Amos Oz and the meaning of homeland
The title of Yonathan and Masha Zur’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes penetrative, yet always insightful and captivating 2009 documentary Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams makes reference to a much-used and familiar thought of the author’s.
Dreams, Oz states in the film, are destined to remain rosy, perfect, and unsullied so long as they exist only as dreams. The moment they are enacted and made concrete, reality collides with vision – they take on a sour taste, they have imperfections and flaws. “Israel is a dream come true and, as such, it is disappointing,” Oz says. “The taste of disappointment is not in the nature of Israel, it is in the nature of dreams.”
Shifting between continents and time periods, reality and fiction, “Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams” considers the place of Amos Oz within Zionism, and what has happened to the larger Zionism dream – or spectrum of dreams. After all, what is disappointing and sour to one Israeli, to one Zionist, is perhaps the consequence of the fulfillment of another Zionist dream, the dimming of Labor Zionism and the rise of more religious or nationalistic forms of this ideology, two states and one state.
In the documentary, Oz reads from an historic essay on the subject, “The meaning of homeland.” First published in 1967 during the period of light-headed euphoria and drunkenness which followed Israel’s remarkable victory in the Six Day War, Oz soberly considered what it meant to be a Zionist, what it meant to be a Jew, and what it meant for Zionism to recognise that its future was bound up in coexistence with the Arab population of the Land of Israel, of Palestine. This essay – available today in the collection “Under This Blazing Light” – warrants re-reading.
Israel will never be a ‘normal’ nation
Whether it is desired or not, Israel will always be an exceptional nation.
It is in the nature of Israel’s birth – of Israel as the manifestation of a dream, or several dreams, and the yearning and investment those dreams hold. The awakening of a Jewish national consciousness within the galut, the revival of the Hebrew language, the founding of Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim, the greening of the land, the victories in existential wars fought on multiple fronts – it is a secular, pioneering achievement unparalleled in modern history.
But that’s not even the half of it. As a Jewish state, Israel will be exceptional simply because it is a state for Jews. On one level this is benign – every nation has its qualities that make it different or unique. In the case of my country of birth and residence, the United Kingdom, it would be the English language and our literature, as well as our contributions to the rule of law, good governance, and fair play. For the United States, it would be their documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – and the ideas of liberty and democracy embedded within them.
For Israel, it would be that Judaism and Jewish civilisation has sustained itself, as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger have recently persuasively argued, not as a bloodline but a textline. “Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interpretations, debates, and disagreements,” they write in Jews and Words. “In synagogue, at school, and most of all in the home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation.”
The Jewish propensity for argument and self-criticism, interpretation and reinterpretation, is essential to the Israeli national character, the Israeli chutzpah, as well as Israel’s political culture, its social fabric, and its literature. Alive and ever-evolving, the textline makes Israel a subject of fascination for those who have an interest in such things as Jewish history and culture. Judeophilia will, since it affects Jews, inevitably impact upon the Jewish state as well. I can attest to this, writing as a non-Jewish Zionist who cannot help but find the idea of a textline both enchanting and enthralling.
David Ward’s off on one again
It’s good to know who hates you and it is good to be hated by the right people— David Ward (@DavidWardMP) July 27, 2013
No more apologies - we who support the # Palestinians are in the right - history will prove us right— David Ward (@DavidWardMP) July 27, 2013
"Apartheid state" - disproportionate language? Wake up in #Gaza with sewage stinking sea one side -nuclear armed state other - what u think?— David Ward (@DavidWardMP) July 27, 2013
At this point, so much water has flown by and so many stupid things have been said by David Ward that it’s barely worth getting upset about. You can read his remarks — tweets — as you see fit at this point.
And I would read them, for they may be his departing remarks. His time as as a Liberal Democrat MP is clearly coming to a close, not because what he has said above is especially dumb (at least not for him) but because since January he’s been on a pathway to severing his ties with the Lib Dems and joining with Respect or standing as an independent.
