Return of the Jew
By Doron Nesher | 01/10/2009
Doron Nesher, who once drafted the election platform of the left-wing Mapam party, argues that the biggest accomplishment of the settlement enterprise in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip is that it forced the Israeli left to confront its Jewishness
I ask that religious Judaism not underplay the role of secular Zionism in the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Israel, and at the same time I apologize for the sins of the left, which considers “the religious” another nation, alien and strange. And I apologize for the sins of the left, which overlooks what “they” bring to the table. After all, without their adherence and devotion to their values, who or what would we be?
Am I a leftist? When I speak to leftists, I stress, that I no longer see myself as one, and that considerable changes have taken place in my viewpoint; but when I speak to hard-core rightists, I emphasize my roots in the left. What kind of a viewpoint is that? This “doctrine of opposites” exists not only in my case. In quite a few branches of the right, one discerns the influence of leftist arguments. Conversely, soft-core leftists like me have lost some of their dogmatic naiveté.
A war without a seventh day
In pre-Six-Day War Israel, there was a pervasive sense that the “Jewish story” was behind us. We saw the State of Israel as the product of the secular and socialist Zionist revolution, which had fashioned a “new Jew”. Although I attended synagogue with my father on Yom Kippur, and we had a Seder on Passover, and on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and on Holocaust Day we would let the cantor chant his “O Merciful God” after our own “Let the Jewish nation remember”, deep in our hearts we knew that all these rituals were nothing more than a relic or a half-forgotten obligation, but nothing more. Deep down, we were convinced that the future belonged to the secular ethos. And even if this ethos didn't remain exclusively in the hands of the socialists – it would also be shared with the liberals – the “Jew” had been knocked out of the ring. As we perceived it, the Holocaust had brought to an end the existence of divine supervision, whether personal or collective, and the 20th century was confidently marching toward a world based on humanism, rationalism and empiricism.
The Six-Day War, which not only was not planned by Israel but was forced on it, and which was a war of national self-defense, was not conceived, even in the enemy's point of view, as a religious war. When the war was over, Dayan was waiting for a phone call, and even the long wait did not presage what was about to result from this completely new situation. The voices that spoke of a “Greater Land of Israel” sounded insignificant, and although the victory was etched in my visual memory by the army's Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren blowing the shofar, and by the Paratroopers' words that carne over the two-way radio: “I am touching the stones of the Western Wall”, we still didn't realize that everything had changed completely.
But over time it grew clear that the Six-Day War had brought the Western Wall, Hebron and Bethlehem, Judea and Samaria, not only into our territorial borders. The war began with tremendous existential anxiety, and even the young chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin, was not convinced that he and his army would be capable of standing in the breach against three armies on three fronts. The one who lost his nerve while flexing his well-developed sabra muscles was the archetypal Israeli super-hero, who by the time he recovered and was able to stand in front of a mirror, saw a Jew staring back at him. It didn't happen all at once. That may be the principal accomplishment of the settlers' movement, the accomplishment that will have lasting power, even if we return everything: No longer “Israel”, but “the State of the Jews”.
And in fact, several election campaigns later, the threat that “Peres will divide Jerusalem” decided in favor of the Jewish side of the equation. Suddenly, and against our will, we were forced to ask ourselves about the true nature of our connection to these places. Due to the political necessity of deciding whether to “give back” or “not to give back”, the question of “Who are we?” came up again. Suddenly, we discovered that the answer we had was no longer that clear or simple.
Over the years, “that” Israeli, the one whose Israeliness was imprinted on him before the Six-Day War, has been somewhat marginalized. Sometimes he apologizes, sometimes he reminisces, and for a moment you might think what a nice guy he is, but mainly, he is no longer relevant. We could even go so far as to say that the Arab states, in their desire to eliminate the Zionist state, brought the Jewish state upon themselves.
When I say, “The Jew has returned”, I am only pointing out the necessity of reformulating our basic positions, which in the past lacked a “Jewish aspect”. The State of Israel wanted to be a “state of the present” that speaks with the world in political language, addressing the present-day interests of an ordinary sovereign state, but we are now compelled to be “a state of the past”, in the sense that the Jewish interpretation is now determining its future.
In the years preceding the Six-Day War, we lived without these extra parts of the Land of Israel, and never gave a thought to the fact that we did not have them. But now it is not only a question of security, but a whole set of values based on the broad Jewish ethos that the state wishes to impart to the generations to come. Our heritage influences our worldview, and our worldview influences what we say and do and believe. Thus “Hebron now and forever”, or “Jerusalem, our eternal capital, will not be divided and will not be severed”, et al.
