Wednesday, January 25, 2012

There is No Such Thing as Diaspora!

I returned from Israel in early August, and after getting off the plane my dad took me to a kosher diner; he knew I was still in culture shock. But, not even a warm bagel with cream cheese could prepare for next night's dinner - a trip to the local pizzeria.

As I opened the door to the restaurant, a former hockey teammate strode past.  I hadn't spoken to him for years, and he didn't notice me. I walked up to the counter, my hands shoved nervously into the pockets of my jeans. This was my first time ordering food in English in weeks, and I half expected the cashier to open his mouth and start speaking in that deep, throaty Hebrew to which I had grown accustomed.
"Excuse me, sir," chimed a high-pitched voice. "How can I help you?"
Looking up I saw, not the dark, heavy eye-browed man at the falafel stand in the Agnon strip mall, but a fair-haired girl who graduated from the same middle school as I.
"Emmmm......" I stuttered, unable to shake that acquired Levantine affectation from my speech. "I'm here to pick up an order for Leifer."
My former classmate did not recognize me.
"Hold on a second," she mumbled. 
I felt around in my pockets for the proper combination of bills and change with which to pay for my meal.
"That comes to ten dollars and twenty cents. Will that be all?"
Nodding, I stretched out my hand to pay, but pulled it back suddenly to remove a shekel from the pile of change. Short a dollar or two, I reached hurriedly into my back pocket to supplement my available legal tender. The multicolored bills in my wallet glared at me as I passed them over in search of the green ones.
"Here you are," I said shyly, looking down at my feet again.
She handed me the pizza box from behind the counter and I left without a recept, anxious to get back home.

In less than forty-eight hours, my home had gone from Shai Agnon Street to Lydia Lane.  Home was now just where I happened to be. Where I wanted to be did not really matter.  I've grown up in the same town my whole life, but it still does not really feel like my hometown. I have little in common with people in the neighborhood, and even our limited shared experience seems to have not endured a few years' time. I don't know very much about the people here, and they know next to nothing about me. They don't know that I read from left to right when I pray - something I do only rarely now. They don't know that I used to avoid the pepperoni even before I was a vegetarian.  They don't know that my day of rest is not Sunday, and that for me December 25th is just a day with shorter lines at the airport. All they know is that I have never been part of their community.  They haven't seen me at their churches, or at their youth-group run town carnivals.  They just know I miss school some days, for reasons undisclosed.

Halfway through my summer in Israel, now accompanied by my Israeli counterparts, I had a conversation about imagined communities. The discussion was part of a debriefing session after a lecture by A.B. Yehoshua at Haifa University. His speech had reminded me of what I read in a book I picked up in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Tzedek a few days earlier. In The Invention of the Jewish People (the book is worthless as a history of Jews or Judaism, but it is a pretty good introduction to the works of important scholars like Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, and Eric Hobsbawn), the author, Shlomo Sand references the work of Marxist historian Benedict Anderson on nationalism: "the an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."  Sand goes on to write, "indeed, every community that is bigger than a tribe or a village is imagined, because members do not know one another; such were the great religious communities before modern times.  But the nation has new tools for people's imaginary belonging to it that were unavailable to old societies." I had gotten into an argument with several of the Israelis over the law of return in Israel and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Sitting on the ground cross-legged, in a circle with my fellow students, I leaned forward and began to speak.
"Not a single person in my family has every lived here, in Haifa. No one. Not ever. As far as I can reasonably trace my lineage, my family was never in Israel. Of course, if you assume the expulsion is factually true, then perhaps, over a thousand years ago, someone related to me was here."
I  paused briefly to wipe my brow as the biblical sun beat down on our creased foreheads.
"But none of that matters," I continued, increasingly animated. "Because, under Israeli law, I have the right to come back here and become a citizen and live. Automatically. At the same time, an Arab, whose family lived in or around Haifa before the war, and was displaced for whatever reason in 1948, does not have the right to come back and reclaim his family's home. But, I can occupy his family's home."
What had begun as a narrow, almost policy-oriented dispute had expanded to include the most fundamental questions of identity.
"Israel," I tried to argue, "is simply a political entity populated by many Jews. it is just another country, one that American Jews are not part of and should not be entitled to."
I was informed that my worldview left me with very little to offer to the program, as it was reductionist and ultimately empty. And I informed my Israeli peers that I wanted no part in their unjust state.

