Monday, December 7, 2009

Chosen: The Litmus Test

To some, Israel represents a monolithic block of injustice against the Palestinians and disregard for its neighbours.

In fact, there are many vocal Israelis who query these relations and what it means to be Jewish in Israel today. They ask questions that cut deep about secular and religious Jewish identity. Even if their dialogues don't always see wide distribution, individuals like Menachem Klein, Avram Burg, and Shlomo Sand share a common desire, with varying approaches, for a critique of Israel beyond the question of its survival.

These individuals wish to move Israelis and Jews to a new understanding of their society. Like Old Testament prophets, they have a tough time of it, garnering as much criticism as their fore-bearers. Their words may seem like 'cries in the wilderness' while occupation and conflict continue.

As is the case with many Middle Eastern identities, the past remains a large ingredient of what it means to be Jewish today. The Jewish people have survived over millenia. Among many achievements, they have utilized a book of scripture to preserve their culture, resurrected a holy language and transformed it into a vernacular, and returned after centuries to a land described in these scriptures as their home.

Indeed, the commitment of Jews to their culture (and, by some, to their faith) is remarkable in its durability despite tribulation: Jews have survived a great number of the difficulties and traumas that history can inflict. That survival has resulted in the state of Israel: a country that represents a haven and fortress for a people that has 'wandered' and suffered for thousands of years.

Jews have indeed often overcome massive odds, preserved their identity and founded a state. But, is the purpose of all the triumphs and defeats of history only the survival of the group for its own sake? Or do Jews have a larger mission implicit in their compact with their scriptures and with themselves?

It is a natural human instinct to put the needs of our group’s survival above all else. If the main goal of the Jewish people is group survival for its own sake, then indeed Jews in Israel should fight at all costs to survive with few other considerations. The mission would be clear and simple and the litmus test would be, indeed, survival. If that is the case, then the question of any larger purpose is moot.

But, it is the Jews themselves who claim a higher calling.

Throughout history, Jews have been the reverse of simply a tribe: they have been also the source of many universal laws for greater human development. From Abraham the patriarch of three faiths, to the message of Jesus, to Freud's breakthroughs in psychology, to Marxist dialectics, to Einstein's laws of physics, Jews have contributed hugely to the discovery of universal laws of great utility to humanity.

Indeed, this tendency may derive directly out of the scriptures on which Jewish culture and bonds are based. These writings may reflect a deep interest in understanding a unifying and universal being; they may spur a millennial commitment and a longstanding search for universals.

Today's Jewish nationalism, and many actions of the state of Israel, have much to do with the preservation of a people, or a tribe, and little with that greater principle.

The fact is that the creation of Israel has resulted in the suffering and displacement of another people, the Palestinians, as well as chronic conflict with its neighbours. Yet, in all faiths and in most societies, healthy relations with outsiders is a consistent marker of properly meeting a larger reality.

If Israel and Jews have a larger road, then Israel's relations with its neighbours are today’s litmus test: Is the group effectively the centre of its universe or is it, like all things, a means of outreach to a greater whole?

In the early 20th century, Martin Buber, an early Zionist and philospher, believed that the Jews should live alongside the Arabs in a new enterprise. He pleaded with his fellow Zionists for a bi-nationalist project: Arab and Jew. He believed both peoples were there to serve the land, and not to compete over its acreage. In his view, the universal call in Jewish scripture would be the spark of a more constructive and less exclusive relation with others at all levels: political, social and moral.

Martin Buber lost his battle but the struggle has been picked up by others. Recently, Avram Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset, wrote a book entitled 'Defeating Hitler'. It claims that Hitler had in fact won, not by destroying the Jewish people but by leaving them with enough trauma and fear to create an oppressive force for survival in the Middle East. 'Defeating Hitler' would mean moving away from this trauma and towards a renewal of the Jewish universalism cultivated so successfully in the past in the Islamic world, in Europe and elsewhere.

The basic question that Jews, Israelis, and all groups must ask is: What is the purpose of an identity? What is its litmus test? Only survival for its own sake? Or is it an instrument for larger growth, an extension from the particular towards universal qualities - a stretch that Jews have in fact excelled at for millenia.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding us of admirable aspects of Jewishness. The higher calling, including God, humour and Woody Allen. But yes. Which allegiance will prevail? I propose both. Clan Good and Universal Good. The diversity principle. Yet we are witness to the culture of the End Game. The utter subjugation of The Other on the altar of xenophobia. And group Supremacism. What excrutiating irony. Or. The culture of tolerance. Recognizing the existential brotherhood of man. Most divisions being illusions born of ego + fossilized tribalistic custom. Survival is one thing, yet open-ended flourishing is surely the greater feat. The greater dream. And as the prison walls of the apartheid of the mind are closing in, some extraordinary soul searching is due. John + John’s posting suggests ’identity’ may be key. I propose a Reality prayer. A renewed mindset: 1) Albert Einstein’s gem: ’We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’; 2) Common sense:’Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’; 3)A paradigm of our times, summed up by a Brit video blogger: ’My holy trinity is Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Identity.'I am smitten. Is not suppressing any of the above not akin to keeping a basketball under water? Let go, and the ball instantly rushes to the surface. Forced policy is unsustainable. Un-zen. Pure misdirected energy. Doesn’t work. Breaks down (eventually). Sarkowzy, Brown, Merkel, Barack- ’bring on’ this green project! Humankind everywhere is exceedingly attached to it’s many different identities. Why not ’flow with’ it? Reality is still best. Each human soul cries out for it’s identity to be accommodated. Never subjugated.
But is this what Power hears? To those already drunk with powerlust - the colonizers, empirebuilders, skeleton hiders, and abusers en masse, usually once abused themselves- the uncooperative’s fight to retain identity needs instead to be crushed. Hence, only a reverse mindset holds out any hope to the underdog, the waitresses of the universe + marginalized identities generally. Every example, Mussolini’s world view repeated in microcosm. Atleast Mussolin was frank about it: ’And above all, Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity... believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace... War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the people who have the courage to meet it.’
There you have it. Is this really what the Middle-East wants? The world? Of course if one is convinced that one's civilization’s survival is contingent on the elimination of a perceived demonized enemy, then such is one’s choice. There’s one ’Universal Good’. One bogus variety, that is. To me it seems that Albablog in it’s quiet yet seductive manner,holds out the possibility of another reality. A rich tapestry of cultural experiences and histories, places, smells and tastes to be savoured. Deserving appreciation- and survival. God bless!I’ve even heard of a time in recent memory, when Muslim lived beside Jew and Christian in harmony. Myth? Before the big idea politicians and the big territory granters got involved? Neighbours in Jerusalem of different extractions took care of each other’s children without stigma. A far cry from today’s horrific barb wired reality; Homemade rockets pitted against one of the world’s most modernized, best equipped armies. ’A reason is always to be found’ is one of Estonia’s vodka maker’s slogan. Sorry. Not very enlightened. To some of us, regardless of perspective (propagandized, forged, imagined, conspired, ’right of return’ or not, even true blue) it looks like the present tragedy is not because of a lack of available arrangements worth considering. But rather comes from the absence of desire for a peaceful resolution. Can’t agree on how to divvy up the prize? In the Middle East it’s ’Fight Night’ every night. Winner take all! Lembit Tork, Tallinn