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Jüdische Weisheit

This was published in the International Herald Tribune, April 7, 1998. The sections marked [---] were omitted because of space limitations.


By Uri Avnery

When you are 50 years old, you should know already who you are. The State of Israel does not.

What is it? A "Jews’ State", as the founder of the Zionist movement called the future state? A "state of the Jewish people", as defined in one of Israel’s laws? A state that belongs to its citizens? Or a "Jewish and democratic state", as the official doctrine, endorsed by the Supreme Court, announces?

And how can a state, whose every fifth citizen is a non-Jew, be Jewish and democratic at the same time? Who is a Jew? What does a "Jewish state" mean?

Such question may sound abstract, but they have a direct bearing on our everyday life in Israel.

In the beginning, most Zionists declared that "Jewish" is a purely national identity. But after a long juridical struggle, it was accepted in Israel that the only valid definition of "Jewish" was religious. Israeli law says, therefore, that a Jew is a person whose mother is Jewish, or who has converted to Judaism in a religious ceremony.

As Jews in Israel enjoy many overt and covert privileges, this definition is very important. [When one says in Israel "I am an atheist’, one is often asked in jest: "Jewish or Christian atheist?"]

If Israel is a Jewish state, it seems logical that a Jew in Paris has the right to immigrate to Israel at any time and to automatically receive Israel citizenship, while a Palestinian refugee in Paris, whose family has lived in Haifa for centuries, has no right to return, much less to citizenship. [The Knesset has been able to forbid the import of pork, in direct contravention of a Basic Law. A huge part of the lands in the State belongs to a Zionist fund, whose statutes expressly forbid their sale, or even lease, to non-Jews.]

Recently it was reported that there is a secret "demographic" department in the Prime Minister’s office, whose job is to encourage Jewish mothers to bear as many children as possible, while discouraging Arab mothers from doing so. For most Israelis, this makes sense, since the aim of the Jewish state is to "ingather" as many Jews as possible. After all, that is the Zionist raison d’etre.

But who are we Israelis? Are we really Jews? A new kind of Jews? Jewish Israelis? Israeli Jews? Or just Israelis? I am a convinced atheist; I think of myself primarily as a human being and then as a Hebrew-speaking Israeli of Jewish descent.

Simple? Well, in a recent public opinion poll Israelis were asked how they defined their identity. 34% answered "Jewish", 35% "Israeli", 30% "Jewish and Israeli".
Among those who defined themselves as left-wing, 60% answered "Israeli". Among 12-18-year-olds, 44.5% answered "Israeli". [Practically nobody had the idea to identify himself primarily as a human being (in Hebrew: Ben Adam, son of Adam).]

Are Israelis really Jews in the accepted sense? Not long ago a Polish friend told me about one of his acquaintances in Warsaw, who had visited Israel for the first time. He told him breathlessly: "Do you know what? In Israel there are Jews too!" He meant, of course, orthodox Jews, those who wear black gowns and hats, as they have done for centuries in Eastern Europe. This Pole had probably never before seen a Jew, but in many folklore shops in Poland you find, among other wooden figures of Polish types, Jewish musicians dressed in black gowns and hats. This sounds like a joke, but isn’t. Everybody understands that there is a huge difference between Jews and Israelis.

[Only the orthodox think that religious Jews are the same all over the world, because for them religious beliefs are more important that worldly nonsense like state, nation and other such pagan notions. For this reason, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, was cursed and damned by all the "Torah Greats"of his time. Non-religious Israelis who identify themselves primarily as Jews consider themselves "new Jews" and look down with utmost contempt upon Jews in Brooklyn and Berlin.]

Even a casual observer perceives that over the last generations, Jews in Palestine/Israel have become a new people. [By way of a metamorphose, perhaps a mutation.] The religion, too, has changed. The ultra-nationalist, messianic tribal religion of today’s settler movement, which plays such a big role in Israeli politics, bears little resemblance to the humanistic Jewish religion of Western Europe.

The main link that ties Israelis to the Jews everywhere is the memory of the Holocaust and preceding persecutions. Indeed, the great Orthodox philosopher, Jeshayahu Leibowitz alleged that Jewish religion had died 200 years ago, and that the holocaust was a kind of ersatz-religion, the only that Jews around the world have in common.

There is a certain danger in this remembrance. It corresponds to a deep urge. One cannot, one should not, forget this monstrous chapter because that would be treason to the memory of the victims, our relatives, our flesh and blood.

But this remembrance comes with the conviction that not only the Nazis, not only the Germans, were to blame, but all the other peoples too – all who did not raise a finger when the industrialized mass-murder was in progress. This is a notion that comes naturally, nearly inevitably, to Jews. But for Israelis it is dangerous.

[A few years ago entertainment groups of the Israeli army used to sing a jolly melody to the words: "All the world is against us / But we don’t give a damn. / It was always that way…"]

If one grows up with the conviction that the whole non-Jewish world wants only to annihilate the Jews - indeed, that the whole of human history is nothing but a chain of anti-Jewish persecutions - and that Israelis are Jews like any other, than the logical conclusion is that we Israelis cannot make peace, that peace is a dangerous illusion, that we must be constantly on guard.

It is difficult to understand the Israeli reaction after the Oslo peace accords without grasping the important role of this conviction in our political life.

Yet Israel is a new nation. Millions of people were transplanted not only from one country to another, but also from one culture to another, from one language to another, from one climate to another, from one way of life to another, from one geopolitical situation to another, often also from one social class to another. It would have been a wonder if nothing new came out of this.

[Australia and the United States are based on British culture and British values, but they are, of course, new nations. Israel is Jewish as Canada is British, yet both are new nations.]

This new nation, Israel, is suffering from great inner stresses. Today, 50 years after the official creation of the State, a deep rift passes through its middle. We refer to "left" and "right’ but these terms have little resemblance to the way they are understood in Europe.

Generally speaking, "left" in Israel means the social and economic upper classes, the Jews of European origin ("Ashkenazim"), the better educated, the non- and anti-religious. This left is reinforced by practically all of the Arab citizens of Israel - a national minority of nearly 20%.

"Right" means the socially and economically underprivileged, the Jews of oriental descent [often referred to as "Sephardim"], the less educated and the religious Jews of all shades. [The different definition actually overlap: Most oriental Jews are religious or "traditional"’ and belong to the "lower’ classes, etc. That’s why the various differences have become one great dangerous rift.]

The rift between the two camps is widening constantly. Some speak already about "two peoples", the left based in Tel-Aviv, the right in Jerusalem. When the left’s Shimon Peres faced the right’s Benjamin Netanyahu two years ago, the election results showed that each camp commands almost exactly 50% of the vote.

The rift runs through all the problems of Israeli society: state and religion (the "right" prevents any separation), the constitution (the religious don’t want one), the laws and the Supreme Court (too liberal for the religious), the education system (dominated by the religious), the Arab minority in Israel proper (equal rights on paper only), even the music is involved: the left’s pop versus Oriental songs.

The peace process has fallen into this abyss. The right hase condemned the "Ashkenazi" Oslo-agreement; a rightist religious fanatic murdered Yitzhak Rabin, an Ashkenazi par excellence, at a leftist mass-meeting.

For the rightists, Greater Israel is vastly more important than peace. Ironically, their leader, Netanyahu, is a typical Ashkenazi son of the upper classes.

How will Israel develop over the next 50 years? Nobody knows. Only one thing is certain: It will remain an interesting country.  


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