Friday, July 13, 2007

Passports, Politics and the Search for Utopia

3 weeks ago I flew back to London for a long weekend for my cousins wedding. It was a great few days – dancing at the wedding, laughing with old friends (there’s always something special about hanging out with those you knew at 14). Generally being the guest that everyone wanted to see…In fact, the only annoying thing was waiting in line at Heathrow with all the Europeans at passport control – after all, surely the point of a British passport is to save you having to queue with the Greeks and French!

According to some Israelis, that’s not the only reason for valuing a foreign passport. Promoting his new book 'Defeating Hitler', former head of the Jewish agency and Knesset speaker, Avrum Burg, recently caused a stir in Israel when he described us as a frightened society, unable to trust the outside world and negatively influenced by the primal fear of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Claiming that Israel is sliding towards greater militarism and ultimate ruin, Burg advised anyone who could to get a foreign passport before its too late, bemoaning the fact Zionism had focused on Herzelian political Zionism rather than the gentler more spiritual Zionism of Ahad Haam.

Despite it being shocking coming from someone of Burg’s stature, I’m not convinced that his critique of Zionism actually broke any new ground. There's always been a strain among Jews idealizing pacifism and rejecting the idea of sovereignty and the ‘impurity’ that comes with it – those like George Steiner who posited the idea of the morally pure exilic Jew as the human conscience of the world, powerless to abuse the ‘other’ and dirty himself with realpolitik. Burg’s critique of our current predicament was hanging on the coat tails of previous ideologues. And to completely reject his argument in the name of patriotism would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Truth is, I also wish this country was different – that we lived without a Shoah complex with Scandinavian neighbours, comfortable in the fact we were always victims and never victimizers. I’d love to go to Friday night dinners without hearing the (erroneous) view of how the world hates us and that we can only rely on ourselves. I wish the early Zionist idealized dreams of a utopian island of peace and enlightenment hadn’t become an incomplete reality with poverty, violence, aggression and corruption.

Yet however great it may be to live in a postmodern ivory tower philosophizing about the perils of power and militarism and bemoaning how the dream went so badly astray; however artistic all of that may be, it’s simply so much less real. And just because moral ambiguity and complexity aren’t sexy doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

It’s easy to forget that we Jews didn’t do so well with powerlessness (or Statelessness), easy to minimize the challenge of being a people with the responsibility of wielding force for the first time in two millennium.

And that’s what Israel’s about – a place where Jewish culture is naturally imbibed, where we speak to the greengrocer in our ancient language, where secular kids dress up on Purim, and where policy makers need to weigh up how best to utilize force to ensure our continued existence in an area where most of our neighbours would rather we weren’t here.

Its to be in a place where ‘spiritual Zionism’ doesn’t just mean practicing non violence as Burg sees it but discussing what we should do about the environment, unemployment benefits, and democracy…where the realms of what is considered Judaism have been immeasurably expanded to include how we use power, or determine what a Jewish economic policy looks like.

Utopia for Burg may be closer to Brussels than Jerusalem. And life in London may sometimes be easier than Tel Aviv. But living here is about something more than just comfort and ease. Its about the challenge of leaving behind what writer A.B Yehoshua calls the ‘personal spice box’ of the Diaspora and diving in to the murky waters of a sovereign national reality...and continuing to believe that this idea is worth fighting for even when we sometimes come up short.


Aussie who was down under now living top side (& hopefully the right way around) said...

I think its also important to bear in mind that people who travel here or move here need to assess Israel just as they would any other country.

Personally, I love it here. But its not for everyone.

Its important to love Israeli culture, and not just look at Israel as "the country for Jews" or "the only possible place where we can all be Jewish".

There is an interconnection between being Jewish (by blood or in a religious sense, whichever way you prefer to look at it) and being an Israeli.

I think it would be wise for all Jews in the galut to become just a little bit Israeli.

Identifying "Israeliness" as something unique alongside "Jewishness" and the complexities inherent in that connection is something worth thinking about and acting on.

Sir Burg, of the castle Moral High Ground, doesnt seem to understand that interconnection.

Given his view of the place, I wonder why he bothers to stay here at all.

I dont like the shoah mentality. I think it promotes defensive thinking.

I think its more intelligent to deal with the current reality around us and think and act accordingly.

Good luck to Sir Burg, if he needs a first class ticket to Timbuktu, I'll gladly fork out the dosh on his behalf.

Anonymous said...

I have never seen Israel in person, but I often think of it, someone said that the people are friendly and greet all that pass by, not only greet but ask you to come over to share a meal. I have been in churches here in the USA that say hello to each person going by, but I have not found that lately here. I want to sing in the streets and hear others singing. The LORD has put a new song in my heart, not one that I know, but as they flow from the Holy Spirit.......lot's of spontaneity....and vigor....longsufferings and joys mixed is lifting. If God is realy in us.....we would be singing continually. It is the covering of love.....cover Israel,O' LORD...let her sing again! Up!...ZION....UP!