Thursday, May 29, 2008

Zionism in a Flat World

In addition to its laid back atmosphere and proximity to the beach, one of the advantages of living in Tel Aviv is the ability to miss the chaos caused by the visit of the President of the United States who strode into town for his second visit in half a year, taking part in the President's 'Tomorrow Conference' and giving a rousing address at the Knesset.

Bush's speech was followed by PM Olmert discussing his plans for a two state solution. In response, one right wing MK quipped that he wished Olmert would learn about Zionism from Bush. A senior Likud MK meanwhile described Bush as 'manifesting' the Zionist vision.

Of slightly less global importance, but noteworthy nonetheless, was our goodbye party at work for my colleague Yonatan Adiri.

Extremely smart, sharp and capable, Yonatan led a discussion on Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat – which argues that the technological and geo-strategic 'advances' in recent years have leveled the professional playing field, enhanced the role of the individual and started processes in which everyone will be racing to the top (even if you're one in a million, there's still approximately 1,000 Chinese just like you). This week, Friedman is a guest speaker at Reut's Conference on the
ISRAEL 15 Vision – how to turn Israel into one of the leading 15 countries in the world in terms of quality of life.

Friedman's flat world offers little security. 'When I was growing up,' he says, 'my parents told me "Finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving." Now I tell my daughters, "Finish your homework. People in China and India are starving for your job."
He concludes that only 'agile' and 'flexible' individuals (as well as communities and countries) can stay relevant in such a world.

In his speech to the Tomorrow Conference, Amos Oz discussed the different aspects of traditional Zionism explaining that "Israel was born not out of one but many dreams, including several conflicting, contradicting and mutually exclusive dreams…
Some wanted to renew the days of old, the biblical country, a replica of kingdom of David;
Others wanted to create a middle class paradise, with central European manners and peace and quiet between 2 and 4 in the afternoon;
Some wished for a replica of Jewish Shtetl in Eastern Europe with all its attributes while others were Marxist Jews who dreamed Stalin would one day visit their Kibbutz and exclaim "bloody Jews! You have done socialism better than we did in Russia" and then die of happiness.
Others meanwhile, saw Zionism through the prism of creating a social democratic welfare state.'

Whether we like it or not, both Olmert's and Bush's speeches - one about rights, the other about reality - come under the umbrella of what has become Zionism.

It's not surprising that few of us are completely satisfied with how the Zionist dream has become a living, breathing reality - the nature of (conflicting) dreams is to remain unachievable in their entirety.

Yet the real challenge of tomorrow is how to turn Zionism's diversity (the competing visions of a cultural center, safe haven or light unto the nations as well as the competing values of land, democracy and civil rights, Jewish law, social justice and ingathering of exiles) into a 'creatively agile' entity that can face Friedman's flat world with confidence, and turn itself into one of the leading 15 countries in the world.

How we do this is another question; but maintaining a rigid definition of 'true Zionism' as being reduced to one aspect is not only doing a disservice to the traditional ideological mosaic but is also likely to undermine our ability to survive in what is becoming a very dangerous constantly changing world.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Yom Hashoah: Remembering Death Celebrating Life

The first time I watched 'The Pianist' was in a cinema in Warsaw during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2002. Together with other students from Leeds Jewish society I was taking part in what has in many ways become our generation's rite of passage – the trip to Poland’s concentration camps.

We did the usual itinerary – trips to the quiet fields of Treblinka, (where I perhaps inappropriately felt that if one didn’t know the place's history, it would make a good picnic spot) the barracks of Majdanek (which are eerily like a film set), and of course Auschwitz, the symbol of humanity's capacity for evil, the place that forever changed our imaginative framework for what depths people are capable of.

Yet rather than focusing on death, we also explored Jewish life before the war. It still amazes me how dynamic the Jewish Polish experience actually was – that in addition to those learning Torah, the country was filled with Jewish poets, writers, artists and philosophers…all integrated into society, four cities the equivalent of today’s New York…and all destroyed in the space of a few years.

There were of course the obvious questions - of how God could let such a thing happen; of how man could let such a thing happen. And the less obvious - of whether I would have survived in the camps, or whether if I was a non Jewish Pole I would have risked my family's life to save a neighbor (is it just me or does everyone imagine these scenarios?)

But the overall feeling was one of pride - that despite it all we're still here, still standing. Like Eli Wiesel’s portrayal of the prototypal biblical ‘survivor’ Isaac, those that came out of the death camps picked themselves up and build new lives, brought children into the world, moved out of Hannah Arendt's 'worldlessness' and re-entered history. Most refused to let fate embitter them. How amazing to be part of such a people.

The second time I watched ‘The Pianist’ was last Wednesday night, in my Tel Aviv flat, as the first Hebrew city in nearly two thousand years marked Holocaust Memorial Day. There’s a lot that needs fixing in this country. The political culture, the education system, the fact that many find it difficult to articulate a vision of what sort of state we want to build here...We haven't yet created a cultural and spiritual utopia a la Achad Ha’am while the daily sirens around Sderot remind us we’re a long way from a Herzelian safe haven. Surrounded by the hustle and bustle of daily life, it's often difficult to make out the wood from the trees, hear the 'still short voice' through the noise of scandals and strikes.

Yet every once in a while, as the siren we hear indicates the past rather than a sometimes frightening present, its worthwhile using the silence to remember a time when we didn’t have the strongest army in the region, or a first world economy, or a place to call our own.

And be appreciative and proud of a place those 6 million could only dream of.