Zionism / What are we doing here?

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The Accidental Zionist: What a Priest, a Pornographer and a Wrestler Named Chainsaw Taught Me about being Jewish, Saving the World and Why Israel Matters to Both,
by Ian Pear New Song Publishers, 296 pages, $19.48

Can I Bring My Own Gun?: An Israeli Soldier’s Story, by Seth Freedman Five Leaves, 279 pages, 8.99 pounds sterling (paperback)Moving to Israel from a Western country is not an easy step. Yet Ian Pear comforts us by recalling that, as difficult as it may seem, Abraham had it worse. The first patriarch of the People of Israel was commanded to come here. Then, Pear writes, “the minute he arrives in Israel, there is a famine and he is not able to support himself financially. Shortly after that, he must go to war to protect his family. And on top of all that, he is commanded by God to sacrifice his son.” But Abraham was ideologically driven, and persevered.

Pear’s “The Accidental Zionist” is one of two recent books by 21st-century immigrants, this time from the English-speaking world, that also reflect an intense ideological drive. Both authors were political activists in their home countries, and both moved to Israel driven by Zionist zeal and are now living in Jerusalem. Both have something to say about Israel’s future.

But here the similarities end. Pear, an Orthodox rabbi from the United States who leads the synagogue Shir Hadash in the capital, found inspiration here. Seth Freedman, a British journalist-blogger and the author of “Can I Bring My Own Gun?” found disillusionment. Pear is a self-described “Universal Zionist,” and contends that Israel is the crucial vehicle through which Jews can fulfill their destiny of saving the world. Freedman did his patriotic duty by serving in Israel?s army, only to drift away from Zionism and its goal of a Jewish state. Pear is jovial and humorous; Freedman comes off as cynical and embittered.

Read in tandem, the two books bring into sharp relief the modern ethical crisis that plagues the democratic Zionist vision for Israel: If Israel is supposed to be a vehicle to produce global good (as in Pear’s account), why is it responsible for massive suffering (as documented by Freedman)? If Jewish religious tradition provides explicit instruction to improve the world (Pear’s recurring theme), why are we doing painfully little to get our own house in order (as Freedman pleads)?

The bulk of Pear’s book deals with his interpretation of the meaning of Judaism, which will provide little new to those steeped in a good Jewish education but can serve as an easily read and entertaining introduction for those new to the subject. “Judaism,” Pear explains, “is fundamentally the story of a Message and its Messenger.” The message is to spread ethical monotheism – to “convince the world that God exists” and that “God’s existence places moral obligations upon all of humanity.” Pear stresses that “fulfilling these obligations must become the number one priority of every person and nation in existence.” He argues that neither God nor ethics can exist without one another, and that the primary goal of the mitzvot, the commandments, is to create ethical human beings who do good in the world: fight poverty and injustice, end suffering, etc. The messenger, of course, is the Jew.

Nobel Prize winners

Pear makes many rather tenuous propositions. He underplays, for example, the viability and success of Jewish life in the Diaspora by considering the long list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners and wondering what heights they could have reached had they lived on the same block in Jerusalem. Yet they may not have attained their Nobel achievements at all had they not interacted with their non-Jewish brethren in the Diaspora or had they had to make do with the Israeli government’s paltry investment in scientific research. In fact, many examples Pear brings to support his thesis, amusing as they may be, aren?t completely convincing.

Yet it seems petty to bicker with someone exhibiting such good intentions. Pear’s narrative is unceasingly optimistic and humanistic, delivered entertainingly and replete with quotes from comedians and multiple personal anecdotes. Further, his audience is clearly potential new immigrants from Western countries, such as participants in free Birthright Israel trips to the country or in informational meetings with the aliyah advocacy organization Nefesh B’Nefesh. Pear tells this audience that Jews who voluntarily move to Israel are “uniquely qualified to … ensure that Israel develops into the country it needs to become – which in turn, of course, enables the world to develop into the world it needs to become.” He continues with his signature optimism: “Your experience in the Diaspora – your intimate knowledge of the workings of a successful democracy, your total immersion in modernity, your excellent understanding of what it takes to build an open, tolerant and diverse society, your commitment to universalism – all this is exactly what Israel needs.”

