Croyances et société

Gilad Atzmon’s “Jewish Experience”: Time for a Paradigm Shift?


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Jeudi 12 Juin 2008

Gilad Atzmon’s “Jewish Experience”: Time for a Paradigm Shift?

There’s an old story that many children around the world have been told. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to hear it again and reflect on what it might mean to us. It goes like this: Many years ago, a young man sold hats from village to village. He would walk from one end of Africa to the other, wearing all the hats piled high atop his head, hoping to sell them in every remote village he ventured to. One day, the sun was particularly fierce, and to his great joy, far in the distance, he could see a huge baobab tree. He walked there, laid down all the hats but one, and dozed off under the shade of the tree. When he awakened, he couldn’t believe his eyes. All of the hats that he had laid on the ground had disappeared. He squinted to the distance, but in no direction did he see anyone walking away with a mile-high pile of hats. Suddenly, he heard noises above his head, and for the first time, discovered that the tree was full of monkeys, and not only that, each one of them was wearing one of his hats. Confused as to what to do in order to get all those hats back, he took off his hat and scratched his head. He looked up, and there they were, 100 monkeys, each with a hat in his left paw and his right one scratching his head. The boy put the hat back on, and every one of those monkeys followed suit. Thinking himself very clever, the boy threw his hat down to his feet, and was relieved to have 100 hats come raining down, thrown down by the monkeys. He quickly gathered them and went on his way.

Sixty years later, a young hat-seller was making his way across a wide plateau. The day was hot, and he rested himself down under the shade of a large baobab. He put the pile of hats next to himself and promptly dozed off. Upon awakening, he discovered that all of the hats but the one on his head were gone. Remembering something his grandfather once told him about his own experiences as a young man, he looked up and saw 100 monkeys wearing hats. Smiling to himself, he took of his hat (so did the monkeys), he scratched his head (and so did the monkeys) and then, with a bigger smile (thinking about those stupid, silly monkeys and knowing that in a moment he would outsmart them all), he threw his hat to the ground. Much to his surprise, not a single hat fell to the ground. Instead, a monkey scrambled down the tree, grabbing the hat by the boy’s feet. Tweaking his cheek on the way back up he said to the boy, “Did you think you were the only one with a grandfather?”

This little story, besides being an entertaining one of role reversal with the surprise ending, has a very important lesson to teach us: if we are unable to renew ourselves, if we are incapable of revising our opinions according to new information and if we are unwilling to adapt to new realities, we will never win the game. As smart as we think we are, as convinced of the reasons behind our actions and beliefs, we aren’t the only ones involved. We have interlocutors who are also adapting to the times. As much as we know our own story and carry on with the actions we believe will be effective, if we forget that the “other people” are also evolving, we are no more ahead of the game than the grandson in the fable, who was so certain that the tricks that worked in the past were still valid. We can’t be forgetful that others adapt and work out new strategies.


And this is where Gilad Atzmon’s “The Jewish Experience” comes to play. Upon the first reading of this paper, I was very busy disagreeing. While I can see that there are many points that make perfect sense and are reasonable to me, there are a few ideas that I am certain, given my experience, just aren’t true. While I am entirely convinced that it is the outside support of Israel that permits it to thrive as it is: a racist, supremacist, militaristic state with discriminatory laws that affect minorities and a cruel occupation that shows no signs of relenting, I am far less convinced that Zionism is a closed chapter for the Israelis. Perhaps they envision Zionism as an historical, foundational moment of the past, just the way that Italians think of Il Risorgimento, but my own experience with Israelis has been that they see Zionism as a very articulated and diverse ideological form that adapts to different circumstances and responds to many needs of Israeli society, especially maintaining the state apparatus. It would take me hours to list the various discussion groups (included in them so-called progressives, peacemakers and leftists) that purport the validity and “goodness” of various Zionist schools of thought, telling me that there are as many interpretations of Zionism as there are Zionists and that it is an issue I simply do not understand, being “biased against Zionism” and an “extremist sloganeer”.

