Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Finkler Question

A recent email exchange I had with a couple of my Israeli friends ended up evolving into a minor discussion on the matter of Zionism. Given that I recently finished reading the recent Man Booker award winner, The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson, and given that this is a book dealing with matters of Jewish identity, I thought the timing is right for me to sit down and articulate my views on Zionism. Here goes nothing.

For background on my starting position, here are the emails that instigated the discussion. Please bear in mind this was an email exchange between friends, never intended to go on record, and probably not written under the most serious of attitudes:
Friend #1:
Here are photos of our childhood’s cinemas from an era when… Moshe was still a Zionist…
Yours truly:
I have to protest: By your definition, I was never a Zionist; by my reckoning, and I am of the opinion Hertzel would have agreed with me, I am more of a Zionist than most of the idiots pretending to be Zionists.
Friend #2:
As per Babylon:

Zionist['Zi·on·ist 'zaɪənɪst]
n. one who practices Zionism, one supporting the movement that promotes Jews returning to and rebuilding Israel

For sure now you are not promoting Jews return to Israel, so I don’t think that you can be counted as one.
I think that is the past, you didn’t agree with the views of the Israeli government, but you were part of the people of Israel, hence Zionist.
Basically most of the people live here and are Jews (NETURI KARTA excluded) are Zionists in practice.
A lot of the people that left Israel, but still see it as a future option, can be counted as such.
As for you, even if Yossi Sarid will be PM & Shulamit Aloni will be the minster of defense, I think you will not return, so [Friend #1] is about right with his definitions as I see them.
With the context set, let's have a discussion.

Question #1: What is Zionism?
As noted above by Friend #2, the current definition of the term Zionist that most people would concur with is a person supporting the notion of a Jewish state in Israel. However, I beg to differ with the dictionary here. Dictionaries tend to fail in the slight nuances that matter the most; look up here for the Random House definition of the term Atheism and it would tell you it’s “the doctrine or belief that there is no god”. Ask Richard Dawkins what his opinion on the matter is and he would tell you that there probably is no god but that we will probably never be able to verify that, therefore atheism is a philosophy that states the probability for god’s existence is so low one can live a much better life if one lives it like there is no god. Can we honestly say that Dawkins is no atheist just because he differs with the dictionary? No; I say that I prefer to think for myself, thank you very much, rather than take the dictionary's word for it.
When I think for myself about the meaning of Zionism I go back to the vision of those who came up with the idea in the first place. Most famous amongst these is Herzl, widely considered the father of Zionism. Herzl clearly prescribed a vision for a Jewish state where, amongst others:
  1. The Jews of the world can find a home.
  2. All people are welcome and equal, not just Jews.
  3. Religion is confined to the insides of temples.
When we look at modern day Israel it is clearly obvious the last two of Herzl’s visions are far from materializing. Israel is not a country where non Jews are equal; ignoring the slight matters of the ongoing discrimination against Israeli Arabs or the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories, let us look at my own family. If we were to live in Israel as we are we would be heavily discriminated against: my son qualifies as Jewish by Israeli law but not by religious Jewish laws, which would make it a big problem for him to marry in Israel given only religious marriages are allowed. Things would be worse for my wife: her not being a Jew would mean the need for special licenses to stay in the country and work for a living.
Next we have the way religion dominates the living instead of being confined to the insides of shrines. As mentioned, religion governs marriages and other matters in Israel. Religion is taught in state schools while things of minor importance such as the Theory of Evolution are not. I can go on and on, but let’s look at the bottom line, the way the people of Israel actually conduct themselves: the vast majority of Israelis do not question religious indoctrination for a second and have their sons circumcised. In my book, circumcision - or any other act of involuntary mutilation - is a barbaric act. And all for what? Because a bronze age book says so? Where is the supposed Jewish brain to tell them they are doing their children wrong?
My point is this. Israel is the current manifestation of Zionism, yes. However, Zionism has strayed a lot since its inception, to the point it is but a pale shadow of what it was originally meant to be. I have plenty of issues with the modern day manifestation of Zionism, enough to have left Israel for good; I do not think I would have left Israel if the country was loyal to Zionism’s original vision.

Question #2: Who is a Zionist?
Friend #2 claimed that there was a time in which I was a Zionist by virtue of me being a part of the people of Israel. I disagree.
I disagree because of several reasons:
  1. I was not a part of the people of Israel by choice; luck of the draw had me born in Israel.
  2. While as a child I had my moment of identifying with Israel and its doings, these were childish moments, moments where my opinions were dictated by what others told me to think. As an adult with a mind of his own I was never a big fan. A good example is the way Israel's military victory in the 1967 war was celebrated at school as a great military triumph; today I see that victory and everything that came with it (e.g., occupation of the West Bank) as a tragedy.
  3. True, I served in the Israeli army and did more for the state then many if not most Israelis. I did not do so willingly; I did so because the alternative was prison and because I am a chicken.
  4. Being a part of the people of Israel does not automatically make one a Zionist even if the above three issues did not exist. What if I was a spy or a terrorist or even a simple criminal? Does that still count as a Zionist? Can one be a Zionist drug trafficker just because one claims to be Jewish?
I am of the opinion that in order to be a Zionist, one has to identify with the Zionist cause. There are plenty of Israelis who do; I don’t and I didn’t.

