Monday, September 07, 2009

Arik on Jewishness II

Here's my latest for the Sephardic Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town's monthly publication, Kaminando y Avlando:


This past week I finished reading Warrior, the autobiography of Ariel ‘Arik’ Sharon, one of Israel’s most controversial military and political figures. For those who read the book, there’s no doubting the man’s dedication to and love for his country, but it was the following three-paragraph excerpt that really stood out to me (bold formatting by me):

“I started talking about the pioneers of Petach Tikva, the first Zionist settlement. Who were these very earliest pioneers? They were the most orthodox Jews from Jerusalem wearing 'shtreimels,' the dark fur hats of the Middle Ages. After Petach Tikvah came Hibat Zion in the 1880s, also settled by orthodox Jews during the First Aliyah. The Second Aliyah immigrants who arrived prior to World War One were inspired by the social movements fermenting in Europe and especially by the Russian Revolution of 1905. But beneath the veneer they too were yeshiva 'buchers' - students who had received their education in the Jewish religious schools of Eastern Europe. After World War One came the Third Aliyah - our parents. And that was a generation of true rebels. But for all their revolutionary fire, they knew in their bones what it means to be Jewish. They knew their culture, they spoke Hebrew. If I had mastered the richness of this language as my father did, I would be exceptionally proud. So that was a generation of rebels, but rebels with deep roots in Judaism.

“The problem started with our generation. Because we were the sons and daughters of rebels, we had no Judaism in our upbringing whatsoever. The result was that our generation in a way lost its roots, the first to have done so. What did we know about Jewish wisdom? What did we know about Jewish contributions to the world or about the Jewish presence here in Israel? Very little. Were we taught to be proud that we were Jews, descendants of those Jews who through the ages had fought to the death for their beliefs? No, we were not taught these things. Instead, with our generation there was an attempt to create not Jews but New Israeli Men and Women. In the process we were disconnected from those earlier generations whose Jewishness was inscribed in their hearts.

“And the outside world saw this too. I remember back in the 1950s and '60s when I was traveling abroad I felt the desire by others to consider me not a Jew but as an Israeli, to draw the distinction. You are an Israeli, they seemed to say. They, those people over there with strange clothes and strange ways - they are Jews. And in a way it felt easy to be accepted like that. But it was also dangerous. It was a signal that we had lost our Jewishness. And I for one, even then, never believed we would really be able to survive here if we were nothing more than Israelis. For our attachment to the land of Israel, our identity with it, comes through out Jewishness. I am a Jew, I thought then, as I think now. That does not mean I am a religious man. I am not. When it comes to practicing Judaism, there is much I do not know. But I do know for certain that above everything I am a Jew and only afterwards an Israeli and the rest.”

Never have truer words been spoken by the man. Sharon realized that due to Israel’s remarkable escape act in 1948 and the general positive media surrounding the country, Israelis came to be differentiated from Jews. The Jews were a weak, struggling people who were easily pushed around and exterminated throughout Europe and the Arab world. These Israelis on the other hand were a tough people, fighting for their ideals and surviving against all odds. What separated them? In Sharon’s eyes … Nothing. Unfortunately, the Israel of today is very much struggling with the ‘divide’ Sharon describes – Jew v. Israeli.

Israel’s creation took away our identity as a minority, as a victim of persecution with no homeland. Combine that new reality with the necessity to ‘erase’ the weakness of the ‘Old Jew’ in order to survive, we Israelis became ‘normal,’ or ‘Hebrew-Speaking Goyim’ as the famous phrase goes. I am not saying, G-d forbid, that secular Israelis are goyim, or don’t have a strong Jewish identity – but the successful formation (and survival) of Israel had the unintended effect of making us a normal people, one whose identity wasn’t defined by our Jewishness. We could violate the laws of Shabbat or Kashrut and be in the complete majority, ah, yes – we’re normal. Ironically, that’s exactly why we viewed the non Jews’ normalcy in such a positive light – without the persecution, outsider status and religion, we Jews are just like any other human being in France, or South Africa, or Brazil, or Japan.

The ideology of secular Zionism, the dominant stream of Zionism, unintentionally pushed a reality which deprived Israel’s citizens a chance to strengthen their Jewishness, and develop their identity through it. Sadly, a purely secular Jew in Israel today struggles to identify as a ‘Jew’ because his ‘Jewishness’ has, as Arik mentioned already in the 1960s, been lost. A good friend of mine recently mentioned a conference he attended years ago where Eshkol Nevo and Jonathan Safran Foer were two of the panelists. Both secular Jewish novelists were asked what is Jewish about their writing. Foer, the New Yorker, explained that his books are largely about loss – and the ramifications of it – which is a distinctly Jewish experience. His books have largely focused on the Holocaust and the Jewish experience in Europe before the war. Nevo, the Israeli, struggled to answer the question and eventually answered that what is Jewish about his books is that they’re written in Hebrew. And that, in essence, is the problem we’re facing today.

Perhaps we, as well as our brothers and sisters throughout the world, should learn from Sharon’s harsh assessment in the last quoted paragraph: We must understand that our identity and connection to the land only comes from our Jewishness. Let us not forget that, as the last sentence says so eloquently, we are Jews above everything else – and that's what should unite and guide us through good and bad times not only here in Israel, but anywhere.

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