Yet, Gilad did some research on the matter to try to convince me. He showed me that the Hebrew versions of Ynet and Haaretz, when compared to the English versions, contained ten times less references to Zionism. It apparently is a subject that is of greater interest to people who do not read Hebrew well or at all than it is to Israelis. That this is a fascinating subject of investigation is undeniable. It certainly did start to shake some of my convictions a bit.

Then I got to thinking, “so what… if Israelis don’t care about Zionism or call it Zionism, what does that change? It is necessary to get Israel to stop exerting its aggressive actions against those it considers to be its current and future enemies.” But, (and here, I had to seriously examine some convictions that have been the backbone of my activism for the past several decades), if there is a possibility that the claim Gilad makes about Israelis not caring about Zionism is true, have we been singing to the choir all along? It reminds me of when people come to Italy and say how wonderful it is here. Yes, it can be, but only those who live in Italy know that this country is far more complicated than a tourist can ever remotely imagine. I might nod my head when they say that the food and weather are unbeatable, but don’t let them start going on about “La Dolce Vita”, I’d have a thing or two to say to them, and agreeing with me would be the vast majority of the overworked and underpaid Italians.

If it is indeed true that not only have we got to make a paradigm shift in order to understand what reality is, rather than accepting without further analysis what we are used to it being out of habit or indoctrination, we have to then adjust our strategies to be able to even make any difference at all and actually change the reality that we have decided we will not accept.

When a crisis of our way of thinking comes in, even if we are not convinced of the full reasonableness of a different approach, it may be a good idea to examine a viable alternative fully and test it. I believe in the reliability of the source, someone who was raised in Israel, yet, with the advantage of space and distance that allow comparison and uninvolved observation to add elements to the reasoning, so, I will suspend for a moment my conviction that it’s “the Zionist Experience” that moves the events in Israel and examine the hypothesis that it is instead “the Jewish Experience”. With this observation as a basis, I will try to analyse what can be done to bring about change.

I actually had a bit of a shock to find some support of Gilad’s thesis from a very unlikely source. For some research I was dong, I was looking for some information on the Gadna Summer Camps. These are very strange, and I imagine, typically Israeli, boot camps for teens. A young man from Texas wrote on his blog that he had been there and his observations, under the influence of reflection on Gilad’s piece, were evidence that Gilad is really onto something true. The “Lone Star of David” writes:

“The truth is that Jews have not, to any great extent, defended themselves in eight gazillion years. In the Diaspora we withered into skinny defenseless yeshiva nerds. In our return to Eretz Yisrael and in the foundation of Medinat Yisrael we fulfilled A.D. Gordon’s well-put dream of a people of strong, intellectual laborers. It was in this newfound physical strength that we founded militant movements in the Land. These were not just militias striking out against their perceived enemies like the Islamic militants we see on the news now. These were, for the most part, defense forces involved solely in the defense of its people, the Jewish people. Haganah, the largest of these became the Israeli Army when the state was founded in 1948 and that mission of defense has remained its goal. This is no ordinary national military. This is not just an army of Jews. This is THE Jewish Army.”

OK, fair enough. David realises (or fantasises) that Israel was there for the creation of the “New Jew”, or as Gilad wrote, “…for the Diaspora Jew, Israel is nothing less than a lucid model of glory. Israel is both the meaning and the meaning in its making. For the Diaspora Jew, Israel is the symbolic transformation aming at liberation and even redemption of the Jewish misery. Israel is everything the Diaspora Jew is not. It is full of Chutzpah, it is forceful, it stands for what it believes in.”

But David actually affirms Gilad’s claim when he writes:

“When you ask the average “secular” Israeli whether they consider themselves more Israeli or more Jewish, they say Israeli. An American Jew is saddened by this because to us it means that Israel is no longer a Jewish state and that its inhabitants have been come simply Israeli rather than Jewish like France’s inhabitants are simply French. What is really going on is a breakdown in vocabulary. Our respective vocabularies (American Jewish and Israeli) are different and neither of us knows how to say what we mean. What the Israeli means when he says he is Israeli and not Jewish is that he is a member of the Jewish Nation rather than the Jewish Religion. What the American Jew means by his outrage is that he cannot relate to Judaism as a peoplehood because he has become an American whose religion is Jewish, rather than a Jew who follows his people’s religion.”

