Place, Scale, States in Formation: Israel and Palestine (2013)

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I’m just back from Israel with lots more pictures still to post. But I want to register the time lag, that I’m going to continue posting about Israel for a little bit now from over here in the United States. On my return home to New York, now might be a good time to make these very general comments, about Israel and Palestine. I cannot recall the number of Israeli Jews –family, friends, and strangers – who asked what I thought about the country. And then there are family and friends not in Israel, actually in Japan and China, who want to claim that I’ve gotten soft again on “Zionism” and “the Zionist State.” Depending on the circumstance, I usually just mumbled or wrote back this or that. Here’s how I would sum it up. These are post-ideological impressions, filtered less around ideology and narrative, more around place and visual sensation.

–The small scale of Israel as a place continues to charm me most of all. It’s as if the entire country was made up of intimate, fast paced circuits, intensely local, not global at all. Everything is up close to everything else, maybe too close. Inside sovereign Israel, people move quickly and easily around the country. There’s more to see, old things and new things, there’s more money, the food’s better and more interesting, the art’s getting good, and the people less rigid, ideologically. The place has a groove to it. “Little Satan” is fast on the way to become a mini-colossus. This is the dynamic and dynamizing part of Israel that I have always liked, and that I like more and more about “contemporary Israel,” as opposed to “modern Israel.”

–But the politics of place, particularly the politics of Palestine and the occupation are small small small, and not at all charming. There are big moves afoot to move some 40,000 Bedouin in the Negev desert. This may or may not happen. But over the Wall in the occupied territories, it’s been relatively quiet, which means that the human rights abuse for now is also puny, especially compared to the big massive chaos next door in Syria and Egypt. None of what’s happening here signals the end of the world as we know it. But so what? The relative smallness of the abuse actually makes the country as a whole feel that much more petty. The slap of the mini boycott and sanctions that the EU will begin to impose made a very sharp noise in Israel, no matter what more conservative people say and claim to think. I was actually surprised that most (all?) of my Israeli friends and family, even those in the mainstream, had nothing to say against this little bit of BDS, and how they hope, with a little bit of fatalism and without really believing it, that the EU action might lead to some good.

–More smallness. Once upon of Israeli politics and political parties were dominated by ideology –socialism, Zionism, nationalism. Now the politics is post-ideological and identitarian. Israel Our Home, Likud Our Home, Jewish Home Party, There’s a Future. This is the spirit of an in-flight promotion for El Al, which promotes the sentimental sense of home, family, togetherness, and belonging. This too is post-Zionism. None of it is particularly inspiring, or particularly interesting. There is almost no political opposition, no political vision, and no political leadership worthy of the name. There used to be oversized political leaders, inside the government and outside the government. Israeli political scene used to be interesting. Now the political scene is too dull and too petty to bear. A lot of my friends in the United States made a big deal of Ruth Calderon’s little Talmud lesson from her maiden speech from the podium of the Knesset. I was less impressed. Those in power want to manage the occupation, but what matters more these days in Israel is the discourse and practice of internal, exclusive, and closed forms of “Israeliness” and “Jewishness,” not Zionism.

–Inside and outside the Knesset, there’s more overt racism today in Israel than I ever remember. It’s petty, fearful, paralyzed, not even reactive. I can’t recall the number of simply gratuitous, nasty comments I overheard on an almost daily basis from normal, decent, mainstream Israelis about Arabs, Muslims, and Islam. There is also a pronounced level of anxious fear on the part of very leftist, critical, even anti-Zionist people I know here, the sense that it won’t be pretty when Palestine comes one day to close its own account with Israel. After the Second Intifadah, after so much blood under the bridge, maybe you can “understand” the anxiety as well as the almost universal lukewarm interest in anything having to do with peace talks, some resolution to the I-P conflict. That just shows how stuck things are and how narrow the vision as to the future.

–I’m beginning, finally, to think that the future of Israel is Islam, namely finding a place for a “Jewish national home” in a turbulent region. The most interesting Israeli opinion you hear or read suggests that the Arab Spring, or Winter, or the Arab Tohu va’Bohu   might be full of potential promise and opportunity in addition to danger and the threat of danger, which is how more rightwing Jewish commentary understands it. From my own extremely limited perspective, the most interesting thing about the moderate or liberal Arab press and Tweets that I read online is how little preoccupied a lot people in the region are with Israel. This too is a kind of Arab post-Zionism. Post-Palestine, people have bigger fish to fry than Palestine, their own accounts to settle with each other, and they want to move on. I might be all wrong about this, but I don’t see how Israel can continue to exist outside its immediate environment. What this might mean in practice, I have no idea. Looking around and taking an active and genuine interest in that larger environment and its general well-being, and responding to it non-reactively would be a good place to start.

