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.

14 Responses to “Cult of Israel, a Sonata”

  1. If it brings any solace, you are not alone in your ambivalence. So many of us who support Israel do so knowing its faults and shortcomings and wishing they were not so. We worry that the haredim will continue to damage the country with their unrelenting chilul ha’Shem and sinat chinam in the name of some form of religiosity frozen in the 18th century. Judaism was never designed to stagnate; just look at the legal codes and how they grew with each century.

    On the other hand, Israel is the soil in which our trees took root. For thousands (that’s more than the two since the common era began) of years, that little corner of the world has been our home. Even in exile, we yearned to return and we did…time and time again. This last time, it was the last place we could go, and we went home with every intention of finally being able to stay home.

    That is not to say I turn a blind eye to the recent history or the struggle between Israel and what should be Palestine. But I have to believe there is room for everyone in the neighborhood and that neighbors should act like neighbors. I don’t want to see Israel engaged in an ongoing struggle with the territories. But just as Arabs live in Israel and serve in the army and government, I don’t want to see Palestine begin its life by declaring itself to be legally Judenrein. You live in Germany; I don’t need to tell you how that worked out for them. Just as everyone is welcome in Israel, everyone should be welcome in Palestine. That’s what modern nations do.

    You are so lucky to carry an Israeli passport, warts and all. You come from a country that struggles with democracy, but it’s alive and well there. To be sure, Hebrew needs some new words, like “plurality” but it will happen, G-d willing. We can still be Jews, still be progressive, and still be thankful every day that Israel exists.

    And as for kosher? I wouldn’t eat a trefe hot dog if you paid me. Who knows what’s in it???????

    Hugs to you, Lironi.

  2. Eliyah says:

    Liron, I totally agree with your concern about the haredim having to much power here in Israel. It bothers me that they rule the rabbanut and the rabbanut decides for me what is kosher and who is jewish and where I will be buried. On the other hand, you have gotten yourself so far away from judaism that you seem not to be able appreciate the existence of a jewish state. You try to get over your connection to your home country. You live in germany, the country that made this country necessary. From a religious point of view, we are still in gallut until the third temple is erected. The israeli government has no intention to do this. This is why Israel is a home to all Jews, also those that believe that gallut is the right place to be. It is the place for all Jews because this is the only place in the world where you can count on your neighbor to stand up for you if someone discriminates you for being jewish.
    In Israel there is a two way misunderstanding: The religious can’t understand and/or hate the non religious and vice versa. The religious should learn to appreciate that mostly non religious built and build up this country, pay way more taxes, fight in the army and so on. The non religious should learn to appreciate the religious for making this place jewish and to help also non religious jews to hold on to their heritage. I am happy that this is a place, where you can find a kosher restaurant around every corner. I’m happy that religious jeshivas keep the knowledge and the love for jewish religion alive. And even the most unreligious people are looking for fellow jews in the spring to find a seat at a pessah seder, when they’re out of the country. Right?
    This country is in some ways more democratic than germany. The sheer size of germany makes democracy more difficult. To call this land a theocracy is just ignorant. I can imagine where it comes from but you draw wrong conclusions.
    About getting married civil: Why is this necessary? Marriage is a religious concept. It makes no sense in a secular world.
    To summarize: We need this country. We need to make it a better country and work on it’s drawbacks but we must also acknowledge that this country is better than all of the countries surrounding it. The palestinians are better off than everybody in Syria, Libya and other arab countries right now. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find peace with them, but also not punish ourselves or let ourselves get punished to much for what they have to go through. And yes, Israel is a jewish state.

  3. rabin kos says:

    wow you are such a precious neshama!

    your hareidi/theocratically stagnated/religious fundamentalist friend

  4. Liron says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, guys.

    Susan – I see ambivalence as a stage. I’m experiencing a slow (and sometimes painful) disconnect from Israel, and it’s often difficult for me to put my criticism towards Israel in a constructive manner, or anything which is beyond grinding teeth and wailing about injustices. I don’t think I’ll ever disconnect entirely, but these past few years have been a bit of a sobering experience. There’s a metaphor here with a umbilical cord which I want’ to make, but can’t find the words for.

    Eliya – There is an identity issue here which I am addressing: “what does being ethnically Jewish mean to me and my connection (or lack thereof) to Israel?”. This is a rather personal question, one which only I can answer. I don’t see myself as being significantly different than others on a basic level, my neighbors who I count on are those of my choosing. I know you are aware that as an atheist, I see no purpose (neither higher, nor mundane) in yeshivas or the study of Tora in general (other than from an anthropological perspective, of course). Even I no longer celebrate the holidays. Israel is not officially defined as a theocracy, but certainly has a plethora of theocratic elements in it’s system of government and it’s civil services. Marriage, divorce and funerals are all performed by the rabbinate, Tora is mandatory class in all primary and middle school levels and the religious diet is enforced in all public service kitchens.

