Thursday, June 14, 2007

Israelophilia vs. Zionism II

Here's my response to the responses. First and least important, the latke-shwarma debate. Perhaps I overstated the case, but more likely I just failed to explain it. In Israel, just like in the US, there's a certain nostalgia for, or at least acknowledgment of, the Eastern European past. Not being Israeli, my sense of this comes only from the many Yiddish words that made it into Hebrew, the availability of latkes (yes, latkes) in Israel, the Mitteleuropa-esque cafe culture in Tel Aviv, and other randomly pieced-together and generally useless observations. The extent to which Judaism means remembering the shtetl or some upscale Central European variant depends on how much any given Jewish community is Ashkenazi--Yemenite Jews do not crave gefilte fish, etc.

Long story short, neither fried potatoes nor fried chickpeas nor spinning mystery meat count as "authentically" Jewish, or authentically anything, for that matter. Your grandma may have made latkes, but that doesn't make latkes more Jewish than the "Arab" food some other Jewish grandma slaved over day in and day out. Think latkes, etc., were in no way influenced by Russian-Polish culture and climate? Go to any Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village and decide whether you're eating the food of your Jewish ancestors or that of the nearby Christian peasants. It's hard to say. My reason for contrasting latkes with shwarma will become clear, I hope, by the end of this post.

DK writes, "I will not have my Jewish culture dictated to me my Zionists." This seems irrelevant. I'm addressing Zionists, thus "Israelophilia vs. Zionism." I'm not addressing all American Jews, but rather those who spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and arguing in favor of Israel. I'm addressing those who, politically, already know where they stand, not trying to convince anyone to be more or less pro-Israel than they happen to be at this moment. As for DK's point about latkes being more Jewish than "Arab" food, see above.

Jacob argues that replacing Israel with, say, Poland, is political, and, relatedly, artificial. I'm not so sure. Many Zionist Diaspora Jews are quite familiar with Israeli culture, and do not need to go out of their way to learn about it. (The same is true of all non-Israelis, regardless of politics or religion, with friends or family in Israel.) However, these non-Israeli Zionists make the assumption (as does Jewlicious commenter WEVS1) that it is inappropriate or insufficient to feel a cultural connection with Israel, when more serious issues demand our attention. The "not at a time like this" argument.

What we are looking at is an intentional--artificial, even-- decision not to focus on culture. Because Israel is a touchy issue-- and not because it is a new country-- its Diaspora Jewish supporters cannot mention the state without a whole treatise on the Palestinians and '67, rather than a comment about, say, shakshuka. Cultural knowledge and appreciation is considered secondary if not beside the point. Letting cultural Judaism remain shtetl Judaism, as do other Ashkenazi Diaspora Jews, is convenient for Zionists because it's politically neutral. Fears that a latke-eating populace will take over the world have diminished greatly since that world population was wiped out.

Indeed, the Jewish case differs from the Irish one in the newness of Israel, but also in the non-existence of the towns and communities for which we are asked to be nostalgic. Israel is not our Ireland, but neither is Poland. For someone my age, with three out of four grandparents born in North America, with family in Israel but not Europe, and with Israeli friends and classmates, as someone who attended Hebrew school, not Yiddish school, as a child, it seems at least as natural for me to have a cultural affinity for Israel as to have one for the villages of Belarus.

Israelophilia does not require Israeli ancestry any more than Francophilia requires Gallic ones. Nor must an Israelophile agree with all policies of the Israeli government, let alone know about them. The problem now is that those who dislike Israeli policies, etc., are unlikely to see in Israel anything other than a political problem; the same, strangely, is true of those who consider themselves Israel's greatest supporters. At this rate, the entire world, outside of (some) Israelis, is against thinking of Israel as a normal country. You simply cannot discuss Israel without discussing its politics. Even if there were some all-encompassing, once-and-for-all debate, and the pro-Israeli debater won, and the whole world agreed that this little piece of land should be governed by Jews... is that really all we're after?

Crossposted at Jewlicious.

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