What Israel means to me

By David Shasha*, April 30, 2010

Over the years there has been a constant spate of books containing the testimonials of American Jews proclaiming their teary-eyed and deeply emotional love of the state of Israel. These books are part of the larger program of Israeli Hasbarah, the form of advocacy that seeks to assert the total primacy of Zionism as the centerpiece of Jewish life the world over.

In order to establish what Israel means to me as a Jew, the first thing I need to do is figure out what it means to other Jews and how that relates to the reality of the Jewish past.

American Jews have been conducting a romantic affair with an Israel whose contours are outlined in two recent movies: In Adam Sandler’s comedy You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, we find that the American Jewish love affair with Israel is based on an almost erotic identification with the perception of Zionism and Israel as a form of revenge fantasy. Sandler’s Zohan is a figure whose sexual potency rests in his skill as a Jewish superhero, a man who kills Arabs to defend the Jewish people. Similarly, Tarantino’s Nazi-era fantasy is a phantasmagoria of violence in the name of Jewish self-doubt and an inferiority complex.

These fantasies bring to mind the idealist aspects of the original Zionist program and its rejection of traditional Jewish identity. The Israeli scholar Oz Almog has examined this rejectionism in his book The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew:

The Zionists greatly admired the physical beauty of the native, the “Jewish Gentile” who had been anointed king of the new Israel, and they contrasted him with the ostensible ugliness of the Diaspora Jew […]. Writers of this era […] described the native as a robust youth with “gentile” characteristics, a kind of Jewish muzhik, or Russian peasant — strapping, self-confident, and strong-spirited, as opposed to the stereotypical Diaspora Jew, who was pale, servile, and cowardly.

Especially prominent in descriptions of the native are his masculine vitality and health and his alienation from Judaism. The criteria are European-Christian ones, which have their source in ancient Greece and Rome […].

The paradox inherent in Zionism is the way in which it creates the “New Jew” by rejecting what it perceives to be the “Old Jew.” In both cases, the understanding of what it means to be Jewish is based on a completely Eurocentric model; the decrepit Diaspora Jew is seen in terms of the Shtetl Jew who is isolated from the general world, while the ideal Israeli Jew — typified by the Zohan and by the vengeful Jews of the Tarantino fantasy world — is seen as an uber-Gentile.

From a Sephardic perspective this transformation of Jewish identity has very real consequences. As Almog argues later in the book:

The Oriental immigrants, like all other immigrants, were perceived by the Israeli establishment as in need of a cure for the Diaspora disease from which they suffered, a cure that would turn them into Sabras. But in the case of the Oriental immigrants, the usual differences between the natives and the immigrants were supplemented by the cultural differences between East and West. The Yishuv leadership, and the Sabras after them, treated the Oriental immigrants with a mixture of affection, compassion, condescension, and arrogance — the products of the combined ethoses of ingathering the exiles and rejecting the Diaspora. The common wisdom regarding the acclimatizing of Oriental Jewish youth to their new country was that they should discard the Oriental culture, which the establishment considered backward, and ascend to a higher cultural level by adopting the characteristics of the Sabra and the more advanced Western culture.

For the traditional Jew, not just for Sephardim, the state of Israel represents a profound rejection of a millennia-old Jewish identity. The psychological impact of all this is formulated in the irrational American Jewish identification with Israel as the existential center of all Jewish life. Having rejected the traditions of the past, based on the religious values of Torah and Halakhah, contemporary Jews have recreated a religious culture based on the rituals and demands of the Jewish state and Zionism.

In typical Ashkenazi fashion, this new Zionist religion is authoritarian and draconian in its demand for conformity.

Two current examples — just in time for last week’s commemoration of Israeli Independence Day — are the Anat Kamm affair and the ongoing demonization of South African judge Richard Goldstone. Kamm has been charged with leaking confidential military documents to the press, while Goldstone continues to be vilified for the report that he prepared for the United Nations on the 2009 Gaza incursion. Kamm is currently under house arrest in Israel while Goldstone has found himself pressured from attending his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah.