The most noteworthy thing, as Jessica Elgot pointed out, is that these tweets came at around 9.20pm on a Saturday evening, completely without prompting or cause. What forces a Member of Parliament already suspended from his party for past remarks about Israel and ‘the Jews’ to have these spasms of rage?
And, why doesn’t David Ward have a better communications staff? Who taught him to use an iPhone?
Church of Scotland Strikes Out on Israel
When the Church of Scotland decided to revise its controversial and borderline anti-Semitic report on Israel and the Palestinians, it only really had to do three things.
First, the Kirk, as the church is widely know, had to make clear it understood what Zionism actually is. Not, as they originally stated, a solely religious ideology. But rather, a diverse movement encompassing a multitude of dreams including many secular ones.
Second, it had to repeal all claims that smacked of Christian supremacism.
Third, it needed to delete or at the very least rewrite the passages on the Holocaust, ones which previously asserted that Jews must “stop thinking of themselves as victims and special” and ‘repent’ for the displacement of Palestinians during the Wars of Independence.
“The country of Israel is a recognised State and has the right to exist in peace and security,” it now states as a matter of fact. “We reject racism and religious hatred. We condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We will always condemn acts of terrorism, violence and intimidation.”
It’s not much, but it needed to be said.
The strange disappearance of Joseph Massad
Last week, I commented on Columbia professor Joseph Massad’s essay in al-Jazeera, “The Last of the Semites”:
[Massad’s] essay — of that length by virtue of the fact that no-one seems to have thought to edit it down — hinges on that old idea that Zionism is racism. In this case, Massad applies this cliché not just in the usual way to indicate prejudice towards non-Jews. No, he believes Zionism is explicitly anti-Semitic. Zionism, according to Massad, emerged not as a response to European anti-Semitism but in sympathy with its racialist precepts.
Since last Tuesday, prominent journalists including Jeffrey Goldberg, John Podhoretz, and James Kirchick picked up on Massad’s piece and shared it about for all to see, while my critique was mentioned in media outlets like The Jerusalem Post and The Washington Free Beacon (a magazine I don’t believe I would appear in under ordinary circumstances — Bill Kristol doesn’t strike me as a Meretz guy). Well, as of yesterday, Massad’s essay is no longer available, it having been taken down from the web by al-Jazeera without explanation or notice.
And this is exactly the wrong thing for al-Jazeera to have done. First, denying people the right to read this disgraceful, unlettered essay also denies people the right to find out just what a horrible little man Joseph Massad is — which, is a useful public service for al-Jazeera to be engaging in. Second, if al-Jazeera feels it made a bad call by lending its imprimatur to the original work unedited (which, by removing it, is evidently the case), they should be made to pay for that mistake. Either, they should have kept it up on the website with an addendum, or if they absolutely had to take it down, they should have provided a note with reasoning for why exactly Massad’s essay was palatable to them on Tuesday but spoilt by Sunday. The current situation is unsatisfactory for supporters and opponents of Massad’s screed.
Joseph Massad’s problem with rooted cosmopolitans
Joseph Massad’s op-ed, “The Last of the Semites”, demonstrates above all that the Columbia professor knows very little about not a lot.
His essay — of that length by virtue of the fact that no-one seems to have thought to edit it down — hinges on that old idea that Zionism is racism. In this case, Massad applies this cliché not just in the usual way to indicate prejudice towards non-Jews. No, he believes Zionism is explicitly anti-Semitic. Zionism, according to Massad, emerged not as a response to European anti-Semitism but in sympathy with its racialist precepts:
When Zionism started a decade and a half after Marr’s anti-Semitic programme was published, it would espouse all these anti-Jewish ideas, including scientific anti-Semitism as valid. For Zionism, Jews were “Semites”, who were descendants of the ancient Hebrews. In his foundational pamphlet Der Judenstaat, Herzl explained that it was Jews, not their Christian enemies, who “cause” anti-Semitism and that “where it does not exist, [anti-Semitism] is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations”.
