Friday, June 18, 2010

Altneuland: Reflections on the World ZIonist Congress

Mike Knight, the father of Punk Islam said that since you can’t hold an ideology, a worldview in the palm of your hand how can you even start to say what it is? Islam. Punk. Judaism. Zionism. When no person can hold it, how can one person own it?

It’s the things that can’t be held that are usually the most fervently grasped after and back in Vancouver, in the diaspora, Zionism is viewed less as any broad intellectual tradition than an arena of violent polemics. It’s hard to be a Zionist on the Left there. I don't know how I feel about Jewish statehood in the abstract but I strongly support the existence of this Jewish state. I'd fight and die for this place in a just cause. I want to move here in a few months. At the same time, I wholeheartedly believe Israel is the primary, though not sole, cause and sustainer of a people's suffering and exile. Most folks back home who agree with me, that Palestinians are entitled to sustenance, rights and sovereignty, see Zionism as a racist colonial monolith. Those who disagree with me say I cant be a Zionist because I don’t practise Zionism like a racist colonial monolith. As a Zionist who feels support for Palestinian rights is integral to my belief in a just Jewish State, I am forced to choose between the label and the content.

The other night we attended a Gala of the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem.

On the bus ride to Jerusalem I listened to Matisyahu with my friend Sam and felt the same chill entering the city that I had felt when I was here for the first time two years ago. That’s my Zionism. No one can take that feeling from me. But it is a connection, not a claim. It gets murkier when you try to translate feelings into exclusionary politics.

When we got to the Congress I wandered around the photo displays of Halutzim draining swamps, of bright eyed, bronzy soldiers. The standard images of a pinup Zionism. I collected all the brochures and pamphlets I could find. I found a big coffeetable magazine Haaretz did on Herzl that I look forward to reading. I met briefly with the head of the MERCAZ delegation, representing Conservative and Masorti Judaism. My Persian friend there got a dirty look from some Haredim. He thinks it was racism. I wouldn’t be surprising given that 100,000 Haredim just rallied for school segregation.

Eventually we picked up translating headsets, filed into the auditorium, filed back out when the headsets wouldn’t function and finally filed back in, took our seats.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, keynote of the evening missed his first curtain call but eventually showed.

Early in his speech Peres referred to the establishment of Israel as Jewry’s “step back into history”. Such an understanding at once attempts to erase the exilic experience and makes pointed ideological use of it. Thus Peres can, as he did, speak of an unceasing anti-Semitism in history, prevalent enough to define 2000 years of Jewish history while at the same time saying “we never listened to” the gentiles, we remained unchanged, pure from antiquity. Zionism commands us to both blot out the exile and remember it constantly, just as Torah asks us to treat the memory of Amalek. By erasing Exile from history, we dehistoricize its tropes, we make them a constant reality. Torquemada or Hitler, like Amalek cease to be historically grounded personalities and become constant shades, lurking around every corner, in the words of all who oppose us. This is not to suggest that Israel does not have enemies and that antisemitism does not play a role sometimes in those animosities. Helen Thomas' comments a couple weeks ago demanding that Israeli Jews return to the graveyards of Poland and Germany were antisemitic, not to mention ignorant of Israeli demographics where the majority of Jews are Mizrachi. When the IHH tells Israelis to go back to Auschwitz or when the Left focuses disproportionately on Israel's crimes while ignoring those of other states; there is antisemitism here. But awareness of hatred, vigilance against it's manifestation is the opposite of paranoia. One calls us to live and guard ourselves in the muck of reality, the other exalts ourselves as the world's blameless victim and divides the world into uncritical friends, of which ultimately there are none, and enemies, of which there are many. Peres can therefore say that “if you delegitamize Israel, you legitimize terrorism” because such fine distinctions disappear when we mentally depart from reality and enter the discourse of eternal truth. Then we begin to make statements like “the war never ends here”. We begin to believe them. We begin to resign ourselves and to excuse ourselves from moral commitment. We unchoose ourselves as Jews. This realm of ideas is what Peres called “the order of existence” which Zionism claims to understand. What we don’t understand, according to the President is “who is a human being”, that is, who is a real person in history and who is a shade, a face of the eternal anti-Semite. These are the “warmongers”, the “fanatics who threaten us”. We have to “get rid of them”. But we can’t. Because they’re not real.