These two stories speak to the demands of the new Judaism which has replaced the Torah of Moses with the new Torah of Zionism. Had Kamm and Goldstone eaten a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur, they would not find themselves in the trouble they are now in. Rather than judging Jewish behavior in traditional religious terms, the new Zionist imperative seeks to control human behavior and speech by setting out a series of protocols regarding the way in which we see and speak about Israel. This regime is controlled internally by the Jewish community, which determines who is “one of us” and who is not.

The actions of Jews like Anat Kamm and Richard Goldstone speak to the Jewish tradition of self-examination and the idea of justice in a wider sense. The Talmudic tradition teaches that Jews must not allow other Jews to act in ways that violate standards of morality. This tradition extends to the Jewish court as well. Far from exonerating the court as infallible, the Talmudic tradition discussed the ways in which justice could be violated due to judicial error or malice.

But today Israel represents a reversal of the old moral codes. In its ethos is found a cruelty and meanness that is reflected in the way Jews conduct their discourse. Destroying individual Jews who are critical of Israel is seen as a positive commandment of the new Judaism. At the epicenter of this ideology is a pathological paranoia regarding anti-Semitism which often marks the Arab as the primordial enemy of the Jew.

Castigating Arab Jews for their native culture has led to a profound crisis in Sephardic civilization. Sephardim have been transformed by Ashkenazi Zionism into Arab-haters and as witnesses to the barbarity of Arabs and their culture. This has led the Sephardim to reject their traditional past and the wisdom of their Sages, many of whom were immersed in the Arab culture.

Gradually, Zionism has eroded the traditional Jewish past and replaced it with a new identity construct that mimics the authoritarian aspects of rabbinic culture even as it rejects its valuational content. Ironically, the secularization of Jewish tradition has led to a renewal of fundamentalist Orthodoxy in both Zionist and non-Zionist variations.

The Zionist religious Orthodoxy is well-described by Karen Armstrong in her classic book The Battle for God:

The extreme religious Zionists and members of Gush Emunim were also ready for a fight. They were rebels, mounting what they saw as a revolution against secular nationalism on the one hand, and Orthodoxy on the other. Life had changed drastically for the Jews. They felt there was no need for Jews to be constricted by traditions belonging to the Diaspora, because the messianic age had begun.

The irony here is that the standard articulations of Jewish tradition in its liturgy and religious calendar remain in force. A new messianic age has yet to be formally articulated in the liturgy. Anti-traditionalism is a paradox that lies behind the Settlement movement and allows it to become a part of the larger project of an anti-Jewish Zionism.

In the end, those who are on the receiving end of the Israeli whip understand all too well the pressures that have been placed on Jews to conform: Israel is the new God, the new revelation from on High, and all those who reject its commandments are to be excommunicated from the community, marked as Jewish heretics who deny the new order.

For Sephardim, what Israel means at present is not only the ongoing destruction of their culture and heritage and the near-complete triumph of Ashkenazi Judaism, but the requirement that Sephardim bear witness to their own cultural impotence and corruption.

What Israel means to me at the moment is the fact of Jews persecuting other Jews for speaking out and affirming the traditions of the past, of being “Old Jews” rather than “New Jews.”

* David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. This article previously appeared at The Huffington Post and is republished here with the author’s permission.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

