“Israel’s Social Protests and Us” – Rosh ha-Shana 2011 Day 2 – Fire Island Synagogue
In the early 1970s then editor of Commentary Normon Podhoretz wrote the following: “Today we are all Zionists.” In some very real way he was right. After the Six-Day War, the progressive American Jewish community, at least some of whom were ambivalent about Zionism because it potentiality challenged the on-going project of Americanization, raising the old canard of dual-allegiance, replaced its apathy about Zionism with a triumphant and proud commitment to Israel. From that point onward Zionism has become the mainstream position of American Jewry from Orthodoxy to Reform. What interests me today is not the use of the term “Zionist” to define the American Jew, but what that term actually means to the large majority of American Jews who know little about Israel, its history, and the fabric of its society. The American Jewish support is largely in the geo-political realm: we support Israel against its enemies and anyone we see as threatening its legitimacy, its sovereignty, and its autonomy. On another level, and perhaps this is more operative than we think, Israel functions as an important source of American Jewish identity. Here I bring two examples.
The first is Leon Uris’ book Exodus and the 1961 Otto Preminger film adaptation by the same name. Many of us as children were introduced to Israel through this epic film. The music still brings tears to our eyes, the panoramic vistas of the Israeli landscape are embedded in our minds, Ari ben Canaan, the young virile Zionist played by Paul Newman and his father, the wise Ben Gurion-like figure played by Lee Jay Cobb became paragons of Israeli fortitude and dignity. I regularly showed this film in my “Introduction to Judaism” course until I received so many protests from students (who mostly hated it, claiming it was propagandistic and a horrible film, both of which are true) that I removed it from the syllabus. But I did have to sit through it numerous times as an adult, not as easy task.
What I came to realize about Exodus, the book and the film, is that it is really not about Israel. It is really about American Jews. It is Israel from an American perspective. Ari falls in love with a blond gentile from Indiana (who he seems to marry in the end although we never know). Let’s just say this is more Phillip Roth than Hayyim Nahman Bialik. She moves from a fear of Jews as “other” (she first meets them as refugees in Cyprus) to a love of Jews, and their history, like the biblical Ruth ultimately identifying with their plight. The Holocaust, represented by the Holocaust survivor radical played by the very young Sal Mineow, brings to mind the American Jewish angst about the Holocaust and Israel as the only alternative to assure Jewish survival and, as important, a vehicle to exercise Jewish revenge. Even the Zionist underside in the terrorist brother Akiva ben Canaan, a diabolical character who is eventually overcome by his more genteel, shall we say, American-like brother, attracts our sympathy in the end when Akiva, now a beaten man, gazes at his more diplomatic brother through the bars of the British prison in Akko.
Exodus is the story of Israel from our perspective, not from theirs. We see no in-fighting between the Zionist factions, the political Zionists and the cultural Zionists, the Marxists and the socialists (there were not many capitalists back then), The Hebraists and the Yiddishists, the secular and the religious (I don’t recall one religious character in the film). The depiction of Israel in the Exodus coheres nicely with the ad campaign for Israeli tourism developed in a Mad Men episode. Don Draper is challenged to create an advertising campaign to best sell Israel as a product to the American Jew.
We, or shall I say, I, was not brought up to care much about the country, althoughmany of us were brought up to envision some fantasy of Jewish policemen and farmers and plumbers and taxi drivers all living in the pristine land of the Bible. It was mostly about us and not about them. Even when we toured the country in those heady days, we had sunburned chain smoking tour guides who showed us the land of the Bible (including the obligatory visit to the Bedouin tent an expression of Orientalism even before Edward Said invented the term). We went home with a sense of warmth and pride but few of us ever considered moving there. Most people didn’t have cars, the telephone system was terrible, there was almost no air conditioning, there was one state-run television channel, the tuna fish was uneatable and the toilet paper was not what we were used to. We collected money to plant trees, maybe had a kibbutz pen-pal, and we were satisfied.
My second example comes from a book written by the world-renowned professor of Judaic Studies Jacob Neusner. For those of you who don’t know who Neusner is, he was a longtime professor at Brown University and now teaches at Bard College. He was called in a NY Times profile some years ago as “the single most published individual in human history.” He has written or edited over 800 books and probably a few more have come out from the time I wrote this last week until today. In any case, in 1984 Neusner published a small book entitled, The Jewish War Against the Jews: Reflections of Golah, Shoah, and Torah in which he astutely and courageously wrote about American Jewry’s relationship to Israel and the Holocaust.