    I agree with you that “marriage” is a religious concept and makes no sense in the secular world, however the situation on the ground is that in Israel, a couple must preform a religious ceremony (if they’re both of Jewish background) if they want to retain the government benefits. A civilian ceremony (it doesn’t have to be called “marriage”, you can call it “secular mattress swapping”, if you’d like) makes sure a secular couple retains all government benefits an otherwise religiously married couple does, such as tax benefits, hospital visitation rights, benefits towards adoption, etc.

    Israel is indeed a democracy – if a large enough percentage of the population wanted an entirely civil form of government, they would have elected one by now. This is largely my point – I’m not saying “it should be like this” or “it should be like that”. I’m saying “I wish it was otherwise, but Israelis want what they currently have”. This is where I come to the realization that Israel is probably not the country for me. When you say “we need this country”, speak for yourself and those who more strongly define themselves as Jews than I.

    I’m not sure why you claim that Palestinians are better off than the Syrians, or why they “have to go through” what they are – but this is another discussion I’ll be glad to argue with you about in September.

    Rabbi Kos – I get the impression you’re taking my opinions personally, this isn’t the way it was intended. I’m not being spiteful. I simply have different hopes and dreams for Israel than others do, as I clearly stated above.

  5. rabin kos says:

    not sure how did you get impression that i take it personal. i was simply admiring your personal struggle.
    of course you have different hopes and dreams – we all do – 3 Jews 5… hopes and dreams.

    oh and in the same time i was having a laugh at all the labeling.

  6. philipp says:

    The way you define democracy sounds like a “tyranny of the majority” to me, reminding me of the saying of Benjamin Franklyn, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

    Certain aspects of life should be beyond vote, such as civil marriage, as they are part of one’s basic liberties.

    Which reminds me of another saying, “God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: This is my country”, and even though I am an atheist, I agree to that ideal.

  7. Liron says:

    Rabbi Kos – Apologies, I misinterpreted your sarcasm :)

    phillip – you’re absolutely correct, however the Israeli system of legislation does not have checks in place in order to block majority voted-laws which go against civil liberties, such as the constitution in the US (which is how Proposition 8 in California was repealed, despite having a majority vote). The Israeli system is set up in such a way that laws are suggested and accepted/denied by a vote in the parliament. Opposition parties may then challenge the parliament’s decision in the high court, however Israel’s set of basic laws (which acts as a de-facto constitution) does not have a discrimination clause, a free-speech clause or an equality clause, making any effort to involve the judiciary system extremely difficult.

  8. Relek says:

    I think you are a bit too negative about how Europeans view Israel – at least most Germans certainly know that Jews are an Ethnic group. I admit I had no idea what “Kosher” means before I visited Israel the first time. But I agree that there is no feeling of unsecurity (even though for middle-European eyes all those guards with assualt rifles in ready position are a bit strange … ie around Ben Gurion). And considering that I found business cards of hookers strewn around my hotel evey night – this is not something you expect in your average Theocratie :-)
    And it is fascinating driving the highway from Tel Aviv via Ramallah to the Dead Sea – just a few kilometers but the country, and the people you see, change so much it is amazing.
    As to Orthodox life … well, I am not religious in any way so I rather smile if I read at the western wall that the highest Rabbi in Israel has decreed that the metal detector is ok to be used at Shabbat. Nevertheless, being there and seeing all those very traditionally dressed Jews deep in prayer, at a pleace that has shaped, one way or the other, European and World History for so long, evokes a very strong feeling very difficult to explain.

    All in all, a fascinating country. And next time I go there on a business trip I will take some day off to add them to the trip, to see Tel Aviv nighlife :-)

  9. I’ve been thinking about this blog and the responses, and I would add one last thing.

    The best part is that there _is_ an Israel and you have the right, if not the duty, to criticize that with which you disagree. Therein lies the unexpected beauty of it all.

    IMHO…and Shabbat shalom!

  10. [...] eine Meinung, sondern viele. Liron war so mutig, ihre Meinung aufzuschreiben. Bemerkenswert: »Cult of Israel, a Sonata« Aus Deutschland, aber in englischer [...]

  11. a Roman says:

    First question: hypothetically, do you support a grand European merger, i.e. a new modern empire including the states of mare nostrum, i.e. the EU plus the Union for the Mediterranean, i.e. of course the inclusion of Israel and the Palestinian Territories? Second question: considering the nationalist tendencies in Israel, would Jewish and goyish Israelis living in Israel welcome such a territorial-political move?

  12. Liron ist immer mutig, und ich glaube, sie ist eine sehr bemerkenswerte Fraulein.

  13. Eliyah says:

    The moment you will realize that you are a member of the “we” in “We need this country” it might be to late. You can see yourself as jewish or not, but there are others that don’t care about your own opinion about your own jewishness. (And I’m not talking about the rabbanut). People that hate jews for being jews (ever heard of them? We call them antisemites) will not make a difference between you and me. And because of these people we need our own state.

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