5 thoughts on “What Israel means to me

  1. Eugnid

    It was in the Ashkenazi-Sephardic relationship that the Ashkenazi “Zionazi” (a term many Israelis use on each other) character adoption was best demonstrated. Indeed, Israel’s “BLACK PANTHERS” were in reaction to that—it had nothing to do with Palestinians. As Golda Meier once said, “you can’t be Jewish if you’re not Yiddish.” Of course, self contradictory hasbara to cover-up the “Zionazi” racist absurdities that define that slanderous appellation Israelis threw at each other with such facility and frequency have always come forth. But the fact is that shame for the past dooms the future to a lie. I accept my heritage for what it is, decrying the parts that shame me as such as praising the parts that make me proud. But fantasy leads to crime when special status and privilege is attributed to heritage. The problem with Ashkenazis is their East Euro, not Israeli, past. Indeed, when we meet, it is that past the suddenly makes us “landsmen” and gets me invited into their homes to meet the family. As for Gush Emunim, they as a group declared that they’ll move anywhere else in Israel where they’ll be provided EQUIVALENT housing. The crazies that hold out should be met and talked to face to face. You wouldn’t be able to distinguish them from the suicide-bombers except that the Gush Emunim young thugs are all talk, burdening Israelis with their defense. All in all, the idea of a Jewish state in which less than 30% of Jews want to live and which must restrict its educated from leaving for jobs abroad after finishing school bodes badly for the Zionist future; yet competition between Israel and its Arab neighbors for their skills would greatly benefit the entire region. Here the Arabs too must seize the opportunity and learn forgiveness for the sake of the region’s future. All this has caused a lot of rethinking of the Jewish state—because that’s what Jews genetically can’t help doing, THINK—though many Israelis fear demographic swamping. This too is avoidable because if there’s one thing Jews do extremely well it is teaching and if there’s one thing Arabs do extremely well it is appreciate the teachers who taught them with due respect. Unfortunately, as in America today, Israel’s warrior class is seeking its economic status maintained to post-9/11 levels. These are not the scientists and engineers who operate the strategic weapons but the all-muscle officers corps which has finally broken out of its secrecy pimple to write extensively (in PowerPoint) about Clausewitz applied COIN as a http://www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=263154badge of genius. I offer their grand opus du jour as samples for consideration:
    This has come to be criticized as plagiarized:
    There are Ashenazis and there are Safardics of all types, as there are aping American officers of all types suddenly discovering that SpecialOps supposedly makes them unique intellectuals; we should not generalize as some are this and some are that. But basically the most narcissistic are giving the impression that the rest are just like them. In Israel and Palestine going there reminds you that people are like flowers different colors and shape at infinity and there’s hope that they’ll learn to live in symbiosis.

  2. delia ruhe

    This article says it all. What has astonished me of late is, of course, not the decibels of the debate — the vigor of Jewish argument is legendary — but rather, the nastiness, the viciousness, the downright cruelty. It leaves me speechless.

  3. Renfro

    Zionism is a ‘cult’.
    Therefore you cannot, and it is a waste of time to, discuss it or try to reason with it.
    Jacqueline Rose in her book “The Question of Zion” explains why some Jews are drawn to zionism. They are like any individuals that would be attracted to any cult because of their mental and emotional maladjustment’s. A feeling of unworthiness and desire to be aligned with something special or larger and more powerful than themselves, a sense of being right where everyone else is wrong, a feeling of being persecuted for differentness, wanting to be with like minded others for acceptance and protection and so their own feelings can be reinforced and their actions justified, the cult group replaces their feelings of inferiority or being misunderstood or not being given individual recognition they feel they are due in their lives to one of being special because of the cult cause.
    Cults can have any kind of ’cause’, religion and etc..

    Pretty much all the hallmarks the FBI list in their definition of a cult.

    Picture zionist Israel with it’s walled in ghetto as similar to the Jim Jones outpost, separated from the rest of the world due their self induced specialness and persecution delusions and there you have it.

  4. Ian Arbuckle

    So what is new, some Zionist politician schmucks hoodwink most of the Jewish people by circulating lies and half truths? It’s as old as the hills. So, this goes down especially easily these days with the naïf idealists coming to Israel recently from Russia and the ex-Soviet countries or America where they are conditioned to be “sold” on the whole baggage of nationalist or consumer propaganda.

    The history of Zionism is one of mass psychology manipulation and has always been a conspiracy to delude. As such it is just a question of “to what ends” and in who’s interest? Are we really talking about an Israel that is “protecting” its citizens and the Jewish people, have they ever been that, or an Israel that is maintaining a conflict to benefit a small elite of mostly violent sociopathic gangsters that would feel just as at home as part of the Third Reich’s SS, or a CIA dirty tricks department?

    It has always been the case that the Jews have been duped by Zionism while they are told that they are more special than the Goy, and so they are kept constantly facing the “enemy” rather than facing the demons of their own “fantasy myth”.

  5. delia ruhe

    There it is again, that echo of the Reich … Is being the Chosen People all that different from being a member of the Aryan race? Did Hitler take his cue from Zionism?

Comments are closed.