So, trying to cut through the confusion of peoplehood, religion, becoming (and taking into account the suggestion that neither the American Jews nor the Israelis know how to say what they mean), this young man is living a love relationship full of meaning that has been strengthened from the moment he became part of the Jewish army in a militaristic experience aimed at indoctrinating boys and girls fresh out of puberty to the glorious experiences awaiting them should they make Aliyah… And it brought about an epiphany for him: Israelis SAY Israeli but mean Jewish. They’ve stopped building the nation, now they are just getting on with living and the Diaspora Jews still hold the candle of Jewish peoplehood united across land and sea, and will protect and defend the emerging Zionist project, a never-ending success story of redemption and salvation that rescues Jews from doomed eternity as nerds.

Well, if this is the case, that it’s really basically an issue of Diaspora Jew self-visualisation as potential supermen, even if I may need to suspend my belief for a time, perhaps it will be worth it if it means finding a way to be effective. It might not matter to be wrong or right, when the issue is stopping the intolerable violations of human rights to anyone Israelis and Zionists decide should be subject to that, what matters is getting the job done: stopping it. If a new approach is required, perhaps I have to remember the hat-seller and his conviction that the same old thing would work. We can’t be so sure of everything. We aren’t the only ones in the game.

Now, how to apply the new paradigm and address some of the points raised by “The Jewish Experience”… I believe the core lies in recognising that most of the International Community has been fooled into believing that the Jewish narrative is actually something particularly important. It is a fact that Jews started their experience in a small area of the world, but then they underwent something that is extremely banal: ordinary migration and dispersion. If genetic mapping done was applied to everyone, we would realise that humanity is a gigantic mix of peoples and cultures. It is the very nature of humans to migrate, seek new territory, adapt, settle, explore, relocate, get caught up in natural disasters and war and refugee experiences. They are carted away as slaves, moved en masse by geopolitical events and assimilated into the places they inhabit. It is not limited to Jews and it never has been. To accept that the Exilic paradigm is the core of the Jewish narrative, making it unique, perhaps we have been hoodwinked into accepting many other tenets that have no basis in any particularity, but are experiences common to all peoples. They are not particularly tragic or heroic, at least, they can be considered AS tragic and AS heroic as hundreds of other collective experiences. Liberating ourselves from the idea of a special entitlement to collective satisfaction due to ancient experiences might let us see things a bit more clearly. We can also see that the obsession of the International Community on the well-being and happiness of this group, which is given a much greater leeway in the means used to achieve their national aspirations, is misplaced. Individual realisation of potential, the achievement of “personal happiness” has become directed into a collective aspiration that inserts some other kinds of collective thought. Focus on Jews as subjects that must consider this aspiration as a personal one, one that is able to embrace even those who really are actually happy and realised precisely where they are, convincing them that there is some great collective story that they are there to build, is actually a dangerous thing when the result is militarising young idealists who simply were born as Jews.

If the Jews are not being discriminated in the countries they live in, encouraging them to feel that their condition is “exilic” is rather odd in the modern world where most of the people or their parents come from someplace else anyway. And, with this consideration, we enter into very dangerous territory indeed: that of destructive entitlement. Since Jews are considered to be special, the situation of Israel being an anomaly, or as they choose to represent themselves, “the only democracy in the Middle East” “a tiny State surrounded by a billion hostile neighbours”, then they will not only feel entitled, but they will BE entitled to act in any way they choose in order to maintain their special status. Wouldn’t it be boring to have more than one democracy in the Middle East? And if the neighbors stopped being such a threat, wouldn’t Israel not be in need of worldwide support and love (not to mention armaments)? History marches on, people and nations progress, but Israel is determined to remain the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Why does the world embrace the Jewish narrative so tightly then? Is there something intrinsically true and important about it that it stands out amongst hundreds of other group narratives that are equally dramatic if not more so? What I believe stands behind it is something more than laziness, although accepting what the standard “Christian-Judeo narrative” of Jewish particularity seems to be is probably not intentional, just basic education known as “common sense” and “history”. It does have an interesting characteristic of being whatever serves at the moment: want a nationality? Got it! If you need it to be cultural or traditional… it’s a done deal! Religion? Why certainly! Jewishness is like the three card shuffle, you can pick a card, any card… if you are paying attention REALLY closely, you might walk away with a profit, but the hands are very skilled and the house wins. Only the gambler doesn’t realise that the house is not willing to take more than a loss out of 100, the house ALWAYS wins… that’s the rule.