The sharp-edged climax of the gradual transition from the worldview that could be called “pre-Six-Day War” to the worldview that took form after that war was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The chief of staff of that war, the most prominent symbol of the “new Israeli”, was murdered by a Jew who acted in the name of the “Jew”. In fact, this was how the contemptible assassin saw it. For me, Yigal Amir is first and foremost “not a Jew”. If he understood the extent to which he is first and foremost “not a Jew”, he would probably commit suicide. The present threat to the life of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon derives from a similar context.
An embarrassing value
The Catch-22 of Jewishness versus Israeliness has drained the Israeli left of its Jewishness. There are Jewish thinkers on the left with profound insights and a strong desire to bring the extremes together. There is also support on the left for various initiatives to study Judaism, and sometimes you find citations from the Jewish sources in order to placate “the will of God”. But still, it was no accident that when Benjamin Netanyahu was overheard whispering into the ear of cabalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri that the left “has forgotten what it is to be Jewish”, he shook the foundations. In truth, the left has difficulty asking itself in what sense it is Jewish, and what obligations being Jewish entails.
Like their attitude to Jewish heritage, love of the homeland seems to embarrass the leftists, and they want to rid themselves of it. We all know that leftists do not love the country any less. They built it, fought over it and sang its songs. I know that leftists love just as much as rightists to sing the old Land of Israel songs written in the pioneer days, but the tendency to view the right's love for the Land of Israel as messianism and as a type of madness, came from the left. Believe me, the lakes of California are bluer, clearer and more beautiful than Lake Kinneret, but only the Kinneret can break my heart. At my age, which is beginning to be quite advanced, I am inclined to think that beauty is context-related. I have a deep love for the land, but it will not make me lose my head. Love of the land does not mean I have to justify dispossession, expulsion, humiliation and oppression. At the same time, not everyone who loves the Land of Israel is necessarily an Arab-hating fascist.
Moreover, and I will say this with the brusqueness it deserves, the left's attitude toward the settlers and the religious sector is one of irresponsible arrogance. The left has adopted a few religious figures that it considers enlightened, and all the rest are mezuzah-kissers, a cancer in the body of the nation, or idol worshippers. I would even dare to say that in the long history of the Jewish people, the left – and I am of course generalizing – has no respect for the depth and breadth of Judaism. With a dismissive wave of the hand, it rejects anything and everything related to Jewish thought. Statements made by some of my best friends on the left not only border on anti-Semitism, they above all reveal egregious ignorance.
Most people in the secular left have not the slightest clue about the dilemmas and the doubts of a believing Jew, and they tend to adopt the simplistic viewpoint that a believing Jew presumably has it easy, as everything has been resolved for him. I ask that religious Judaism not make light of the role played by secular Zionism in the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, and at the same time I apologize for the sins of the left, which considers “the religious” another nation, alien and strange, and I apologize for the sins of the left, which overlooks what “they” bring to the table. After all, without their adherence and devotion to their values, who or what would we be?
Love of the Jewish people
I wish to make this paradoxical claim: although I do not observe the religious commandments, I see myself first and foremost as a Jew; and I would not want religious Jews to disappear from the world in general, and from Israel in particular. As for the settlers, I would say that even though their way is not my way, it could be that their enterprise is the hard currency through which we will achieve peace. But I am not speaking as a merchant, and I am not speaking as a person who is constrained by the bonds of tactics or expediency, and therefore I am saying that we need one another, and that “Ahavat Israel” – love of the Jewish people – is required of all of us. The left should stop ignoring the ethical value that underlies this expression, a value that I hear expressed only by right-wingers and religious people.
Parallel to the process of “return of the Jew”, the old, unchanging definitions that once delineated “right” and “left” have been undermined in recent years. Until not long ago, it would have been hard to imagine people from the camp defined as right talking about a Palestinian state, or Ariel Sharon expressing himself in terms such as “the corrupting occupation”. At the same time, significant changes in the viewpoints of the “classical” Israeli left can be discerned, as well. Since I used to define myself without difficulty as a “left-winger”, I will continue my soul-searching in regard to my leftist worldview.
I began to come to my senses when I realized that the leftist camp has only a peace plan, but that there is no such thing on the Palestinian side. In 1988, when I composed the Mapam party's election platform, the former deputy commander of the Israel Air Force, Giora Forman, taught me an important – and for me, a surprising – lesson. He said: “If we, i.e., the leftist camp, claim that it is possible to defend the residents of Kfar Saba without territories, the burden of proof is on us. Otherwise, our entire thesis might fail, and we will begin the next war under appalling conditions”. Like Tolstoy, Giora Forman was right: War and Peace. That's how it is in the Middle East. If you have only a peace plan, you are irrelevant. I am not claiming that the left has to present its war plans, but it is impervious to the language of war, in which the Palestinian side is so deeply mired.
