Thursday, January 24, 2008

A mindset, a mystery

Maybe it's just me, but I find it hard to understand how a Diaspora Jew can care a great deal about Israel without ever considering booking a flight. Joseph Epstein writes, "Much as I admire Israel, its accomplishments, and the courage of its people, I prefer to live in America, where my ethnicity puts me in a small minority of the country's population, a condition I rather prefer." (via). So far this kind of makes sense. Later, in response to a discussion of the new anti-Semitism based on anti-Zionism, he adds:

As someone who feels a strong link with Israel, I have never for a moment thought of abandoning the United States to live there. As a writer it would cut me off from my subjects; as a man it would uproot me painfully. One of the greatest strokes of good luck in my life has been to be born and live in the United States. And yet, as a Jewish American with an historical sense, it is impossible for me to be unaware of how important the state of Israel is.

I as much as anyone can understand why sometimes, given one's line of work, it's simply not feasible to move to Israel. And any move, even one where a job and apartment are waiting at the other end, is stressful, and means giving something up. People care about more than one thing, and often having a career and remaining with one's friends and family are an easy win over even the most sincere desire to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv and drink Zionistic blended iced coffee all day long. This I know quite well. However, in the scenario I describe, there are at least competing desires, of which moving to Israel is one. Whether my staying put is the result of self-serving rationalization or is in some greater sense the right thing to do is another matter.

What I don't understand with Epstein--who I believe does express how many Diaspora Zionists feel--is not why he feels no guilt at staying where he is, since he has his reasons and it's his own life and all that, but why he presents moving to Israel as almost tragic, rather than as an option he himself cannot go through with. In other words, I don't think Zionism is incompatible with living outside of Israel, nor do I think, when you look at it objectively, that all Zionists must live in the Jewish state. If the only people supporting the existence of Israel lived in Israel, the world would be a very different place. It benefits Israel that there are pro-Israeli non-Israelis, and is probably better for Israel if not everyone with warm feelings about the place actually up and moves. But Zionism ought to be incompatible with a belief that living in Israel must be dreadful. At this point it's a country, not an idea, and if you're that put off by the country, you're either still at work on the Uganda plan or, I would say, not all that Zionistic. And returning to the first of the two Epstein quotes above, if you think that it's better to be a Jew in a minority non-Jewish country than it is to be one where Jews are the majority, then you fundamentally disagree with the common thread of all types of Zionism, and whatever pro-Israel sentiment you have is limited to respect of differing viewpoints and fraternal hope that Iran not nuke the place.

Of course, had Epstein truly "never thought for one moment" of aliyah, he wouldn't have his reasons lined up for why he must must must stay in the States.

8 comments:

Withywindle said...

I thought to be a Zionist involved promoting a Jewish state in Israel--not feeling one has to go oneself.

Surely, this describes the attitude of the vast majority of self-described Zionists over the last century?

Phoebe said...

It's not that to be a Zionist, you must leave for Israel, or that you must feel immense guilt at staying put. I see a distinction between a choice not to move to Israel and a refusal to even entertain the possibility.

And I agree that many self-described Zionists, now and in the past, have had no thoughts of going to Israel. It is what it is, and I'm not arguing against reality, but I find it baffling.

Miss Self-Important said...

Is there not a Zionism which argues that the establishment of a Jewish state should normalize the position of Diaspora Jews in their respective host nations by making them like all other immigrant groups--a relocated people who nonetheless have a homeland somewhere in the world? This would in turn enhance their security in their host countries, and make their position as minorities (that is, Epstein's position) more attractive? Of course, all this is contingent on Israel's being perceived as a normal nation-state, which arguably has not happened, but I don't think the theory is necessarily implausible.

Newsboy said...

Not sure what it is that you find baffling. I am born and bred American. This is my home and my country. I live here. I believe that Israel should exist, and I have visited, have relatives there and support it financially.

But America is my home.

Now, if Mike Huckabee becomes President....

Phoebe said...

