| Review of: Arthur Neslen, Occupied Minds
by Ludwig Watzal, (www.watzal.com), 17.09.2006
Arthur Neslen, Occupied Minds. A Journey through the Israeli Psyche.
Pluto, London-Ann Arbor 2006, 291 pp, 25.
Theodor Herzl, "father of modern Zionism" and author of the book "Der Judenstaat" wanted Israel to become "a nation like others". From the establishment of a Jewish state he expected the solution of the rampant anti-Semitism in Europe. This idea was a false conclusion. "To Herzl, becoming 'a nation like others' involved the dissolution of traditional Jewish identities on a nationalist cauldron." It is the notion of equality in other nations and peoples which the so-called friends of Israel do not want to materialise. They argue that Israel is something special and different from all the other nations. In 1948, Zionism was still a heresy to the majority of the worldīs religious Jews, because it rejected holy scriptures that prophesied the stateīs founding only after the Messiahīs arrival.
The founding-fathers and founding-mother (Golda Meir) of Israel wanted to create a nation of "new Jews" which was never to be led to the "slaughter-house" again. Therefore, Israel had to be strong. A more than understandable attitude in view of the Nazi horrors which came upon the Jewish people in Europe. In the course of time this strength turned to a synomym for 40 years of occupation and oppression. The journalist Arthur Neslen, who worked for Al Jazeera, rightly asked how it could happen that the former "victims" turned into "perpetrators", but still see themselves as "victims". |
The author grew up in Great Britain, in a family which clinged to the traditions of the Bund, a secular and anti-Zionist Jewish Socialist party that once had been the mainstream of East European Jewish life. According to Neslen, it was still possible in the 1970s and 1980s to stick to this views in some Jewish communities. Today, Israel has come to dominate diaspora existence and everybody has to define themselves and their brands of thinking. The interviews the author conducted are about Israeli Jewish identity. The impression he got was "more complex and sad". "The Zionist 'counter-identity' is something I still find ugly, but Israelis themselves are rarely monsters - and never two-dimensional." Neslenīs book "is an exploration of the world through the Israeli mindīs eye".
The Israeli society is dominated by Ashkenazim who ethnically are European Jews. They intended to build a modern, secular European-style Jewish national identity in which the Mizrahim, who are Eastern or Oriental Jews, were only numbers. The Ashkenazim hold the most important centres of political and economic power. By contrast, almost half of the population consists of Mizrahim who had lived well-integrated in their countries of origin. The majority of them see themselves as Arab Jews. "In Iraq, for example, Jewish social and religious institutions flourished and Jews served as government ministers, as Communist party leaders and they practically invented the countryīs financial and monetary system in 1932." But after political actions by the Israeli Mossad they left for Israel, a decision which many regretted. Before the creation of Israel, 80 000 Jews lived in Iraq. Ezra Levy, the last Rabbi of Baghdadīs last synagogue, Mer Taweig, came to Israel in 2003 and was totally disappointed: "The Muslims were more than a family to me. I donīt know why I left them to come here. Itīs better to have good friends than Jewish friends." Ezra saw himself as an "Iraqi Jew, not a Jewish Iraqi". Upon arrival in Israel, the same Baghdad Jews, who had led Iraqīs cultural renaissance, were sprayed with DDT and sent to tin shack transit camps, reports Neslen. The discrimination against the Mizrahim and the immigrants from Ethiopia by the ruling Ashkenasi elite has not yet been adequately discussed in Israel.
Until June 1967, large sectors of the religious establishment resisted the secular Zionist concept. The military success in the June War was interpreted by many religious Jews as a sign that the Messiah had returned. The religious believed that "Israelīs destiny was to become 'a light unto the nations' rather than a nation like any other". Their Jewish identity is rooted in "bītochen", which means "faith", and not in "bitachon", which means "security". Both concepts may bring together 80 per cent of Israel that is Jewish, but it also tears them apart, the author claims.
In ten chapters, immigrants and Sabras, Israelis born in the country, speak about their feelings, longings, sorrows, and disappointments. Since the establishment of Israel the country has followed a "melting pot" strategy, initially called "Kur Hitukh" (melting reactor) for newly arrived Diaspora Jews. Their old identities would be dissolved and fused into a nation rising from the ashes of the Holocaust. For the Mizrahim the concept has brought about only moderate success like Rabbi Ezra Levy mentioned. But there are other immigrants who are exited about living in Israel like David Weizman, a 37-year-old French PR executive, who made the Aliyah after anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2003. For Weizmann, "Israel is a miracle", and he wants to be "part of it". He believes in the countryīs values. "Israel is the solution for Jewish security and I wanted to raise my three kids here." By comparison, Olga und Dimitri are totally disappionted. They do not feel like Israelis but as Russians. "Russia is still my homeland, my culture, my language. We brought Russia to Israel." Both want to emigrate to Canada, because the Israelis are biased towards Russians. "I think the government realised that we had the potential to change this society. They were afraid and so they tried to stop us, by denying us opportunities. īZionism` is an empty phrase. Itīs like a soup balloon." Most of the Russian immigrants are heavyly baised towards Palestinians. They "only understand the language of force and power. I believe the army should show them no mercy. They should take radical measures. Itīs like Chechnya. We donīt have a negotiating partner. They should use all means to fight the terror."
Other underdogs like the Mizrahi Jew Rafi Shubeli do not want to leave Israel. He is on the board of the Keshet Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow, a civil rights group. He considers himself a non-Zionist, because "Zionism is racism directed at me, and the Arab world". The situation of the Jews in Yemen "had become impossible because of Zionists here". "We were victims of Zionism." On the question whether the Mizrahim have suffered a īcultural holocaust` Shabuli answers: "Yes, we are suffering it still. I see kids poisoned in schools and I can do nothing. My nephew told me īI donīt like studying Arabic because Arabs are bad people`."
Completely different from all the others in this row is Hanan Porat, the most famous religious Zionist in Israel. He was a former leader of the far-right National Religious Party. Porat studied together with Moshe Levinger and Menachem Froman at Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kookīs Merkaz Ha Rav yeshiva. They founded the Gush Emunim (block of the faithful) settlerīs movement. His views are extreme and bizarre: "Undoubtedly, itīs not just Sharon, itīs the general attitude in the western world that you should understand and compromise with terror. Arab terror is a whole philosophy which wants to control the world. In that context, Sharonīs plan is a criminal act because it cuts people off from their land for political - not security - reasons. Thatīs why I objected to the peace-time transfer of Arabs." The evacuation of Israelis from the Gaza strip was "immoral, unJewish and violates human rights". In contrast to Porat, Menachem Froman was a close friend of Yassir Arafat's. Despite his support for the Palestinians he provided a strange definition of the occupation: "The Palestinans are under Israelīs control for the same reason that the tigers in London Zoo are not free."
Arthur Neslen also shows that there is a movement beyond Zion. Some Israelis are searching for a new identity for their country. "The diaspora clock, which Zionism tried to turn back to year zero, is ticking again." Whether or not Yaron Peīer represents other Israelis except himself may be doubtful. From Greek discent, he lives as a musician in Ras-as-Satan in the Sinai peninsula; he has a very interesting personality. For him, God does not belong to the people. He "is not Jewish". One loses oneīs richness, if "you talk about the Jewish God because itīs also the Muslim God and the Christian God. Through the one you can see the many." "In a certain way I feel more secure outside Israel. I think a big desaster is coming which will take Israel to the bottom of the bottom, a place where the father will finally understand that the one child he lost was also lost on the other side, and the one child that is left is very precious." An colorful mosaic of Israeli identity and a fascinating book on Israelīs multiplicity.
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