Demystifying Israel

Chesney Ovsiowitz

If you have never been to Israel, this is for you. If you have, this is for you too. If you have a flat in Tel Aviv, cousins in Jerusalem, and grandparents in Beit-Shemesh, this is for you. If you have never met a Jew before, this is for you.

I have been to Israel many times, and have been in Israel for a lot of time. As the product of a Jewish secondary school I was taught to love the Jewish homeland unconditionally, to turn towards Jerusalem when I pray, and to ask G-d for peace in the world. I felt as though I understood Israel, its culture, its people, its language; I had experienced it. Zionism was intellectually ingrained within me.

Yet when I went to Jerusalem for a month this summer, these certainties were violently undone. I wrestled between the most natural part of me, my Jewishness, and something that now felt artificial, Zionism. None of the narratives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in mainstream media were able to help me reconcile these two sides to myself. And then I met a Palestinian of my age, and where I once saw culture, people, language, I saw cultures, peoples, and languages, and ‘Israel’ as a topic felt foreign.

Unlike many, I have never claimed to be an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been a fan of politics. Debating policies, scandals, exclusion zones, budgets, and death tolls whilst engineering cults of personality in order to win elections does not appear to me as an effective way of catering to the needs of individuals affected by the headlines. By no means is politics ineffective, but it is sometimes easy to feel that it is both a means and its own end; it can override and cloud the truths behind the issues.

Yet when I met the girl from East Jerusalem, politics became a plain and simple background upon which humans were messily scribbled.

She asked me to order a coffee for her before she showed me around the Arab Quarter of the Old City. “Don’t you speak Hebrew?” I retorted with careful we’ve-just-met sassiness. She pulled her face and laughed: “Ew no”. In that moment I felt incredibly naive: I couldn’t understand how someone who lived the city where I’d been living, where I’d been speaking Hebrew, could be so out of touch with what I had experienced. Yet as we walked east and spoke and took in the sights of a familiar city through new eyes, it started making sense. She showed me a side of Israel that I had never seen before outside of carefully-planned, executed, and biased educational trips.

As Ramadan came to a close for the day, the streets around the Damascus gate flooded with people buying food from the vendor stalls. The image didn’t fit into what I’d been taught to expect. Looking at West Jerusalem from the outside for the first time, from the borders of its Eastern neighbour, it began to seem grotesque, with its modern architecture and gaudy Mamilla mall.

“That’s not my country, why would I learn its language?” My first instinct was to try to talk to her about politics and the two-state solution, about government and democracy — even though these are self-professed weak-points of mine — to somehow try to fit her into readymade paradigms and frames of reference. She didn’t want to talk about politics, but she did want to tell me that she was upset, and angry, and hopeful.

We talk about perspective as if Israel is just a series of essays, different news stations, or different theories. It seems obvious enough, but perspective is above all else human. My short and by no means extreme or unique experience of perspective felt like a coming of age. This new friend of mine destabilised my outlook on Israel, and left me feeling confused. Maybe I don’t like this place? Does this make me a liberal Zionist, or an anti-Zionist, or what? Am I ‘allowed’ to call myself anti-Zionist? What would my parents say? The dismantling of my Jewish education on Israel that took place during my month in Jerusalem gave me the strength to say ‘I don’t know’. When the only voices that can be heard around you are screaming either yes or no, it is hard to side with either (or both). Extreme opinions are always easier to defend than nuance or confusion.

Why I can’t cut myself off from half the Jewish world.

Ben Goldstein

“Don’t you know that Judaism and Zionism are not the same? Don’t you know that you can be Jewish and have nothing to do with Israel? Don’t you know that, in fact, there are Jews who oppose Zionism?”

Yes, of course I fucking know this. And not just because I’m constantly reminded of it by anti-Israel campaigners seeking to deny charges of anti-Semitism. I know this because I’ve been educated about Jewish history from the age of 0, and because I occasionally pick up a book. Oh, and yes, I’ve heard of Ilan Pappé.

But here’s the thing: the (blantantly bloody obvious) fact that Zionism, Israel and Judaism are conceptually distinct is really screwing with the debate on Israel-Palestine.

Let me explain. The anti-Israel crew in general don’t properly recognise how Jews feel when Israel is being discussed, or why on earth Jews should feel anything at all. After all, they reason, Israel is just a nation state, like the UK or Australia. And if Zionism is not Judaism, then there is no reason why expressions of anti-Zionism should have particular consequences for Jews. So the anti-Israel campaign regularly argues, even demands, that Jews either cut themselves off from Israel or else be condemned as apartheid apologists.

Meanwhile, we Jews in the debate, while sometimes stating that we feel “uncomfortable” with a comment here or there, rarely explain why. We don’t, in other words, justify why our sense of self/wellbeing/identity depends on a state 2000 miles away that we might have only visited a couple of times. There are understandable reasons for this: it’s weird, immensely untrendy and certainly not very postmodern to actually feel attached to a place or a state (unless it’s on your Gap Yah in South Asia. Then feel attached. Feel very attached.)

This balagan renders actual debate useless, and we need to do better. This doesn’t mean quoting Buber, Herzl or Ben-Gurion. It means, at root, explaining that the demand that Jews cut themselves off from half the Jewish world is a demand that is going to hurt.

Judaism, or rather being Jewish, is more than just adhering to a set of practices and theological beliefs. It has a collective element. This can be expressed in many ways, but at its core, the communal character of Jewish identity means that Jews feel connected to other Jews. The experience of collective national trauma has helped solidify that connection.

This almost comically simple point bears repeating: Jews feel connected to other Jews. When there’s a Jewish winner of the Nobel Prize, Jews around the world feel proud. When there’s an anti-Semitic attack somewhere, Jews everywhere feel particularly distressed.

And yes, when there’s a terrorist or rocket attack in Israel, Jews in the diaspora feel it. Because, y’know, there are lots of Jews there. The bus drivers, plumbers, sportsmen, soldiers and bin-men – as well as the lawyers and professors and journalists – are (for the most part) Jews.

This sense of solidarity makes it hard for us Jews to just cut and run, to say, “Screw the whole thing”, or, “Never mind – nothing to do with me.” To do so would be to turn our backs on people speaking a language drawn from our tradition, with histories that mirror our own, bound through collective experience, memory and culture.

None of this, by the way, implies that Zionism is correct. Nor that, despite everything, Jews shouldn’t be encouraged to support BDS or attend PSC rallies or whatever. But it is to say that circumstances have conspired to render the boundary between Zionism, Israel, and Judaism more porous than detached conceptual analysis would imply.

Maybe, then, it would be worthwhile for the anti-Israel camp to at least understand what it feels like when we Jews are told to disassociate ourselves from half the Jewish world, or to keep our Judaism away from that evil Zionism thing. Sure, it’s possible. But don’t under-estimate how painful it would be.