Driving back from the pizzeria, A.B. Yehoshua's voice, from the lecture earlier that day in Haifa, reverberated in my head. As I navigated the darkened suburban streets, his white tufts of hair and claw-like fingers flashed before my eyes.
"Israel is a Jewish totality. Israel identity is total Jewish. Everything is Jewish here, Jews control Jews in Israel, never before in history did this happen!"
I pulled into my driveway, slightly panicked that I could not shake my vision of the aging writer. This must have been some kind of twisted retribution for my seditious comments throughout my trip in Israel.  The voice of the writer pulsated louder in my ears.
"Jew is a term for nationality! The corridors are religious, in and out, but once you are in, you are part of a nationality. Remember, Israel belongs first to its citizens and second to the Jewish people. This is because of identity and citizenship; they are fundamentally different. Identity is totally separate from citizenship."
By now, I had set the pizza down on the kitchen table and had begun to eat. Though surrounded by my family at the table, I was locked in the terrible, hypnotic, Zionistic trance.
"Israeli citizenship, includes seven million people, Arabs and Jews. Israeli identity, total Jewish! You cannot be total with only the religious, devoid of the national."
I took a bite of the pizza, chewing slowly and deliberately as I tried to reason with the thinker who, against my will again laid out his definitions for the terms of Jewish identity.
"Jew - person who declares themselves Jew. Zionism - the idea that Israel belongs to Jewish people. Israeli - identity and citizenship, THE TOTALITY OF JEW!"
My fork clattered against my plate and I jumped up from my seat at the table. I excused myself and slouched to the bathroom, trying to shake the last echoes Yehoshua's voice. At the sink, I splashed some lukewarm water on my face.

According to Yehoshua's reasoning, I am a national minority - a Jew in the United States - and therefore uncontroversially partial. At first glance, this would appear to be accurate. The holidays for school breaks, the national psalms, and even the food (like pizza) are not mine. My history is not included in the national mythology or state-sanctioned culture. When I sing, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee", the words do not refer to me. The land where my fathers died is somewhere in what was the Pale of Settlement, and the land of the pilgrims' pride is Israel - in Jerusalem. Back in the diaspora, I could not stop thinking that perhaps A.B. Yehoshua was right. But that was six months ago, and a lot has changed in those six months.

I used to think that even if the connection between Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel was imagined - after all, we cannot all know each other - there was still a bond that transcended both the notions of nationality and religion. In Israel, I wanted to think that I had something in common with the cashier at the coffee shop, or the owner of the falafel stand in the Agnon strip mall, even if my conversational Hebrew was broken at best. I thought of Israel as the country that sleeps on my day of rest, where school is closed on my holidays. In Israel, I thought the electrician or the plumber, bus driver or garbage man, could look at me and know what I did on Friday nights, and know how I spent my Saturdays.

But the uniting factor has always been religion and not nationality.  As the saying goes, even when the Jews have not kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.  And it is precisely because Israel is a theocracy that I, as a traditionally practicing Jew, could feel at home.  Without that unifying religion, everything fractures. Take observance or ritual out of the equation, and what is left is not a nation but rather a collection of nations - Yiddish people, Mizrachi people, Ethiopian people. Together, we can call ourselves no more of a nation than Christians or Catholics can. And as much as I wish it weren't true, the ties between the disparate strains of Judaism disappear without religion.

I am not living in the "Diaspora" and my ancestors were never in the "Diaspora", for what Zionists have derided for nearly a century as the "Diaspora" is the core of my history and my culture. The foundation of my Jewishness owes far more to the Belarussian or Lithuanian shtetls than it does to the modern state of Israel. The language of my grandparents was Yiddish - killed by the Hebrew revivalists - and the language of my dreams is English.  The natural equilibrium, the homeostasis of my culture, is "Diaspora."

Thus, the Diaspora does not exist; the Jew of many nations is the historical constant. It is the advent of a modern theocratic state in what was once British Mandatory Palestine that is unnatural and deviation from the history of the Jews. Jewishness has always existed outside of Israel, and will continue to exist, even after the modern state of Israel is gone.

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