Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Israelophilia vs. Zionism

Correct me if I’m wrong: The way Israelis see American Jews is in many ways a microcosm of how non-Americans see Americans in general. Israelis assume their American counterparts care about Israel in a self-serving way, one that allows them to sit comfortably in America (note stores in Israel selling “American Comfort” mattresses) and hold forth on issues whose results do not affect them personally. Oh, and American Jews, like other Americans, are ugly and fat. (I prefer to think of it as Tel Avivians and Parisians are just especially thin and good-looking).

But the specific problem here is that American Jews care more about Israel than do other Americans, yet seemingly do not differ from their compatriots (or, for that matter, from the rest of the world) in their refusal to see Israel as anything other than a political problem. Israel is something to read about in the op-eds, to sign petitions defending. Israel is an issue to search for when choosing whom to vote for, along with abortion, taxes, and education. For American Jews, Israel is a cause, a stance, or an argument. It is not, however, a country with a unique culture.

When other minorities in America think about their “home” countries, the first thing they think of is not political conflict, but culture. Even when these countries are in the midst of political conflicts as big as or greater than the ones facing Israel. We know that Ireland has never had any conflict with any neighboring country, that this part of the world has never dealt with any dispute between populations that to all outsiders look to be identical. In any case, to be Irish-American is to have pride, either in Irish culture from Ireland itself or in Irish-American culture.

When most American Jews think about Israel, they do not think about falafel or Israeli rock, the beach culture of Tel Aviv, kibbutzim, aggressive driving, or any other cliched if not inaccurate detail of Israeli culture. They presumably have this information, and know a bit about Israel as a country, and may have even visited, but they hear “Israel” and their thoughts immediately turn to Thomas Friedman or, better yet, the European Left.

Let’s be realistic. American Jews will never know what it’s really like to be Israeli, any more than Israelis will know what it’s like to be Jewish in America. Which is fine. Israelophilia will never celebrate an accurate, “authentic” representation of Israeli culture. Also fine. But without expecting every last Jew with an opinion on Israel to trade in Springsteen for Beit Habubot, we need to switch the focus of American Jewish ties with Israel to one that is less a political alliance and more of a cultural one. Relatedly, cultural Judaism in 2007 needs to be less about latkes and more about schwarma. The choice need not be between a fun, cultural Judaism stuck in the past and yelling, to no avail, at BBC News. The political arguments matter, but in isolation are a complete waste of time.

Crossposted at Jewlicious.

1 comment:

Jacob said...

Relatedly, cultural Judaism in 2007 needs to be less about latkes and more about schwarma.

But for most western Diaspora Jews, the Old Country isn't, never has been, and never will be Israel. You're pointing to the ways in which Israel is a real and distinctive place, not just a cause or an issue. Absolutely. But the things that make it real and distinctive also detach it from the inherited-from-Europe cultural Judaism of American diaspora Jews.

I associate Israel with falafel (best I've ever had); but that doesn't mean that falafel displaces latkes in my sense of cultural Judaism for North American Jews, because we're not Israelis and neither were our ancestors. This is a major difference from the Irish case..

What you seem to be saying is: because we sympathize with the political project of Zionism, we ought to transform our own sense of cultural identity to match the ways that Israeli culture has diverged from that of the Ashkenazi diaspora. But that's still letting the political cause drive things. If culture is in the driver's seat, then there's no reason to identify with Israeli falafel rather than German or Polish latkes.

Israel's not the cultural point of origin for, or the cultural arbiter of, Diaspora Jewry. Why should we engage in the artifice of pretending to be cultural offshoots of a Mediterranean culture rather than the northern European one we really are offshoots from?