Israel has lived with its historical, political, and geographical contradictions since the (re)birth of the state, and it has always managed to overcome them while growing at an unbelievable, if at times disorderly, pace. “Contradictions” may therefore not be the appropriate term with which to grasp the country. The words “synergies’ and, above all, “ironies” seem more fitting, and nowhere more so than in trying to chart Israel’s current geographical shift. The country born as the child of Zionism, an Eastern European ethnic national movement, sought to return to its Middle Eastern roots, but in a region that hardly welcomed its (re)appearance. Israel thus found itself straddling uneasily the Asian-European divide, torn between its official geographical belonging in Asia and its emotional belonging in Europe.
Soccer incarnated this ambiguity perfectly. Since Israel’s neighbors literally did not want to play ball together, the bureaucrats of international football, following geography to the letter, placed Israel inside the Asian Football Confederation in 1954 — that is, with countries such as Korea, Japan, and China. The Israeli people were not enchanted with this decision, and they greeted with joy the country’s entry, two decades later, into what they considered to be its natural football milieu — Europe. In that milieu, their hearts could throb for soccer’s superstars and for countries with which they had been associated (for better or worse) in the past. After all, what did Israel have in common with what were then considered to be far weaker and utterly inscrutable Asian teams and their exotic countries? Israel thus returned to its European “home,” where it still plays today, as the only Asian country without even a piece of land on the European continent (unlike Turkey).
Israel still sits where the GPS of the world placed it. But it has moved into its own orbit, in a cyberspace world of its own, where impressive high-tech sectors have turned the country into a www.israel.com. Ironically, in doing so, it is embracing the Asian identity that it had shunned in the past. It has moved away — both mentally and in terms of its technological orientations — from its former Western and European references, not in terms of its ebullient civil society, but in terms of its state interests. Asia has become its new horizon, and Israel is building an ever more important technological, scientific, and military presence in countries such as India, China, South Korea, and Japan. Singapore remains its long-standing ally in the region. As for Russia, it now increasingly defines itself as “Asian” rather than European. Its symbolic and real clout in Israel, moreover, is not negligible, given the vast number of immigrants to Israel. These émigrés remain loyal to the language and often retain opaque business ties with an increasingly autocratic regime while spreading their ethno-nationalistic understanding of political identity inside Israel’s own national debates.
Israel is opening up to Asia in terms of export, but also in far deeper cultural and political terms. As the old Zionist socialist identities begin to fade, as the country becomes increasingly ethno-nationalistic and religious in orientation, Israel is bound to feel closer to its Asian counterparts, who have always defined themselves in exclusively ethnic terms, while harboring problematic relations with their ethnic or religious national minorities. Even more important, Israel is coming closer to Asia in espousing a neutral notion of scientific progress, which no longer subscribes to the optimistic Western notion that science will bring about the fulfillment of humanistic, social, and universal values. Pragmatism and egocentrism in a new realistic/pessimistic guise have triumphed over the old idealism.
In religious terms, Israelis (secular and liberal as well as some Orthodox) have begun looking to Buddhism for a sense of “meaning” in the performance of daily religious rituals as well as in the search for a new inner serenity — perhaps because the activist notion of tikkun olam may be on the wane in a world that does not seem likely to be made whole again — at least not in this Middle Eastern corner. For many years now, Asia and its Eastern spirituality have been an enticement to Israel’s youth after their army service.
Surprisingly, Israel may also be moving toward Asia in how it reads the past and time in general. History, associated with the long diasporic period in the Greco-Roman and Christian worlds, was always an alien muse for a people whose first responsibility was to zachor, memory. The Holocaust is fast becoming a collective memory divorced from an ever less relevant European history. And Torah and Talmud are becoming the new anchors in a country whose ultra-Orthodox population continues to grow exponentially. This situation can cohabit perfectly with a new postmodern “memory-chip-Israel” in which talmudic time and cyberspace time can fuse seamlessly. The ultra-Orthodox know that when computers are rebooted after Shabbat, the Asian stock market is awake and kicking.
The final reason for this geographical shift toward Asia is geopolitical. The Jewish people, and Israel today as one of its incarnations, have always been trendsetters and in the avant-garde of major historical transformations. Jews left Baghdad via Italy for northwestern Europe after Charlemagne’s conquest, and in so doing developed the grand Askenazic world along the Rhine. Similarly, Jews moved north to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom after having been persecuted in Spain and before being integrated into France. For the greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Germany, France, and America constituted the most promising horizon, until America supplanted them all, but might America also be losing its luster? Ask the Lubavitchers who are busy opening centers in Beijing as catalysts of new Jewish life in Asia and beyond.
With its shift to Asia, could Israel be telling us something about our own Western decline and the relative decline of our universal democratic models based on the equality of all citizens? One thing is certain: No Asian country will be raising concerns of human rights — faulting Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, of its Arab citizens, or of its occupation of the West Bank. So why should Israel heed the criticisms of a fatigued West when a stronger, more optimistic, and growing Asia beckons?
Irony of ironies: By staying put in its ancestral land, technically in Asia, Israel may have made the most important move in its collective existence.email print