Saturday, March 22, 2008

He's Worried

Flying away from Israel for a few months—book tour this spring, then the usual summer in New Hampshire—I found myself at wheels-up doing what I have been doing instinctively for years, putting in my earbuds, and playing Mati Caspi. Distance from Israel, like distance from a friend, prompts an immediate feeling of loss. What you love sticks fast, what drives you to despair suddenly feels manageable, or at least merely human.

And what I love, not without a certain apprehension, is Israel’s popular Hebrew culture: skeptical, free, hybrid, smart. When people say “Jewish state” I think immediately about Caspi, or (and here I am betraying squareness, I know) the poetry of Leah Goldberg, or the drama at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater. The Salieri character in Amadeus had a musical knowledge that was just enough to fully appreciate how far he was from musical genius. My command of Hebrew culture is something like that, good enough to know how little I contribute to it, yet also enough to feel the great privilege of living to see it.

This is how it was meant to be. Ahad Haam, early Zionism’s preeminent voice, hoped for a place in which modern Jews—modern individuals all—could develop religious, literary, musical, entrepreneurial, etc., ideas in Hebrew; a place where Jews could compete with the confidence of nationals in a kind of cultural Olympics, taking what was fine about other cultures, while giving back to other countries what was worth keeping from classical Jewish life. He did not know the half of it.

Caspi's light rock would never have occurred to him. Neither would it have seemed possible that, one day, the achievement of Hebrew culture would be taken so much for granted that people who called themselves Zionist—of all people, Orthodox rabbis, and American Jewish bigshots—would want the Jewish state to mirror the theocratic townships he had so willfully escaped. But then, Caspi himself grasps the danger and turns it into his art. The flame of Hebrew enlightenment seems more extinguishable, and precious, from 20,000 feet. 

SO FLYING TO America I have Caspi in my ears—that haunting song, "A Place for Worry," with lyrics by Yonatan Gefen, which I have taken as the epigraph of The Hebrew Republic. The translation below is mine. But take a couple of minutes and listen to it here.

At the fringe of the sky, at the edge of the desert,
There’s a faraway place, full of wildflowers.

A small place—forlorn and deranged—

A small place for worry.

All-that-will-be is spoken of,
And all-that-has-happened is thought,

God sits there and observes, guarding all He has created.

“You are forbidden to pick the flowers of the garden—
You are forbidden to pick the flowers of the garden!”

And he's worried, awfully worried.


bar_kochba132 said...

Having read the interview here and the previous excerpt, I get the feeling that this is a more "fleshed-out" version of Shimon Peres' "New Middle East" of the Oslo 90's. That was when Peres wanted Israel to join the Arab League and he stated that the "Arabs had no choice but to make peace because they don't want to miss out on globalization".
The basic premise, is, as I understand it, that if Israel makes itself less "Jewish" and more "Hebrew", it will become less offensive to the rest of the Arab Middle East. Bernie, to his credit, says he is not taking a "Canaanite" line and saying the Jews should transform themselves into something else, but Jewish values and tradition would be restricted to the realm of private religious observance and cultural expression, but "national" expression would be more culturally neutral (although "Hebrew"). The basic premise is that while the Arabs find "Jewish nationalism" offensive, an Israel without the "Jewish" national identity and in which the Arabs are seen as full partners (as they are not today, due to Israel's definition of itself as a "Jewish state"), they would eventually reconcile themselves to this "Hebrew" entity in their midst.

Like so many ideas "progressives" fall in love with, it may sound fine in theory, but the reality is quite different. In reality, such a state would be far MORE threatening to the Arabs than the current "Jewish state" they have so many problems. In spite of what Peres said about the "inevitability of globalism", the Arabs (along with many "progressives") FEAR globalization and certainly don't want this Hebrew state in their midst spreading its influence. The Arab states organize their economies not around maximizing economic growth and increasing the standard of living of their people, but rather, preserving the economic and political control of the various families and clans that have that power today. Also, Islamic groups that wield varying degrees of power in the different Arab countries FEAR the cultural tide that comes in with the "globalized" economy and culture. Bernie has stated that he is convinced (based on polls of unknown reliability) that most Israeli Arabs really want to adopt the culture of the secular Israeli Left. This scares the heck out of traditionalist elements in the Arab/Islamic world....bringing with it things like pornography, feminism, disrespect for elders and authority figures. These things are very important in the Arab world and yet Bernie is promising that having a Hebrew state spreading these values will NOT spark even more Arab opposition to Israel.
The Arabs also fear Israeli economic domination. I have quoted Alon Liel of Israel's Foreign Ministry, (a close friend of Yossi Beilin) state that Egypt, for example, opposes any more normalization of Israeli's relations with the Arab world since they view it as damaging their position in the Middle East for this reason.
In reality, the Arabs would have an easier time accepting a MORE Jewish state...a state more based on Jewish tradition because traditional Jewish life is much closer to that of the Muslims/Arabs than Bernie's secular Hebrew state. It will be easier for an Israeli gov't run by what Bernie considers to the "settlers and Ultra-Orthodox" to reach true peace with the Arabs than his secular Hebrew state.
By tempting the Israeli Arabs with his vision of a globalized secular Hebrew state, Bernie is trying to tear these Arabs away from their brother Arabs and Muslims. This is, in the eyes of the Arabs, simply another Crusade aimed at converting the Arabs/Muslims to another "religion" or culture. Traditional Judaism is not a "missionary" religion, so it poses much less of a threat to the Arab world.

The bottom line is that if Israel were to convert itself into Bernie's "secular globalized Hebrew State", it would lead to GREATER antagonism and hostility from the surrounding Arab/Muslim world. Only by Israel returning to its Jewish roots can a true modus vivendi (even without formal peace treaties) ever be reached.

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