My Promised Land. XV. By the Sea

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

by

Ari Shavit

XV By the Sea – The New Zionism

The book ends where it begins, with Ari’s own nuclear family returning to England for a vacation. Ari contrasts Israel with England, the frenzy and constant disruption of the former and the tranquility and continuity of the latter. In doing so, he repeats his love of dichotomous polar oppositions which contribute so much to the book’s hyperbolic quality. Yes, we know what you mean, Ari, but what Brit would agree today that the UK is a place of “deep calm and solid identity”? Even if there is some relative truth to the depiction, one doesn’t have to go very far back in history to find a very different portrait of that stormy isle. As the historian G.M. Trevelyan wrote, the reason King Louis XIV of France permitted William of Orange to invade the British Isles and attack his cousin and ally James II was not simply because James was not sufficiently obsequious to him, but for political goals. Britain had the reputation as the most tendentious place in Europe, ridden with internal conflicts. Louis expected William of Orange to get bogged down in eternal wars and allow he, King Louis, to conquer Europe at leisure. As it turned out, in the Great Revolution, William of Orange tamed that land of eternal turmoil, but beneath its placid surface one need scratch very little to find tumultuous conflicts beneath.

However, if you are vacationing in Dorset or in the lake District, repose is the order of the day and Britain serves well as a foil for Israel and possibly Ari’s thesis that the constant turmoil explains the vitality, energy and creativity of Israelis who live on the edge. On all counts, Israel is certainly an exciting country with more than its share of exciting and excitable people. So why did Ari’s ancestors who were prosperous and well established and who enjoyed the fruits of British economic success and its strong tradition of freedom and liberty leave to resettle in a backward place like Palestine? It took a whole book to tell us why. Whatever the challenges, the effort at resettlement was worth the sacrifice. Ari sums up the reasons.

The primary one is assimilation. If the family had stayed in Britain, by the time of his children’s generation, they would most probably no longer identify as Jewish. The Anglo-Jews of his great-grandfather’s generation are a dying breed with reduced numbers of children and most of them increasingly intermarrying and integrating into the dominant culture. “I know that if my great-grandfather had not removed me from this coast, I myself would probably have been today only half-Jewish. Tamara, Michael, and Daniel [Ari’s children] might not consider themselves Jewish at all.” (385) The collective Jewish “we” would be on its last legs. He would have been a witness to the withering away, not of the state, but of Jewish identity. The diaspora is a lost cause for Jews. “With no Holocaust and no pogroms and no overt anti-Semitism, these islands kill us softly. Enlightened Europe also kills us softly, as does democratic America. Benign Western civilization destroys non-Orthodox Judaism.” (386)
Between the Scylla of rampant persecuting antisemitism and the Charybdis of benign enlightenment, and without the captivating hold of the Jewish religion that could sail the ark of Jewish survival through those treacherous shoals, Jews as Jews would disappear.

What if they did? My first published article was entitled, “Is Jewish Survival Necessary?” A provocative question, but one Ari does not ask let alone try to answer. He just assumes it is a fundamental value. Nor does he ask whether one’s identity as a Jew is safe in Israel. Netanyahu’s son is dating a beautiful non-Jewish Norwegian, a story that made headlines in the Israeli and diaspora press. Is the answer collecting Jews together in sufficient numbers to form a critical mass? Or is the resurrection of religious Judaism the only answer? Ari does not ask nor try to answer that question either. He presumes the project of safeguarding secular Jewish life is identical with Zionism, was accomplished and not just stretched out by Zionism, and is sufficient in itself to have justified all that effort. It is a basic premise of Zionism, not an hypothesis to be subjected to interrogation. It is a categorical and not a hypothetical imperative. Further, for Jews as Jews, as a nation of Jews and not just a religion, “Jaffa was inevitable.” (387)

Israel has 6 million Jews of all ages. According to a recent Pew survey, America has 9 million adult Jews, but only if we include all four categories – not only the 4.2 million who identify themselves as Jewish by religion, the 1.1 million overtly secular non-religious Jews (including many Israelis), but also the 2.4 million who are Jewish only because they had one Jewish parent but do not identify as Jewish and the 1.2 of the Jewish affinity category, who, though not raised as Jewish, for one reason or another identify as Jewish. Zionism, therefore, has created the second greatest concentration of Jews in the world and the concentration with the greatest strength and determination to survive as Jews. Further, they are a young population. By 2025, the majority of Jews in the world will be Israeli. And this is Zionism’s greatest triumph.

To sum up this tale of triumph, Ari takes us on a trip around Israel retracing the path of his great grandfather who abandoned Britain to participate in a dream and make it a reality. He travels first through Rishon LeZion in whose orchestra one of my sons once played the classical trumpet. That son is now certainly an example of a totally assimilated Jew. If he had stayed in Israel and married an Israeli, he and his children (he has four) would still be totally assimilated, but to a dominant Israeli secular culture. And if he lived in West Rishon, it would be like living in the suburbs of any large city in North America with its malls and its multiplex cinemas.

Ramleh is different again. Rishon LeZion preserved its original character. West Rishon had no character to be preserved. Ramleh inherited a core Arab heritage and character but demolished the indigenous culture and left nothing with vitality in its place when it was resettled by Oriental Jews. Having traveled and been in the various different places he describes, I recognize what he is describing. In particular, I remember a TV show we did on a mixed Jewish/Arab boys’ football club and my wish that the place had been as uplifting as the enthusiasm of the sports organizers.