MSI: Yes, part of the idea of Zionism originally was to normalize life for Jews in the Diaspora, and you're also right that given the way Israel is perceived, that hasn't worked out. But the early Zionists made the point about normalizing life in the Diaspora to reach out to those Jews whose support for Zionism was never going to be all that enthusiastic. It's about the Jews who had the misfortune to be born that way, and who have no feelings whatsoever about Zionism or, later, Israel. Epstein's not really the intended audience. Had Israel ended up helping Diaspora Jewry by giving Jews a good name, perhaps Epstein might have felt grateful to Zionism for letting him live in America in peace, but that can't possibly be right.

Newsboy: There is nothing especially Zionistic about believing Israel should exist or visiting that country--I believe Canada should exist and have been there, and have no more fraught thoughts about our neighbor to the north. It's there, it's cold, all is well.

"America is my home" is an argument for staying in America. What I find baffling is if there isn't a part of you that could imagine Israel being your home, why support it financially? The point is that to be a Zionist, there has to be this internal struggle, even if it's a struggle in which the pro-aliyah argument is by far the weakest.

Withywindle said...

One supports Israel financially to be a refuge for other Jews not fortunate enough to live in America and (God forbid, should a nightmare of America come true) for oneself. But even should that nightmare come true--America would be the home that rejected me, and Israel the home for my children.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I'm a Diaspora Jew; my way of being Jewish is as part of an immigrant-settler society with lots of religions and ethnicities, albeit one that's majority Christian. I think many good things come out of such societies and out of living in one. Conversely, I think that the nation-state aspiration that Zionism came out of was one of the less attractive human social innovations. The Europeans started it, and in a world of nation-states it's clear that you're better off having one of your own. In a world of "everyone back to your corners" it's important to have a corner to go to, but I don't seek to actively encourage that world. The existence of Israel as a refuge for European and then North African/ Middle Eastern Jewry was incredibly morally important-- but I don't think the U.S., Canada, and Australia (for instance) are relevantly like Poland and Germany in that sense.

"if you think that it's better to be a Jew in a minority non-Jewish country than it is to be one where Jews are the majority, then you fundamentally disagree with the common thread of all types of Zionism, and whatever pro-Israel sentiment you have is limited to respect of differing viewpoints and fraternal hope that Iran not nuke the place."

Well, in certain types of non-Jewish countries I do think that.

NB: "dreadful" is your word, not Epstein's. So is "Zionist"-- he doesn't say that he's a Zionist, doesn't engage the question at all. You're closer to the mark at the beginning when you say "I find it hard to understand how a Diaspora Jew can care a great deal about Israel without ever considering booking a flight"-- because he does seem to care a great deal about it. But one can care about it without accepting the 19th-century premise that there's something existentially scarring and alienating and not-fully-human about living as a member of a minority.

I think I'm baffled at the bafflement...

Phoebe said...

I used the term "Zionism" incorrectly, when I meant on the one hand caring especially that Israel exists and thrives today, and on the other the original premises of political Zionism. That said, I wasn't arguing that all Jews must feel one way or another. If Epstein were simply a Diaspora Jew, happy to be one, end of story, then I would not expect him to have at one point considered moving to Israel. It's because he mentions (and mentions again) his strong support of Israel. Basically, for many pro-Israeli Israelis, any pro-Israel Jew living outside of Israel is a hypocrite. My argument is that since people have multiple motivations, one can be pro-Israel as well as pro-remaining near one's family, pro-having a job, even pro-living in the country one has grown to love. All of these motivations compete, so I do not believe someone is a hypocrite in the situation I've described. However, what I find baffling is that any pro-Israel Jew would 'not for a moment' think about moving. Thinking about it for one moment, having at the ready the reasons why the move should not or cannot take place, these are worlds away from not considering it at all. Epstein's article does a bit of both--he wouldn't think of moving to Israel, but he is pro-Israel enough that he feels the need to justify this. I used the word "dreadful" because Epstein describes a theoretical move to Israel as having nothing good to say for it, rather than as a compromise he does not see fit to make.

"In a world of 'everyone back to your corners' it's important to have a corner to go to, but I don't seek to actively encourage that world."

Now I'm baffled once more. How can you acknowledge that "it's important to have a corner to go to" without supporting the existence of the corner or corners you see as your own?