Cult of Israel, a Sonata
I get asked rather often if I keep kosher (huh?!?) and if bombs go off often in Tel Aviv (no). I can’t blame those asking for their ignorance: Europeans don’t understand (nor care) that Jews are an ethnic group and are unaware that there have only been a few incidents of suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, the last of which was years ago. I’d be silly to think that any of these points are on the international agenda.
And yet – I always seem to get upset and take it far more personally than I should, when people ask me stupid questions about Israel. I often wonder if it feels similar to the way someone from Rome would, if asked if he/she voted for the current Emperor.
The reason for this uneasy feeling is that I have a love/hate relationship with Israel which runs rather deep. Truth be told – I don’t feel particularly bonded to the country. It is not my “home” and I reject the concept that a piece of land is the “natural” place for any ethnic group (or for me). That said, growing up there, speaking the language natively, serving in the IDF and knowing every back street in Herzliya have contributed to a nostalgic fondness I have towards the country, which makes it hurt so much more when observing it from the outside.
Israelis don’t realize how their country is perceived from the other side of it’s borders. They have a slight understanding of how the Arab world sees them, but the “cult of Israel” is so strong, that Israelis don’t realize the effect the occupation of the Palestinian territories really has on both the Palestinians and the case for Israel abroad. Israelis are shielded from both the realities of life in the occupied territories and public perception of Israel’s actions.
Israel is technically a western-style democracy and it’s citizens would like to think their society is Europe-forward, but it is also somewhat of a theocracy – and as such, people marry younger and have no civil option for marriage. Israelis have more children than in secular countries, vote for nationalist politicians and have a painfully low minimum wage (4.5eu an hour for adults, brutto). The religious diet (Kosher) is kept by many and enforced in public institutions. There is no organized public transportation on the weekend. There are some beaches which separate men and women, religious people receive government benefits when studying religion as opposed to working and are not required to serve in the military like the rest of the population. I can argue these as civil injustices, but the truth of the matter is that Israelis have consistently voted for the governments which make this legislation. It’s painful to admit, but it really is the will of the people.
And yet, when you walk down the streets of Tel Aviv, you see none of this. The sun shines, signs of religious orthodoxy are almost nowhere to be found, same-sex couples walk hand-in-hand down the street, night and day blur. Tel Aviv, the White City, seems secular, liberal and glorious. Like a technicolor gradient fading to black, the further away you venture from the center of the country, the more obvious conservatism becomes. Think I can walk down the street holding hands with another woman in Netanya? Where are those non-kosher supermarkets in Ra’anana? Stickers on Jerusalem bus stations ask me to dress modestly. The orthodox population in Israel is relatively small, but the will to upkeep a status quo is large and blankets the majority of the population.
Unfortunately, being so isolated from the international community and a growing wave of nationalism inside the country has prevented Israelis from realizing how small their country is, how insignificant their politics are in the grander scheme of things and thus, are having a hard time getting over themselves. Who knows, Maybe this is what this blog post is really about – me, getting over it.
I also get asked more often than not if I have plans to return to Israel. The answer is no. I initially moved to Germany will the full intention that it’d be a temporary arrangement, but life comes at you faster than you can make plans, which is why I learned to not make any. The web world is severely underdeveloped in Israel (See “What’s Unique about Israeli Web Design” in this article), as an ambitious designer I could choose to return to Israel and make a positive impact on the field, but paying taxes to support a theocratic state seems like a pretty big price to pay. Israelis like to talk about the “Brain Drain“, but I have run into my fair share of Israelis here in Europe, who prefer not to return due to the country’s turn towards nationalism and religious fundamentalism.
So where does that leave me? Do I preach to the choir here in Europe or do I return to Israel and join the opposition? It all boils down to how much I’m willing to sacrifice fighting this uphill battle in pursuit of the cause. Do I feel uncomfortable saying that I don’t have enough of a personal stake in it to fight the battle from the battleground? Maybe. But that’s the member of the Cult of Israel in me, forcing the discomfort. Making me afraid to say that I just don’t care enough about this particular battleground in the scheme of the global fight against religious fundamentalism and nationalism.
I recommend you visit Israel. It is a beautiful country, full of nature, wildlife, history, wonder and warmth. The Tel Aviv nightlife is fantastic and Israelis are a cheery, helpful bunch. You’ll love the museums, the falafel, the sound of Matkot on the beach as you close your eyes and let the sun warm your face. Maybe I’ll see you around on my next visit.