At the Divide

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May 1, 2002
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By Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi

I have always regarded Sh’ma as a unique fo-rum where the private and the public intersect and am therefore taking the liberty of beginning my remarks on a very personal note. Since we first met as graduate students at the Cambridge intersection between the Vietnamese and the Six Day Wars, Steve Cohen and I have walked down many roads, stood at many barricades, and reached many crossroads. We have invoked the first-person plural to designate our personal attachments and our collective loyalties. So it is with great sadness that I find in his essay a plurality of selves that is not large enough to include me.

When he refers to “our collective consciousness and our way of thinking and talking about ourselves,” Steve Cohen, who was born in Montreal and spent a few years living in Jerusalem and many more years working tirelessly for peace in the Middle East, is leaving me – who was born and remain American and have lived most of my adult life in Jerusalem – out. Not because I am a self-declared “Israeli” and he a self-declared “American.” But because, rather than abandoning the scheme of center and periphery altogether, and looking at Israeli and American Jewish cultures as manifestations of a reconfigured global civilization – each realizing different but equally authentic reflexes, and each requiring maximum vigilance to protect threatened democratic and humanitarian sensibilities – he seems to prefer to reverse periphery and center, now raising America over Israel as the place of privilege.

“The collective narrative of American Jews” may seem to Steve as plain as the nose on the collective Jewish face. To me, however, it is as varied as noses on faces. America, like Israel, presented 20th-century Jews with a set of invitations and opportunities. In both places history conspired with predilection to actualize certain potentialities and suppress others. No Jews anywhere in the world can afford to congratulate themselves (ourselves) on being part of – and protected by – a more benign narrative. If we have a common cause, it should be the struggle against fanaticism, against exclusive claims to a purchase on “truth” as on “territory.” Particularly because the escalation of terrorism has hijacked more ordinary political and cultural conflicts, threatening to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious war between Jews and Moslems, it is necessary for Israeli and American Jews to find a common ground that does not give in to oversimplification. Precisely because the “Al Aqsa Intifada” is becoming more a tribal war, uglier and bloodier by the hour, it becomes harder for even liberal-minded American Jews to do anything but express their “solidarity” with other Jews under siege. We must do better.

American Jews should, at least, know better. As a benign place to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, the “American century” is where the “lachrymose” Jews learned to play, where they – we – discovered that there is a profound but hardly explored Jewish mandate for self-invention and infinitely expandable borders of identity. I don’t know that Jews have much to “teach” Americans, but I do believe there is a profound harmony between the deepest impulses of American life and the healthiest impulses of Jewish life. America as audience for or shadow of the great dramas of Jewish history “unfolding somewhere else,” in Steve’s words, has indeed claimed a stage of its own, and it is the stage for Jewish comedy, for celebration, inclusiveness, and the (ever-deferred) promise of a “happy end.”

Israel, on the other hand, is not a very pretty place these days. Apocalyptic despair, those post-Holocaust suicidal and homicidal reflexes that were so successfully sublimated into the eros of state-building in the 1950s and ’60s, have resurfaced with a vengeance over the past eighteen months. Suicide bombings and random shootings have reduced Israeli Jews to a state of terror; bulldozing of homes by the Israeli army, destruction of the already-fragile economic and political infrastructure, and indiscriminate shooting in the territories have reduced Palestinians to desperate and vengeful attitudes and acts. Incompetent leadership on both sides has suffocated the voices of moderation and political wisdom.

Of course on the Israeli side, this scenario is more than a belated reaction to the toxins of Auschwitz. It is a largely understandable response to the violence fueled by Palestinian desperation, the legacy of Arab belligerence, the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, and the weaponry of apocalypse. But it is also something home-grown. And American Jews are not only not immune by virtue of being safe in another narrative; they have in many ways become accomplices or co-authors.

There is an overwhelming number of Americans on the xenophobic, racist side of the political and social map in Israel: settlers oblivious to the most basic rights of the people whose land we have expropriated; religious fanatics claiming exclusive propriety over religious truth and sacred sites; people for whom Jefferson and Emerson are as foreign as Aphrodite and Aristotle were to Judah Maccabee. Many of the Jews who have come here from America in the past few decades have brought their own brand of self-ghettoization that stretches from day schools in New York to Efrata in the West Bank. The most benign expression of this self-ghettoization is the widespread movement for “hafrada” or unilateral “separation” from the Palestinians. The most pernicious expression is the settlements with their barbed wire, their dogs, their unabashed calls for ethnic cleansing in the territories, and their draining of the moral and physical resources of what used to be the Israeli “defense” forces.

I know that Steve would not object to most of the above analysis. My quibble with him is not meant to refute the main point of his essay, which is that there are deep connections between September 28, 2000, and September 11, 2001, between the outbreak of the “Al Aqsa Intifada” in Jerusalem and the attack on the icons of commercial and military culture in America, and that American Jews have an authentic role to play in defining those connections. Rather, my quibble has to do with levels of responsibility that come not only from the comfort of our being God-fearing in the presence of a demonic enemy, but from recognizing our own responsibility as Jews in helping to create the disastrous situation in the Middle East. It is a moral and not merely a syntactic glitch that makes me feel left out of Steve’s plurality of selves.

No, it is not the center and the periphery that have changed places in our time, but what we might call the life-force and the death-force. Some of us have dedicated our adult lives to fighting in both places for justice and equality within and beyond our own community; others have created ghettos that foster a sense of chosenness and inimical relations with our neighbors. In Israel the stakes are simply higher and the consequences more immediate. All Jews who have been touched by Abraham Lincoln and Abraham Joshua Heschel, by Emanuel Levinas and Ahad Ha-am, do not need the al-Qaeda to help us define who “we” are.

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Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, a founder along with Stephen P. Cohen of the Boston Jewish student newspaper Genesis II, is Professor of Comparative Jewish Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has written widely on representations of the Holocaust in American, European, and Israeli literature and has recently published a book on Jerusalem as the magnet of Jewish culture: Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. She has lived in Israel for nearly forty years and was active in one of the first dialogue groups between Israelis and Palestinians.

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