish religious centers, but for a Jewish political (ie official national) center, there's only Israel. It's certainly possible to be a purely culturally-identified Jew, I just happen to consider that a foolish decision.

Katherine's argument is somewhat more complicated--what can the place of Israel possibly be in the identity of Diaspora Jews who know little of it, who feel ties (as is natural) to their immediate surroundings and background and not to a country that just happens to be filled with people of the same general background? I suppose I come at this from an odd angle--I was in Israel for two weeks when I'd just turned eight, went t a lot of water parks, ate a lot of falafel, and remember little else of the trip. I'm planning to go sometime soon, but at this point my experience is limited to a good amount of reading and movie-watching, along with an equally good amount of time spent among the Israeli expat community in various hummus-selling establishments in New York. So I have no firsthand knowledge of what it's like to live in Israel, and thus cannot comment on what it feels like to live in the country Herzl imagined. While it's entirely possible that, a minute into the trip, I will feel myself to be extremely American, I've felt out of place in enough parts of America to realize that my particular brand of provincialism makes me feel out of place in all but a few stretches of Manhattan and Brooklyn along with the University of Chicago campus. So a personal feeling of being at home in, say, Tel Aviv, strikes me as unimportant and unrealistic. In a sense, then, it does require a leap from realizing that Israel is the political center of the Jewish nation to feeling the same sort of national ties one might feel to a state with which one is more familiar. But the first and most important understanding to have is that Jewish nationality exists; that it has asserted itself as a modern nation-state can thus hardly be ignored, but as I see it (and, strangely, I see it the way Bernard Lazare did, well before the state of Israel), comfortably accepting that a Jewish nationality is neither an absurdity nor a figment of anti-Semites' imagination must precede--and need not lead to--any interest in Zionism in particular.

To put it in the most basic terms possible, I am interested in reality. Enough Jews, in America and elsewhere, feel themselves to be Jewish no matter how little they attend synagogue, how few bagels they consume, or how stereotypically non-Jewish they may happen to look. While it has religious, cultural, and genetic components, Jews are united in a way that transcends these divisions, and that way is nationality. If all Jews felt Judaism to be just a religion, than gosh darn it, it would be one. Even Jews with the most minimal understanding of Israel's history and purpose realize that the state is a creation of people like themselves--not people who also order turkey instead of ham, but people with a shared history and, if nothing else, a sense that they are all one people; some Jews feel neutral about the state's existence and others vehemently reject the idea of political Judaism, but all would have to acknowledge Israel as an example--the only example in modern times--of Jewish nationality expressing itself in a typically national, ie state-based, manner. This need not be off-putting to Diaspora Jews--those with no interest in asserting or maintaining a Jewish nationality may identify as well as being of American nationality, just as someone Spanish-American may consider himself to be nationally both Spanish and American.

The confusion over what's "Israeli" and what's "of Jewish nationality" can be addressed in the following way--anyone Jewish, in any country, may understand their national identity to be partially Jewish, partially that of the state they live in. To have "Israeli" nationality is to have decided that one's Jewish nationality is the more important one and thus the one that one wishes to identify with politically; or, that one happens to have grown up in Israel. Now that the state of Israel exists, it seems ridiculous to describe one's self as a non-Zionist Jewish nationalist--if you care enough about your Jewish nationality, in this day and age, why not be in Israel?--but it's perfectly logical to understand yourself to be of Jewish nationality, perhaps among multiple nationalities, and not have enough of the "-ist" to hop on the next available El Al flight. It is, however, illogical to understand Jewish nationality as a real thing and not have a sense that Israel is where that nationality has its geographical base.

To sum up: I'm not asking all Jews to move to Israel. I'd just like to destigmatize the idea of Jewish nationality, and to point out that, for those who consider themseves Jewish but are not keen on shomers Shabbat and Negiah, cultural Judaism is in many ways more problematic and unappealing than the national variety.


Seth said...

Based on what you said, you've probably heard that once you're in Israel, all the stereotypes and labeling change.

In the States, you may have always been labeled a Jewish girl (along with everything attached to that). In Israel you are suddenly the American/Anglo girl. People will assume you are rich, timid, gullible, loud (in a different way than Israelis), and will never learn Hebrew.

And despite all these new assumptions, you will still probably identify more easily with everyone around you than you did in the US.

Phoebe said...

" are suddenly the American/Anglo girl. People will assume you are rich, timid, gullible, loud (in a different way than Israelis), and will never learn Hebrew."

My (public, science magnet, coed) high school classmates assumed all these things when I transferred from a stuffy private girls' middle school. All, that is, except the part about Hebrew. But still, I think I could take it.

Sarah said...

Hi, Phoebe. Just checked into your blog after a long absence. Your posts are intelligent and thought-provoking, as always.

I hereby extend an invitation to you to contact me when you finally get to Israel. I'd love to have coffee with you, or show you "my" Jerusalem, or if you want I could just give you some ideas of good sites to visit, or where to stay.

Best wishes from a fellow blogger,
aka Chayyei Sarah