Below are some of my thoughts and opinions on what it means to be Israeli. The subject requires many chapters rather than a few paragraphs. However I’ve done my best and feel it is important to post something on this left-leaning (please excuse the categorisation) blog. I am aware that the subjects I touch on are sensitive and apologise for any offence caused by my rather sweeping statements. I would welcome criticism in such cases.
Before I commence, I would like to point Bathhouse readers in the direction of an article by a Marxist named Werner Bonefeld. Bonefeld attacks left-wing apologists for the anti-Semitic politics of current Middle Eastern liberation movements. I believe Bathhouse readers will find it valuable:
I am a Londoner, and have been raised with an awareness of different cultures and the problems caused by state discrimination. Fighting against state imposed discrimination is very important and for many in the international community the aggression by Israel against Palestinians and its neighbours is clear and apparent due to the obvious imbalance of economic, military and political power between the combatant sides. We witness state directed violence being conducted against non-state actors (PLO, Hamas, Palestinian civilians) and we cannot help but be astonished at the irony behind such an obvious parallel with the Jewish people’s own past. I have always wondered how this irony can fail to be recognised by Israelis. My time in Israel has given me some insights that I feel may answer this question. I will expound on these in the next few paragraphs.
The past few weeks have been very interesting for me. Israelis have recently marked Holocaust day and Commemoration day (for all their lost soldiers who almost always teenagers due to conscription) and on Wednesday I visited Yad Vashem which is the Israeli Holocaust Museum. It really is very important that people staying in this area make the time to visit the museum. At the age of seventeen, all Israeli school children are given the option to visit Poland, which most do, where they tour Auschwitz and talk with death-camp survivors. Taking these practices into account, one begins to understand how the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, culminating with the Holocaust is fundamentally and deeply imbedded within the Israeli national identity.
The Holocaust was the only time in history where the bureaucratic and industrial apparatus of a modern state had been directed toward wiping out a specific segment of its population. It is unique in this regard and the state of Israel emerging “out of the ashes of Auschwitz” is imbued with the conceptual survival of the Jewish race. In this sense, any attack on the new Israeli homeland or any question regarding the legitimacy of Israel is regarded directly as an attack on the Jewish race. Most Israelis today still feel as though Israel is fighting for survival.
For us in Europe, the 30s and 40s plays just as important a part in the creation of our national identity as it does to Israelis. We can understand the films, documentaries, national curriculum etc as an ongoing project to forge a national conception of the democratic west struggling against and eventually winning out over tyranny. It is to us a period of the triumph of western democratic values and free-market governance. We study the period with a focus on alternative models of the industrial state and understand anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, as an inevitable outcome of ultra-nationalism.
Israelis view the period from a different perspective. Visiting Yad Vashem enables an outsider to better understand this perspective and it places the Holocaust at the centre of the 30s and 40s. For example, the launch of operation Barbarossa by Hitler against the Russians is significant, not because he is now fighting on two fronts (as with British education), but because Jews have been linked with Communism by the Nazis and now that Communists are the enemy Jews too become fair game in the war of annihilation in the east. It is an important psychological step toward enabling the Holocaust to take place.
Many in contemporary Europe have moved onto new social causes in the fight against discrimination and injustice. I myself gave very little thought to anti-Semitism other than as resulting in a horrific and tragic episode in history that, although unique, was part of a wider period of horror. So blind am I to Jewishness as a distinct racial/cultural/religious identity, I understand my colleagues and friends here in Israel just as Israeli. Their Jewishness, or lack thereof, never enters my head. When I mention this, I am met with expressions of surprise. Without exception those I speak with understand themselves as Israeli first and Jewish second. In the UK the typical identity path I encounter of secular whites is British first followed by the person’s home town.
Israel is a full scale national project and people are connected with it at a far deeper and intricate level than in the UK. I am amazed at how connected those who live here are with the history, politics and economics of their local region. They know the families that originally settled in the area, its main agricultural product, which famous Israelis have come from their specific locale, the role of the locale in various of Israel’s conflicts. An intimate knowledge of Israel’s smallest areas and their contribution to Israel is commonplace at grassroots level. Israeli history is social and embodied in family lines and living relatives. In contrast, UK historical sites are empty of life but full of relics which visitors come to see; otherwise they are occupied by a family disconnected from the original famous inhabitants through many changes of ownership over the centuries. I point this out to try and give a feel for how connected Israelis are to their nationality not as a criticism of the UK. In Israel the history remains alive.
Being comfortable and free from fear to express Jewishness (whatever this may be) is central to Israel’s nationality. There seems to be a regular pattern of holidays marking this, that, or the other Jewish celebration, suggesting religious and cultural homogeneity, although prejudice exists within Jewish Israeli society. For instance, some Israelis consider the Hassidic Jews to be parasites on the state since they contribute nothing to its economy and are paid to study the Torah. In addition, many Hassidic Jews establish settlements in the West Bank and this is perceived by some Israelis to drain state resources by forcing Israel to protect these settlements. Also, you will find racial prejudice existing amongst the Jewish community between Eastern Jews, North African Jews, Ethiopian Jews and European Jews as well as classist terms such “Frecher” and “Arsim” which denote something equivalent to the UK’s Chav and Pikie.
The centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust catalysed the creation of Israel making this event fully and deeply part of Israeli national identity. Israel is understood as the only place on earth where Jews can live this identity without fear of persecution or annihilation. This is an ongoing project (like all national identities) and for me, it is understandable given the ravages the 2nd World War dealt on Jews. But the national project seems to permeate almost every level of Israeli society as Israelis living their day-to-day lives (having babies, developing agriculture, educating themselves, serving their time in the army, working in the high-tech industry) understand this in terms of contributing to the ongoing maintenance of the Israeli state and therefore the Jewish people. The result is that any physical attack on Israel, however minor, or any questioning of its legitimacy and right to exist is met with a hard-line stance from the vast majority of Israelis who see this as a direct threat to their lives and the lives, the lives of their families, and the lives of Jews everywhere.
We in Europe may see Israelis as blind to the obvious ironies that can be drawn between state violence directed toward Jews and state violence directed toward Palestinians. The specific historical circumstances of Israel’s creation and it’s uniquely Jewish identity mean that no irony exists for Israelis. Rather, attacks against them can only be considered in the terms of their ongoing fight for survival against a world hostile to Jews.
I hope in this piece to have drawn attention to the fundamental link between Israel’s policy choices and the Holocaust. I hope I have given some insights into the unique nature of Israel as a national project and provided a route toward understanding how the Israeli perception of its policies toward Palestinians differs so markedly from many onlookers in Europe.