–I am learning how to use words like “Palestine” and “nakba” in addition to and alongside words like “Israel” and “Zionism,” and to do so without polemic, one way or the other.  In the end, these are just words. Sometimes they are the right ones, sometimes not. In a very casual and often chance sort way, I’ve seen a lot more of Palestine on this trip than on any previous trip to the country; and also a lot of Zionist relics. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the passage of biological and historical time. I have become, perhaps, much more aware of the fungible nature that defines the line of difference between “Palestine” and “Israel.” I’m not even sure I care about drawing these lines in any clear sort of way, not anymore. I never used to think this way. In the end, however, it seems that if there is going to be a bi-national state in all of Historic Palestine, then it’s going to be achieved by the Israeli rightwing, first as “apartheid,” and then maybe as something else. If Israel decides to bury itself and Zionism in the West Bank and Palestine, it won’t be from the left. It’s not for people like me in the United States to want “a Jewish state” more than the people who lead and mis-lead the country. I find this realization liberating. Context is going to determine everything.

–If Israel is a small and sometimes petty place, it is one marked by extremes in complexity, layers, warmth. It’s a warm, bright, blue, green, yellow, and brown place. I love the way the place looks, and the way the sun makes it smell. I have too many family and friends, and there are too many Jewish stakes here for me not to care about the place. I have always felt “at home” here, and want to come back soon. I don’t think I’ve gotten soft again re: Israel. Points of view change depending on what you see, and from what historical vantage points. The attachment is not to some putative Zionist State, as much as it is to a place, and slowly I’m beginning not to care very much what name it carries, “Israel” or “Palestine.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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9 Responses to Place, Scale, States in Formation: Israel and Palestine (2013)

  1. Gail says:

    But isn’t it a leap of faith (or ideology), if not naivete, to assert the ability to separate place from name? Isn’t that very assertion either a denial of history or an overstepping of history onto a self-constructed plane of purity? I don’t ask this vis-a-vis Israel, which I don’t know and which holds no stakes for me, but vis-a-vis North Carolina, the connotations of which have changed rapidly over the past fifty years and are changing rapidly again under its current, tea-party governor. I love the place; yes. But I find I can’t speak the love without the “but…”.
    Maybe your list of pettinesses is the equivalent of my “but…”, but my “but…” invites more unsettled ghosts, I think.

    Welcome home, welcome back to this home.

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Gail. of course, you are right to note the naivete, which for me always goes back to Mendelssohn and 18th C. aesthetic theory. The naive is that canny mode of poetic representation that seeks for a simplicity that only appears to be simple. i don’t know how it works in North Carolina, but it seems there that you’re working with just one place name, unlike “here” where there are two competing ones, “Israel” and “Palestine,” or rather two names that were brought into competition in 1948. Before 1948, Palestine and Israel were inter-changeable, even in ZIonist discourse. about pettiness, i really mean “petty” things, petty people, and petty politics. there’s no overstepping history here, as much as to put things in historical contexts, and then to bracket them because everything in Israel or Palestine is still in such a state of formation that i find all the claims associated with these and those historical “narratives” increasingly time-bound and irrelevant. (by the way, we brought you a huge tub of artisanal tehina!!)

      • Gail says:

        Tehina! Yay!
        Well, you’re the aesthetic expert, but I was raised BE naive (to be content as the stupid Southern girl) that I have a hard time finding its transversal potential.

        There are lots of “two names” in NC (black/white, union/confederacy, democratic/republican, Terry Sanford/Jesse Helms…), but I get your point. No pair is as rending and sedimented as Israel/Palestine, or at least that’s what I can say as a white woman who got out. Ask a poor African-American eastern NC farm laborer, and s/he may give you a different answer.

      • zjb says:

        nice! but one little caveat. the state of formation in North Carolina might be more “sedimented” in North Carolina than Israel-Palestine, where everything bubbles on the surface and nothing has settled at all.

  2. Raymond says:

    “The slap of the mini boycott and sanctions that the EU will begin to impose made a very sharp noise in Israel, no matter what more conservative people say and claim to think.”
    Well, since you promise not to take it personally, let me say that this strikes me as a pretty cheap and condescending form of intellectual bullying. First, those who appreciate this “boycott” from an internal European context are labelled “conservatives,” whatever the hell that means, and then are accused of merely “claiming” to believe what they say. Presumably, then, only “liberals” are granted intellectual autonomy and good faith. Yuck.

    • zjb says:

      Raymond, it was certainly not my intent to bully anyone, but i simply do not understand the claim that the little EU-BDS doesn’t matter or mean much. and it generally seems that more rightwing people make this argument in order to argue that the settlement project can go on as is. so, no, i don’t see how anyone can wave away the EU action in good faith. today Haaretz reports on how the government met and agreed already to renege on economic-scientific contracts worth about a 1b NIS, while announcing budgetary priorities for settlements and new construction deep in the WB. my bet is that the EU might be feckless, but not toothless.

  3. zeev says:

    i am not sure if this is completely relevant to your intriguing but for me overly intellectual observations. Today an amazing women walked into the shop. she is 90 but i have seen many women 20 years younger than that that don’t have half the zest and grace this women had.
    She was born on the Isle of Rhodes and was deported to Auschwitz in 1944.
    After surviving the war she like many others was in camps in Italy. There she meet soldiers from the Jewish Brigade, I’m sure she was an amazing beauty (for like i said at 90 she is something special) and these soldier individually and as a group told her that they were taking her back to Eretz Israel. And what did she tell them?
    i saw what many Jews together are like at Auschwitz no way am i going to the “:Land of the Jews”
    Just a story…………………………

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