The black hole of Jewish identity
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
March 25, 2004
Ari Shavit, Israel’s finest interviewer, delivered another tour de force recently in an interview with Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel’s most renowned novelists. Shavit notes at the outset that the Israeli literary establishment has always taken an ambivalent attitude towards Appelfeld, despite his international fame. As Shavit describes the native of Czernowitz, who survived the War alone from the age of eight: "Not subversive, but not actually a Zionist, either. Not belonging, but not someone who doesn’t belong, either. A Jew."
Throughout the interview, Appelfeld makes clear that the ambivalent attitude of the Israeli establishment is more than justified, for he sees himself as far removed from that establishment. Though Appelfeld’s came from an assimilated home, he finds himself drawn again and again back to the Jewish story.
In his view, "the major sickness of Israeli society is . . . that so many have cut themselves off completely from their past. They have amputed their past." In amputating their past, however, they have "amputated the internal organs of the soul," leaving in their place a "black hole of identity."
That amputation of the past, is in Appelfeld’s view, not accidental, but something inherent in all modern movements. Zionism, in particular, waged an aggressive war "against the Diaspora and fought against Jewish riches." The price is being paid today in the "diminution of the Jewish soul."
Appelfeld goes further and accuses all modern Jewish movements of having "internalized the hatred of Jews" to which all European Jews were subjected on a constant basis. "Modern Jews don’t want to be Jews. They flee from being Jews. Everything that obliges them to remember that they are Jews makes them flinch, arouses disgust in them, is unaesthetic to them," Appelfeld tells Shavit. Just as the assimilated Jews of Germany, who felt themselves poised on the verge of acceptance by the wider German society, shuddered when Ostjuden began to appear in Germany, so do the modern Jews of Israel exhibit a terrible fear of Meah Shearim.
Anita Shapira, one of Israel’s leading historians of Zionism, has remarked on the same internalization of the anti-Semitic critique of Jews by many of the early Zionists. The early Zionists accepted the Enlightenment critique of Jewish degradation, and sought to escape that degradation by creating a "new Jew." In Shapira’s words, "The Jewish nationalist movement drew its ideas and measures of what is exalted and what is debased, what is honorable and abominable, admirable and loathsome, from the conceptual world of European social and national movements." As a result, Zionists and anti-Semites shared in common "images, stereotypes, and myths" about Jews.
Appelfeld goes further and charges that this internalized self-hatred explains much of stance of Israeli intelligentsia today, its lack of empathy for the Jews and their story. That lack of empathy is reflected in modern Israeli literature’s lack of interest in the "collective Jewish soul", and, more tellingly, in the intellectual elite’s view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. "It’s time we showed ourselves a little compassion, too. A little self-loving. To have mercy for the Arabs, yes: but to have a little mercy for the Jews, too. They too deserve a kind word. We’re allowed to love them too," says Appelfeld.
If the Zionist effort to cut off modern Israelis from the collective Jewish story left a black hole of identity, in Appelfeld’s terms, it is not one that modern Zionism has proven capable of filling. As Appelfeld puts it, "Zionism’s attempts to plant roots in the ground has disappeared."
Zionism’s failure to supplant Jewish identity with a powerful new identity is the subject of a fascinating new book by Noah Efron, an American-born professor at Bar Ilan Univeristy, Real Jews: Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel. Efron sets out to explain the obsession of secular Israelis with the chareidim.
That obsession frequently expresses itself as irrational hatred. Efron records a conversation with an Israeli professor, whom he describes as "the gentlest Israeli I know," in which she yells at him for his determination to return to Israel from a sabbatical year abroad, and assures him that his infant daughter will one day curse him from behind barbed wire camps now being prepared by chareidim for secular Jews.
Secular Israelis are made profoundly uncomfortable by chareidi Jews, Efron suggests, in part because their deeply held values are a reproof and challenge to "the mall-above-all values we take for granted." To counter that discomfort, the Israeli media has an insatiable thirst for stories of chareidi depravity, which are cited to prove that chareidim "are not only capable of debauchery, but gravitate towards it." Yet when chareidim act heroically, as in the case of a 15-year-old yeshiva student who drowned rescuing a mother and young daughter or a chareidi teenager who pulled seven siblings from a burning apartment, their religious identity is omitted.
The loss of pride in secular Israeli identity, Efron argues, has intensified hatred for the chareidim. "No one holds a heroic view of Israel any more, not abroad and not here," Efron observes." Former Meretz MK Naomi Chazan agrees: "There is no secular culture in Israel. . . . What is our secularism apart from hatred for religious coercion."
In a secular society, increasingly devoid of positive identity, hatred of chareidim, Efron concludes, is fast "becoming the defining element of Israeli identity." Chareidim are the measuring rod against which secular Israelis define themselves: "Now more than before, we need the ultra-Orthodox and now, more than before, we need to hate them." Only the chareidim can provide some living proof of Zionist achievement, of "how far we have evolved."
Hatred of chareidim, then, is one more expression of the lack of self-identity and self-loathing that Appelfeld identifies as typifying the modern Jew.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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