Sunday, January 21, 2007

Israel's Complexity

Amechad plays off Rinat's Hebron post, arguing that complexity, both pragmatic and moral, is crucial to understanding life in Israel/Palestine. One angle in this is that both bloggers grew up in the sorts of Diaspora Jewish circles that support Israel in a very rightwing manner, but when they made aliya, even though amechad at least found a home in the Likud party, they recognized levels of complexity that are often not apparent to those overseas.

I've hinted at this in some of my travel writing, and want to tackle it head-on at some point, probably when I write about the Birthright kids who come through here. It's linked, I think, to the existence of Israel, not just as an idea or heritage center, but as a real, live country with all kinds of people and all kinds of philosophies and the way they interact amidst practical problems.

A Madison newspaper just ran this story of someone's Birthright experience. What leaped out at me was this:
"Bernstein also enjoyed being surrounded by Jewish people and customs.

"'I went at Christmas time and there were no Christmas lights. To me that was great. There were Hanukkah menorahs everywhere,' said Bernstein, who had a breakout game as a fill-in tailback leaping over tackling attempts by Penn State in 2004, after he fasted 24 hours prior to kickoff because of Yom Kippur."

The key here is that Bernstein went to Israel and saw it as the famed Jewish state. It isn't just that, however. It's an Israeli state - a multidimensional polity with its own culture, history, and problems often tied to but yet separate from its Jewish identity.

You can look at this from another angle. I suggested here that collective self-reliance and mutual loyalty were crucial to understanding Israel. I was probably trying to do too much at once in that post, but to reinforce the point, Israelis do display a certain amount of packlike behavior. One example of this is the "Hebrew Heaven" in Tbilisi. It is hard for me to imagine, for example, a largely German or French hostel, and yet I've heard of multiple Israeli examples of that same phenomenon. A causative mechanism could be the Hebrew-language travel web site, but I get vague sense that there are an awful lot of such mechanisms, and in any case it seems significant that Israelis abroad quite proudly if perhaps not in as many words take pride in it as an example of Israeli collective ingenuity and community-building.

I think of that in this context because of the commenter on Rinat's site who asked why she didn't side with her "family." The perception behind that comment is quite different, suggesting that all Jews are a single group. Behind it, I sense, lies the added layer that it's a persecuted group. The sense I get from this is different from the sense I get from Israelis letting slip their innate sense of collectiveness. One is defensive, the other assertive. Israelis may often feel world opinion is unfairly against them, but this is a very different sense of persecution and/or isolation than that felt by people who are part of an often misunderstood Jewish minority.

Anyway, I haven't thought all the way through this yet, so I'll have to stop there, despite the sense that there's another step or two. I should also add the obvious point that one cannot generalize about members of any national or religious community, especially based on only a few months experience. You can, however, try to discern broad trends in attitudes, behavior, and belief systems that are often shaped by shared cultural experiences, which is sort of what I'm trying to do, in an amateurish sort of way.


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