Question #3: Would I ever return to Israel?
No I won’t, not even if left wingers like Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni were in the country's helm. The first reason is that they will never be at the helm. The second is that even if they or their peers are, Israeli culture is so well entrenched they will never be able to turn Israel into the state I would have liked it to be.
The third reason is much more practical. It is damn hard to migrate! I did it once already when I moved to Australia, and I can tell you that things were pretty close to catastrophic. I was unemployed for six months, saved only by the partner who migrated with me and my brother’s connections within the Jewish community. Yes, I got my first proper job in Australia because of my ethnic background.
As I have only one heart with no spare parts, and as I am not a particularly fit person, I would prefer to leave my career as an international migrant behind. As it is, I even dread moving houses.

Question #4: Is there a need for a Zionist state?
That’s the most important question, isn’t it? Does the world need a Jewish state in the first place, and is Israel what it needs if it does?
I am going to surprise a lot of my friends by answering both questions with a definitive yes. Yes, the world needs a Jewish state. And yes, the world needs Israel despite all the wrongs it has done and the wrongs it is doing. The reasons I think so are not the reasons usually invoked when justifying a Jewish state: I think we need an Israel because I think the world is fucked. The world is fucked because there is no country in the world where a Jewish person, or for that matter any person not of the country's dominant ethnicity, is truly an equal.
Look at the USA, for example: Look at the fuss the mother of all democracies went through when a Catholic was elected president. Look at the fuss they went through when a black was elected president. And look at how millions of Americans believe this black person is a Muslim and therefore unsuitable for presidency!
Look at my own experience in Australia: Am I truly an equal among equals here? I argue that I am clearly not. Any non Anglo Saxon would tell you how hard it is to find a job in comparison to an Anglo; research confirms the phenomenon (check here). I live in a country where children are either forced to endure Christian religious “education” in public schools, usually organized by evangelical Christian organizations, and where kids whose parents demand them being excused from such ordeals are being punished. I live in a country where parliament gatherings and many other official gatherings start with The Lords’ Prayer, a Christian prayer, even though I am anything but a Christian.
We live in a sad world where ethnic groups can only find peace if they have a country of their own that they can screw. Jews need their Israel, Palestinians need their Palestine. Hardly any country came to be without great injustice to the natives, including the USA, Australia and Israel; hopefully we can be mature enough to acknowledge that and try to make amends. As the world currently is, the world needs an Israel so that Jews can have a place where they are equals. What they do with this place is their problem, as long as they treat minorities fairly (which is where Israel is in the wrong).

Question #5: I have problems with both Israel and Australia. What is it, then, that I am looking for?
I said I don’t like Israel and I mentioned problems I have with Australia. I admit to living in Australia because it’s a country where living is generally much easier than in other countries and where, despite many forms of discriminations, I am still able to live a life of my own: I was able to marry the way I wanted to instead of through a religious ceremony, to give but one example. Yet it is obvious I am not content with Australia either. What is it, then, that I am looking for?
As I have mentioned, I like the original idea of a Zionist state, as per Herzl’s prophecy. However, I also detest religion, and therefore see no reason to wish for a state defined by either religion or race. What I am looking for is a state where humanism is the guiding light. Such a state would be a secular state where everyone is truly an equal regardless of the majority’s race or ethnicity. A state where anyone can become a Prime Minister without anyone else eyebrows’ raised.
As far as I know there is no country like that on our world yet. It is because we do not have such countries and because most people do not realize that countries such as this would serve them best, instead of countries formed around a common religion, that we have so much strife in our world. It is because our world is lacking understanding of the need for such states that we still need Zionism and Israel.
I, however, am no Zionist. Nor was I ever one; I am a humanist.


wile.e.coyote said...

Friend #1 told me that you broke his web anonymousness, I told him that the Blog author only referred to him as “Friend #1” and he got nothing to worry about.
But after Friend #1 explain me the problem, I had to agree with him.

Hint, search Friend #1 name in the post text

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're right. I'm ashamed of myself.

wile.e.coyote said...

From knowing you over a period of time, I don’t agree about the past. Your views on the Israeli state were changes and went extreme only when you left Israel, I don’t recall such voices coming from you when you were part of the core team.
ofc, you had your views on what is going on wrong in here, same as you have now on Australia.

Anyhow, I do think that is was a good move for you to migrate as your life turn for the good.
However, with different roll of the dices you could have live in Israel being the same person and have no conflicts with it, all the above seems just reasons to convince yourself that what you did is justified, you don’t need any justification for life, just live it

Moshe Reuveni said...

You are right that it is easier to identify problems once you look at things from the outside. We can argue about nuances, but the bottom line is that I did move out of Israel; obviously, something did bother me enough to cause me to make the move.
When I ask myself what it was that bothered me, two distinct advantages Australia holds over Israel come into my mind:
1. Ignoring the symbolic presence of Australian troops in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, Australia does not occupy other people.
2. Australia offers significantly more freedom of religion than Israel.