It should be noted that in 1984 few scholars were writing about these matters and fewer were making Neusner’s point. In this book we read as follows, “Apart from our deep concern for the welfare of the State of Israel and its people, we are really not much interested in the State of Israel or in Zionism…So if we American Jews are Zionists, that does not mean we want to say more than that we are Zionists. We do not for one minute propose to shape our thinking about ourselves in response to the issues of Zionist theory, past or present….Jews care intensely about what is good for the State of Israel – but they do not want to live there.” Here is Neusner’s critical gloss of Podhoretz’s statement “We are all Zionists now.” Yes, we are all Zionists. But for many of us the term is empty. At most it is romantic and sentimental like the film Exodus and void of any substantive meaning other than some kind of diffuse identification and strong political alliance to a country many of us know very little about. After all, what is the alternative? We want Israel to exist, and we support its existence, but mostly because it matters for our identity. Most ardent American Zionists couldn’t tell Leo Pinkser from Yosef Micha Brydechefsky and most can recognize a picture of David Ben Gurion because of his world historical bad haircut. It has to be up there with Kim Jong Ill as the worst haircut of any head of state since the advent of photography.
Most don’t know that early in his career, the great patriarch of Zionism Theodore Herzl advocated mass Jewish conversion to Christianity as the only solution to Antisemitism and spent a total of less than one week in Palestine during his life. Most don’t know Israel was until recently a socialist country that still has May Day parades in Tel Aviv. Israel is, for many of us, a place where we can send our children, a place we can go and eat in kosher le-Pesah restaurants on Passover, a place where we don’t have to hide our Jewishness. In short, we want there to be a place where “everyone is Jewish,” (even though 20% aren’t but we don’t know any of them) but we don’t want to live there even if many of us fashionably say we want to.
Why do I bring this up now? I do so because I was somewhat bewildered by the dearth of coverage in the American Jewish media about the social protests in Israel this summer. For many in Israel this was perhaps the most important event in their lifetime. And for many of us it was the first time that we got to see Israel as a real country and not through the lens of the film Exodus film or Birthright Israel or our suntanned tour guide. The tents on Rothschild Boulevard, the protests in Beer Sheva, and Afula, the Arab Israel protests in Umm al Fahm, this is Israel the country, this is the real Israel we know little about and, according to Neusner, care little about.
Why were we so unable to get our heads around this protest movement? First of all, it had nothing to do with Israel’s enemies, or the geo-political realm, or frankly, us. It had nothing to do with us. It was, as they say in diplomacy, an internal matter. It made sense therefore, that the U.S. government had little to say, and it even made sense that AIPAC had little to say. But what did we think? Or, perhaps, a better question is: why should we care? Second, the nature of the protests was “outing” a critical flaw in Israeli society. Ironically, that flaw was something we bequeathed to them. As finance minister in the 1980s Benjamin Netanyahu restructured the Israel economy to mirror the American economy of free-market capitalism. He deregulated companies, he removed government subsidies on foods and some social services, he opened up the possibility of private medical practices giving doctors the ability to leave the socialized system of kupat holim. He promoted globalization and the introduction of multi-national companies. He encouraged venture capitalists to build without proper attention to environmental concerns. The result was obvious. The Israeli economy grew tremendously; it produced a wealthy, even super-wealthy class. Sure, it destroyed the kibbutzim but they were in decline for years since Israel ceased being an agricultural society. That was perhaps a small price to pay.
Many of us as American Jews were proud of Israel’s entry into international commerce and applauded its innovations in medical and computer technology. We all took advantage of the luxury hotels that went up in Tel Aviv and Netanya and the fact that thank God we no longer had to take that annoying four hour bus ride to Eilat where we took breaks in gas stations that were 110 degrees in the shade and could now fly there in 40 minutes and be swept from the plane in an air conditioned taxi to our air conditioned suite in a luxury hotel. In short, we loved this because Israel started looking a lot like America…except more Jewish.
But something else was happening that we didn’t see. When the social safety net was removed, the poor became poorer, the middle class were getting priced out of decent apartments because investors wanted to build luxury apartments for us, that disproportionate funds were being moved to the settlers and ultra-Orthodox families with 7 or 8 children. The social safety net was gone, the socialist ethos of caring for all citizens was gone, the feeling of national solidarity was gone except when there was a terrorist attack. Israel seemed to care about its people only when they were threatened from the outside. Israel was full of Jews but Jewish values were harder and harder to find outside the enclaves of haredi neighborhoods.