But Ari’s visual and descriptive acuity is then followed by what can only be described as silly generalizations. “We Jews need to crowd together. We need to be with one another, even to fight with one another. It is as if we cannot live by ourselves as individuals, as if we were afraid that on our own we’ll vanish. So we do not acknowledge the private domain.” (371)

It is certainly true that I never have had the experience anywhere else but in Israel of standing in a line in a bank and the person behind asking, as I filled out a form, “How much do you have in your account?” He had obviously peeked and saw that I had a positive balance. It was a time of high inflation in Israel. No one but myself, that I knew of anyway, ran a positive balance. If I had not been so startled and so gruff in putting the inquirer off, he would probably only have advised me on the advantages of running a negative balance. But this behaviour of intrusion into privacy was a character of a certain culture. And Ari knows that it was not the character of his great-grandfather’s British generation. So why write, “We Jews….”?

Ari rants. Ari cheers. Ari thinks Israel needs a new Zionism, not a post-Zionism and certainly not an anti-Zionism, a Zionism that will be as innovative and inspiring in responding to the new challenges as the various versions of Zionism in the past responded to the old challenges. For the inherited Zionism of the last few decades has got almost everything wrong as if to balance out the greatness of the achievements of the early years. He is eager to be part of Zionism’s re-invention. And he does so by telling the stories of various people and their various places. As he writes the Israeli bible for the coming generation!

Beit Shemesh where my daughter and her family lived for almost eight years. Yad Vashem where we made one of our best TV shows focusing, incidentally, mostly on the righteous gentiles. The Western Wall where we all ran on the last day of my family’s first visit to Jerusalem in 1973 before the Yom Kippur War to dance and play in 12″ of snow, the only competition Yom Kippur ever had for bringing the city to a standstill. I recall visiting the military cemetery on Mount Herzl and making a TV show beside Rabin’s grave and recognizing the egalitarianism Ari describes. Though I have been to many Palestinian towns and refugee camps, I have never visited what is left of Deir Yassin, though I too envision Israel’s future as a democratic state side by side a self-governing Palestinian state and not an apartheid state, a bi-national state, or, worst of all, a conquering and ethnic cleansing militarist state.

Ari raises the two themes I heard him raise in a PBS television interview. “In the twenty-first century there is no other nation that is occupying another people as we do, and there is no other nation that is as intimidated as we are.” (399) There are seven circles of intimidation: the outer circle of threatening Islam, the next circle of antitheticial Arabs going through the turmoil of the Arab Spring with the outcome uncertain, the next circle of a virulently angry and radicalizing Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza, and an even closer circle of Arab Israelis, members of a democratic polis but without equal rights. Then comes the fifth circle that wraps around Jewish Israelis and squeezes the breath out of their lungs as Israelis ask the unanswerable question: Do with have the strength, the fortitude, the discipline, the courage, the mental strength and resolve to stand up to Israel’s enemies. “Within the Islamic-threat circle and Arab-threat circle and the Palestinian challenge circle and the internal-threat circle, lies the fifth threat of the mental challenge. (403)

But there are two other threats even closer to the Israeli soul – the moral threat to Israel as a democratic state that is being eroded by the occupation, and even more central still, the identity-threat, the erosion of that revolutionary Hebrew identity that displaced the Jewish galut identity, that like a Nietzschean Dionysian force transvalued the mores of the Jewish people and created a renewed Hebrew tribe with its own language and culture and vibrant way of living to the full.

That identity has been dulled and eroded, is crumbling and disintegrating before our very eyes by a rampant pluralism that increasingly forgets what it takes to make a unified people. The Jews of the diaspora are in decline. Only the Israeli people can save the Jews and they must do so in a New Middle East in turmoil and regressing to tribalism. They must do so through a New Politics that was the dramatic outcome of the Israeli 2013 elections brought about by a renewed galvanized secular Zionist majority that rejects the old left-right divide, but also ignores the Palestinian issue, that wears blinkers when confronting Iran and, instead of facing the external threats boldly, becomes obsessed with costs to consumers, and the difficulty in finding reasonably priced housing, the rejection of special-interest groups and privileged minorities. Ari celebrates the rise of a pragmatic, practical, middle class Israeli identity with all its strengths and shortcomings.

What makes Israel great is its people. and the can-do creative enterprise they bring to whatever they take on. Israel is not just a start-up nation. The start-up nation is because Israel consists of a variety of start-up individuals, yet individuals who insist that they share both a common identity and a common fate. “We Israelis face a Herculean mission. To live here we will have to redefine a nation and divide a land and come up with a new Jewish Israeli narrative. We will have to restore a rundown state and unify a shredded society and groom a trustworthy civilian leadership. After ending occupation, we’ll have to establish a new, firm, and legitimate iron wall on our post-occupation borders. Facing the regional tide of radical Islam, Israel will have to be an island of enlightenment. Facing seven circles of threat, Israel will have to be moral, progressive, cohesive, creative, and strong.” (417)

For a Jew with a trace of a Jewish soul remaining, there is no resistance to such an appeal. My critical intellect gets bracketed as my tears well up and I stand to salute the renewed Jewish nation that shall once again be a light unto the world.

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