Zionism, Massad thinks, was anti-Semitic not only of this reason but because it represented a “continuation of the Haskalah quest to shed Jewish culture and assimilate Jews into European secular gentile culture,” which of course is a total perversion of Jewish history and what Herzl actually thought and wrote.
In part, the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, was related to assimilation but in the main it was an attempt to synthesis traditional Judaism with the modern ideas of the Enlightenment, including liberalism, nationalism, egality, and emancipation. Zionism emerged throughout the nineteenth century (not bang on 1897, as Massad understands it) as a product of this intellectual and cultural shift in the sense that its claim was that Jews are equal to all others and as deserving of statehood as anybody else. It is not, as Massad seems to think, some declaration of Jewish supremacy.
But it is also a by-product of the Haskalah: it is a reflection of the actual, lived Jewish experience in nineteenth-century Europe, and the waves of anti-Semitism that came with Jewish emancipation and entry into the professions from which Jews had previously been barred. Massad doesn’t seem to wish to acknowledge that anti-Semitism affected Jews in this way, at all.
Why I am a (Liberal) Zionist
I am not Jewish, but then again, neither were most of the volunteers at Ein Hashofet, a kibbutz located somewhere between Haifa and the Sharon plain. It had been founded during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 by immigrants from Poland and the United States who were of the Left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement. The first settlers had to manually drain the land and plant trees to make it viable, while residing in tents, eating meager meals, and using communal showers and toilets. They were also required to defend the fruits of their labors, not only during the revolt but also the War of Independence, during which the nearby kibbutz of Mishmar Ha’Emek was attacked by the Arab Liberation Army.
I would have made a terrible Zionist pioneer. After arriving from Tel Aviv, I managed to last a week as a gardener, working with power tools and doing tasks no more arduous than raking up dead brush before I started pleading for a change of scene. “Not everyone can be a gardener,” Roni, my extremely kind and understanding boss, told me. “Not everyone can be a writer.” He may have been humoring me with that one. So, for the remainder of my time at Ein Hashofet I worked in the main factory, which manufactured ballasts and transformers for fluorescent light fixtures (someone has to), spending hours hanging the near-completed items on hooks and reading Amos Oz novels during downtime.
Based on my observations, it is fair to say that people rarely have clear reasons for leaving behind the comforts of home for a few months of toiling under the hot sun. All the volunteers seemed to be trying to run away from something or leave something behind. Or they were searching for something, looking to remake themselves. Some didn’t seem to know why they were there at all. Others were simply looking for a good time. Arak was complementary at the kibbutz pub, so if you were so inclined, what could be better?
My own motivations were clearer. For me, the kibbutz was a place where I could explore my early attraction to Israel, which was more instinctive than anything else, and grounded in an understanding of Middle Eastern history. The time I spent exploring and putting something back into the land was a formative experience, the beginning of something larger. At Ein Hashofet, I began a greater examination of Israel—its history, its political and social divisions, its culture—out of which arose a deeper commitment to the ideology of Zionism itself, albeit from a goyishe perspective.
Not being Jewish inevitably means that I have a different relationship with the Jewish state than people who are. That much is inescapable. I do not have a direct, historical connection to Israel through lineage or conversion. No one in my family lives there. I am not entitled to make aliya. I will never have to serve in the IDF.
The most obvious result of this is that it has made me a secular Zionist. Indeed, in the earliest expression of my Zionism that I can find—a letter toThe Times from June 2010, at the time of the Mavi Marmara incident—I called Israel a “secular miracle,” an earnest phrase that does not necessarily make a great deal of sense. What I mean by it is that, while I appreciate that Jews of all denominations are able to practice their faith openly, actively, and vibrantly without fear or compromise (almost, anyway), the Israel I admire is to be found in the achievements of man: the kibbutz, the Knesset, and the novels of Oz and David Grossman.