As American Jews, we are not just innocent bystanders. We are implicated in this socioeconomic crisis. Who do you think these investors are building those luxury hotels and apartments for? Most Israeli’s can’t afford them. They are building them for wealthy Diaspora Jews from the U.S. and Europe. Diaspora Jews are buying second homes that are left empty except when they visit for a few weeks a year or give them to friends and relatives. Or, if they are entrepreneurial they are rented at a price most Israeli’s can’t afford.
One example. Bakka is a quant neighborhood in the southern part of Jerusalem, home to many immigrant families from North Africa and the Levant. It was always a fairly affordable neighborhood where one could rent a small apartment and raise a family. Over the past decade, French Jews have been buying up mass amounts of real estate and warehousing the apartments. Many do so in case of a rise in Antisemitism in France. Isn’t that part of what Zionism is about? Derekh Beit Lehem, the main thoroughfare in Bakka, is now full of French cafes which is good for those who like good French pastry but not good for Israelis who are trying to make ends meet on an Israeli salary. One hears more French than Hebrew. Many Israelis that rented apartments are being forced to leave because home owners are selling the houses to Diaspora Jews who merge the apartments into one big dwelling where they can come for Passover and invite all their friends. The Old City. Forget it. It is populated by poor haredi Jews who moved there in 1967 when the government was giving away apartments. Few others were interested in moving there because they believed it would be returned to Jordon. Or, wealthy Diapsora Jews who pay multi-millions so they can have a view of the kotel while eating dinner every night.
Given the increasing globalization in Israeli society more and more new immigrants from the U.S. and Europe are living in Israel but working outside and living on U.S. dollars, Euros, or Pounds. They are Israeli consumers but are not contributing to the growth of the economy. They can afford a higher standard of living than Israelis living on the shekel. They are proud and ardent Zionists who express their commitment by making aliyah and raising their children in Israel. But they will not abandon their lucrative businesses abroad to be full members of Israeli society. They are in some wasys undermining the society to which they profess their undying love.
While the problem in Israeli society extends far beyond American Jews’ pricing Israelis out of their own country, it remains a disturbing part of the equation I have not seen in the English language coverage of the protests. There are the at least three segments of Israeli society who play a role in the collapse of the Middle Class: the haredim, the settlers, and the super-rich.
We love to bash the haredim. They don’t work, they don’t serve in the army, they have too many kids, they look funny, talk funny, wear long black clothes in the stifling heat, don’t shake our hands (if we are women), are anti-Zionist, don’t consider us real Jews, and remind us of our grandparents grandparents we never met. This is all more or less true. But haredi society is growing in Israel. Twenty-five percent of Israeli kindergartners are haredi. In the next twenty over 30% (perhaps more) of Israel society will be haredi (and about 25% will be Israeli Arab). In short, it is their country, they live there, they pay taxes, they vote.
In America, albeit not in Israel, the settlers seem to get a pass. They have convinced most American Jews that they are the real descendants of the Zionist pioneers imagined in the film “Exodus,” the front line of Israel’s security. It is a brilliant and tragic scam. But we as American Jews are sentimental about Israel. We don’t need a Don Draper. We are an easy sell. Protestors wanted to keep there grievances out of the political realm but Israeli journalists could not resist. They calculated how much money goes to the settlers, building infrastructure, maintaining security, giving home subsidies to encourage settlement. If you noticed, the settlers did not really take part in the protests. On Arutz Sheva, the settlement news website, the protesters were largely disparaged. Settlers had the perfect solution to the problem of the Israeli middle class: move to a settlement. This shows you where their allegiances lie and how much they live in a parallel universe to the protesters in Tel Aviv. Of course, they are justifiably afraid that a restructuring of the economy would hurt them. And it will. But sadly, that restructuring will not come.
As to the super-rich, well, they are just being good venture capitalists. While American Jews buy second homes in Jerusalem and Netanya, the Israeli super-rich buy second and third homes in Paris and Mailbu. Like many successful capitalists they care less about politics than about profits.
While the same mentality damages our society, it does less direct damage than in Israel where the poverty rate is much higher, where most young people do not go to university, where the society is successful in global ventures but less so in manufacturing due to the fact that it doesn’t have proximate trade partners. In any event, the super-rich are the creation of the present Israeli economic system that resulted in millions of Israelis from different walks of life protesting injustice and inequality.