For years I maintained that when we would demonstrate openhandedness or make concessions, it would be possible to reach a solution. I failed to see that as a tribe seeking independence, the Palestinians were not showing the appropriate signs. When the Zionist settlement enterprise began, many mistakes were made, but overall it can be said that most of the time, pre-statehood Israel was busy building. Building at all costs and against all odds. On their side, the only effort you see is invested in destruction. Worse than that: education toward destruction. The suicide bomber is a hero, and the Saudis will help the family. God forbid we should suspect that they might agree to a reconciliation of some sort. The status of the refugees is perpetuated as an obstacle to any solution, and words of incitement are heard in the mosques.
It's not that I have no complaints against us: I most certainly do. But in conversation with my friends among the leaders of the left, when I ask: “Is there anyone to talk to there?”, the answer is always evasive. “In private conversations, yes, but openly – they're afraid”, and so on. Nevertheless, I am not among those who badmouth “Oslo”. On the contrary, I think that ‘‘Oslo'' is a significant milestone, and any future solution will relate to this plan. In a broad sense, this was the first time the Palestinians tried to accept us as a legitimate entity, and we tried to see their narrative. The Oslo plan had a great deal of audacity, which is crucial for changing the language that they and we had used until that time. I have tremendous respect for the architects of that process, and whether it succeeded or not, Oslo is still the solution.
The Arab is not Amalek
I remained a leftist in the sense, that I don't consider the Arabs an “interference” to fulfilling the Jewish or Zionist vision. I remain a Jewish leftist, because of the shame that I share when it comes to the attitude of the State of Israel toward Israeli Arabs. Above all, I consider this to be a “non-Jewish” attitude. I remain a leftist in the sense that I protest the fact that in our school curriculum the students do not study Arabic culture – not as a gesture, not as a tactic, and mainly for lack of good manners.
I am a Jewish leftist who considers the Jewish people a family. And thus, if in some way I accept the idea that we Jews are a “family”, as is written, and that we are all the sons of “our father” Abraham, and we still circumcise our sons and bring them into his covenant, and are still considering the meanings of the binding of Isaac, we must recognize the fact that Isaac and Ishmael are brothers, and that we and the Arabs are cousins. I remain a Jewish leftist because I believe that herein lies the solution, in the significance of this very story. I remain a leftist because my viewpoint does not stem from demographic calculations or from some default choice, but solely from the supreme ethical meaning of the story. I remain a leftist because I think that the book “Dancing Arabs” by Sayed Kashua must be included in the Israeli curriculum. I remain a leftist because I think that Jerusalem should be theirs, too, and that it should be a symbol of peace and coexistence.
What now? What will happen?
The Jew will not be what he was. The left is not what it was. The right will no longer be what it was. The Arab will not be what he was. Opposites enable us to have a genuine confrontation with ourselves, in real places. Rabbi Nahman was right; the main thing is to have no fear. Even though everyone is afraid; and more than one people are claiming possession of the land – firm possession – and the fabric of the land is being torn every day. Nor is everyone wrong. The trouble is that everyone is right – too right. That's the hardest thing. I have shocking news: even in Hamas they are not all idiots. They know we are clever, and they know we know how to nationalize land, sell it only to ourselves, and forget. They know that we do not understand many languages, either, and that blood is a language that is easy to translate. Blood is a folksong.
So what does the Jew say?
The playwright Nissim Aloni once said that every comedy sketch and poem and story, every novel, play and script, every picture, opera and artistic creation, has one interpretation. He was the opposite of a post-modernist. So am I. Although there is a lot to learn from post-modern criticism, which is exceptionally challenging, I believe that a poem has only one underlying interpretation. In the same way, I believe in creation and I believe in morality, and therefore – I am a Jew, after all- I believe in God, too. And in our story, apparently, there is no Isaac without Ishmael, and vice versa, and the solution will come only out of respect for the father, our Father Abraham. But we are not ready for this solution, and neither are they.
Even so, I want to conclude in a non-leftist manner, repeating something I heard from a friend: even at the End of Days, when all the nations come to Jerusalem and the wolves lie down with the sheep, even then, with the new arrangement, it is preferable not to be the sheep.
Doron Nesher is a film director and journalist