If Jews started to question the Jewish paradigm and stopped using their Jewishness as an instrument, it might lose whatever power it possesses. They might become ordinary and boring human beings whose ancestors had stories of migration, tragedy and success just like so many other human beings. They might look at the world in a different light, and the world might change as a result. As far as I know, every single human is the end product of one uninterrupted chain of humanity, going back hundreds of thousands of generations. There MUST have been some dramatic moments in the history of every one of us, if we are not actually all related in some way. Caring about people as people, looking at the world as it is today, focusing on the suffering happening today is a far greater task than carrying out some collective narrative that makes us feel great.

But why do the Americans care so much? I believe there are some reasons that they do, and these reasons are probably imposed from above in a very subtle and unnoticeable way, so that Americans feel they are being magnanimous when they support the tiny little State in the Middle East that is so full of victims of man’s evil to man. Were they, in the most religious nation on the face of the Earth, to question the biblical narrative, it would make them see that maybe some things taken for granted are nothing but lies or at best, big question marks that will never have an answer. Once they question some of that, the power system that imposes presidential candidates or anyone in public office, to have “a personal minister” as well as a public religious persona, would start to shake at its very foundations. If even your money has God’s name on it, you had better leave the Bible alone. The self-determination of Jews or Israelis is only secondary to what really matters: keeping the masses out of any kind of challenge to authority and power. So, the Jews were able to market their personal narrative as the greatest story ever told, good for them. That the interests of the Americans, the Canadians, the Europeans and all the other successful Western nations are secondary to sustaining this story is a matter that is fair and reasonable to question. They may be doing it for Israel, but I believe they are doing it to save their own Imperialist skins. If we are willing to believe that a Jew in Austin, Paris or London feels a need to make Aliyah so that he can live his life to its full potential as a Jew is something that is frankly laughable. He or she may feel the attraction of the calling, but it is Israel that needs them, not the other way around. The Americans, French and British governments nod their heads in approval and encourage the emigration of these young professionals. After all, the West is busy outsourcing, people are ultimately expendible, what matters is keeping the Imperial machine well-oiled, and maintaing the myth of the Wandering Jew helps to do just that.

So, perhaps Gilad is right. Maybe we had better fight the ideology and practical application of Zionism by looking at what lies at the core of this supremacist mindset. It’s not only Israelis or Zionists who are busy playing the game of destructive entitlement. Exclusion from debate of people who criticise the analysis of the Jewish condition of “separateness” and its very evident destructiveness in Israel, when it is obviously a very crucial issue is something done primarily by Jews who selectively do not identify themselves with Israel, but will single themselves out ethnically even when it is totally inappropriate. When they do it, they do it as Jews, as if this gives their arguments special weight. Doing so, consciously or unconsciously, reinforces the wedge between Jews and “everybody else” and is a gatekeeping mechanism that is equally as damaging as Israeli hasbara. Yes, it is right to fight Zionists, but maybe that is not enough, because many who act as Zionists are not willing to identify themselves as such. As activists, we are required to get to the core of where the destructive power lies, and to expose it so that we are able to see clearly what means are at our disposal to bring about a world that is more just, that is able to work towards full human equality, no one excluded… even equality for Zionists to be themselves, as long as they are able to abandon their destructive entitlement and accept to be a person like anyone else, not better than anyone else. The other option is to throw down our hat and expect our adversaries to do the same.


Mary Rizzo is an art restorer, translator and writer living in Italy. Editor and co-founder of Palestine Think Tank, co-founder of Tlaxcala translations collective. Her personal blog is Peacepalestine.
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Jeudi 12 Juin 2008

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