How do we as American Jews hear their cries of “Return to the Welfare State” and “Socialism forever.” Socialism is the enemy, right? Welfare state? Redistribution of wealth? Free education for all? It sounds like a reunion of old Bundists not tens of thousands of young energetic, intelligent, and hard working Israeli youth. Is that the country we support, we dream about? Well, in short, yes. Israel has a strong socialist history. Many Zionists in the late 1940s wanted to side with the USSR and not the USA. Many proud American Zionists today don’t know that, or choose to ignore it.
We like to focus on Israel and its neighbors. But Israel is hemorrhaging. Many secular young people are leaving because it costs too much to live there. For many of us who made aliyah in the 1960s through the 1980s that sounds absurd. But it is true. At the same time, many wealthy American Jews are moving to Israel and living there on American salaries. The haredim are not leaving and keep having children, as do the Israeli Arabs. We can sit in our living rooms once a year with popcorn and a big screen HD TV and watch Exodus but that country never existed, or perhaps it only ever existed in the American Jewish imagination. Let’s turn off Otto Preminger’s theme song. Israel is a country. There are real people there, real problems, big problems. Not only the problems of Arab hatred, or the occupation, or Antisemitism. A capitalist country that cannot sustain a middle class will collapse. How ironic that while we in the US fear for Israel’s safety on its borders, the real danger is the country we don’t even know and, if Neusner is right, we don’t know it because we don’t care about it.
The Jewish media in America was ambivalent about the social protests for at least two reasons. First, it showed a side of Israel that we don’t want to admit exists. And second, it highlighted the ways in which we contribute to the demise of the middle class because we want Israel to be spiritual theme park. We want Otto Preminger’s Israel. Dan Draper’s Israel.
The protesters are taking their government to task for the ways in which they have been abandoned. Good for them. But on this Rosh ha-Shana we have a lot of teshuva to do in terms of our disinterest, our lack of self-awareness, and allowing our own interests to color what is, in the end, a real country, not a dream, a place where poverty is rampant while luxury hotels are being built, a country where middle class families are priced out of apartments because we want to have a nice Pesah in the German Colony where we can walk to the Kotel to daven minha. It is a real country. But it is not our country. It is not the country we choose to live in We can support it in all kinds of ways but we have made different choices.
I may differ with many of you on questions of Israel’s policies and behavior regarding the Palestinians. That is a legitimate debate. But I also have an inkling about what Israel is, and what it isn’t. I took Exodus off my syllabus because I didn’t want my students to believe in a dream. I wanted them to face the messy reality of poverty, injustice, inequality, and the price of profit over caring for the hungry, the sick, and the orphan. I want them to know that capitalism requires an underclass and that underclass comes in the form of foreign workers who are denied citizenship even after living in Israel for decades simply because they are not Jewish while the Jewish Israeli middle class collapses.
Given all that, I want them to know that Israel is a great country in many ways and I tell them all the reasons I think that is so. But it is a real country, not a figment of our American Jewish imagination. The social protests do not only cut to the core of what is ailing Israeli society. The fact that we don’t know what to say, that no one here has stood up and said, “maybe we are exacerbating the problem by using Israel as a means for our ends,” that in some way all we can say is “look how Israelis can protest non-violently while Syrians are being killed in the streets.” While that is certainly true, that is just more of the same. The dearth of analysis covering the social protests in Israel in the American Jewish media only underscores, in my mind, that on some fundamental level we don’t seem to care what is really at stake. If there is a terrorist attack, God forbid, or if Ahmadenijad comes out with more of his crazy rantings, the American Jewish media is flooded with reports and analysis. But the collapse of the Israeli middle class resulting from the deep injustices in the Israeli economy? We don’t know what to think about that. We don’t see that this is more threatening to Israel than Qassam rockets being fired from Gaza. All of this and more cuts to the core of what is really wrong with us.
Maybe Podhoretz was correct in the 1970s when he said “today we are all Zionists.” But there is a real danger in that. When there is no alternative it enables us to make that pronouncement without defining our terms. Teshuva requires us to define our terms. What have we done, what do we believe, what are willing to fight for, what is really important to us, who are we, really, and who do we want to be? Rosh ha-Shana is a time to drop the rhetoric of justification and the self-serving discourse of moral certainty. If we can honestly define our terms, we will have a better chance of really understanding what we are saying. And what we are doing. And why others react to us the way they do. We spend most of our lives trying to defend what we think. But in our tradition there are ten days, from RH to YK, when we are called to reflect on what we think. And why we think it.
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