By erasing exile, Zionism is able to present itself as the manifestation of a pure mytho-antiquity that is simultaneously on the cutting edge of hypermodernity. This antiquity extends into time immemorial and is a statement of political confrontation; Peres can make statements like: “we were here before anyone else” and “ours is the oldest legitimacy in the region”; neither of which are, technically speaking, true. The erasure of exile is confirmed by the delusion that the “we” and the “ours” have not changed in 2000 years of exile. “The language of the prophets” remains the “language of our children”. Zionism has a special place in this sacred recast of history. It is the step “from exile to redemption”.

Redemption is characterized in deeply Modernist language, in talk of “construction and democracy” as if human rights were synonymous with factories. Zionism’s Israel has to strive after both the “ten commandments” and the cutting edge expansion of scientific research. Zionism may have begun as a “horizontal expansion” across Palestine, Peres recounted; now its goals were vertical, building upwards into skyscrapers and forward unto the restless horizon. I’m reminded of the words of Levi Eshkol: “When can we finish building the state and go home to rest?” Phrases like “value of modernity”, “awareness of modernity” and “orientation to the future” were interspersed with vague and unelaborated references to the example of the Prophets. The only figures mentioned explicitly as prophets however were Marx and Herzl.

We all rose to attention as he walked off stage and was replaced by Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem. As critical as I am of Peres’ speech, I liked it. I might problematize the narrative he presents but it is a story of idealism, of a people who spoke for justice in suffering and must still strive for justice in power. He called on Israel to become more than a refuge of a fearful Jewry but a beacon, a Light unto the Nations. We are not there yet. But we can be. Statehood is not the ends but the means.

I did not like Barkat’s speech. Here was the other conclusion of the Zionist narrative, not the open ended idealism that Peres and I each in our own way held to but the terrifying triumphalism of an ideology that is too busy marching forward to see who it’s marching over. Statehood as an end. It's not that I wouldn't like to share this triumphalism. For once in 2000 years, we're the ones with the guns and the tanks and the borders. But when we allow the arrogance of power and the desperation of an imagined imperilment to cause us to forget the humanity of the other, we embark upon the road to Fascism.

Barkat is a main force behind the expansion of Jewish building in East Jerusalem. He began by quoting Herzl, declaring that “with Jerusalem, you can make a diamond”, rather than the traditional belief that Jerusalem is a diamond regardless. There’s not much I have to say about Barkat’s tirade for development. Jerusalem has to “become a more attractive city for tourists and investors”, he said since such parties have “shares in the city, no less than its residents”.

Investment, development, resources.

He called for “Jerusalem to be taken out of poverty” and said nothing about taking poverty out of Jerusalem. Barkat’s image of Jerusalem is a rosy and attractive one. But it is not a real one. Jerusalem is not the “strong and united city” he claimed it to be. It is a deeply divided place where identities build over, dig under and war after eachother. Freedom of religion is not a Zionist innovation in this place. It existed for most of the history of Muslim Jerusalem, if not its final decades. Jerusalem is not perfect now, it was not so terrible before.

That doesn’t mean Jerusalem is not a diamond. But it has been tainted by suffering and hatred, by true believers as much as by greedy hypocrites; it has been crusted over by tears and blood. But the only way we’re ever going to see that diamond is by working to uncover each of its infinite faces, not by building skyscrapers on top of it.

So that’s it. In other news, we went to the Tel Aviv Pride Parade last week where I got pamphleted by Messianic Jews.

Crazy Place.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace

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