Broken heart

Seth Freedman responded to such a call, but had his heart broken in Israel: “I passionately loved my religion and just as fervently defend its teachings in terms of how to treat our fellow human beings. That Zionism had come along, hijacked Jewish doctrines, and twisted them to form part of an all-out supremacist movement was not something I could swallow if I want to stay loyal to the true values of Judaism.”

Freedman’s book reflects his ongoing identity crisis. When he immigrated from London in 2004, he was a Zionist, but he found, through his military service and then by reporting from the West Bank, that this ideology could not coexist with his (left-wing) beliefs. “The longer I wrote for the Guardian,” he writes, “the more I realized how out of kilter my views on Israel were in comparison with the left-wing politics I held when it came to conflicts and crises in any other area of the world.”

Freedman’s principal theme is that the occupation is simultaneously corrupting Israeli society and oppressing the Palestinians. In his work, he speaks to Palestinians of all political stripes, and they convey a consistent message of “suffering and humiliation, rage and fury that resulted from the subjugation under which the residents lived.” Even Palestinians who have committed their lives to improving their lot, building their society and other peaceful endeavors meet face to face with settler violence, army roadblocks and an Israeli administrative noose that makes normal life impossible. Israel is responsible for the occupation and for the Palestinian reaction to it, Freedman writes: “The unspoken truth that every Israeli knew, uncomfortable as it may have been to admit, was that occupation bred terror.”

In the course of his journalistic duties, Freedman also meets with settlers – extremists and moderates alike. All of them leave him angry. Of the extremists among them, he writes, “No one has done more to endanger me and my people than the antagonistic settlers who’ve spent so long winding up the real natives of the West Bank.” His words about the moderates are gentler (“Their hearts were in the right place, for the most part – it was just their houses that weren’t”). Above all, he condemns successive Israeli governments, which he holds culpable for the whole imbroglio and especially for allowing the “vicious sadism of the settlers … to flourish unimpeded and uncontrolled.”

The Israeli left doesn’t escape rebuke either. In its apathy and laziness, Freedman suggests, it has ceded the political stage to the settlers, who create facts on the ground unobstructed. “It was precisely because they were too busy with their cappuccinos and tuna salads,” writes Freedman, “that they weren’t ever made to address what was going on [on] their own doorstep.”

I happen to agree with Freedman – as do the Obama administration, the European Union, the moderate Arab states and a large portion of the Israeli populace – that West Bank settlements are a major obstacle to a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and I cringe at the fanaticism of the “hilltop youth” and the hard core of the settlement movement. However, Freedman’s delivery is problematic, and likely to infuriate readers who don’t already agree with him. His book is strong on description and polemics, but weak on analysis and contextualization. The reader will not emerge with a greater understanding of why Israel exists, how it came to occupy the West Bank or how the occupation evolved into the horrendous scene it has become. Freedman says his goal was “to put colour into a region that was too often viewed in only black and white,” but his one-dimensional anti-settler narrative succeeds in doing just the opposite.

This flaw may be due to the blog-style writing at which the author is adept. Freedman’s main venue is the Guardian blog “Comment is Free.” Writing for the blog, he says, became “the biggest catalyst in speeding up the process of revising my own political position … No sooner was I thrust under the fierce spotlight shone by the Guardian’s army of readers, than I was forced to swiftly address my own prejudices, preconceptions and predispositions in a public fashion.”

But as the Guardian’s blog title implies, talk in the blogosphere is cheap. No one’s words are edited, and facts are checked only when commenters hound each other, Googling keywords and posting links intended to prove their points. Journalistic standards are non-existent, so bloggers don’t have to attempt any measure of balanced reporting. The most persuasive, persistent or witty contributors are the ones who win debates. While there is something refreshingly democratic about blogs, they tend to emit more heat than light. Indeed, Freedman admits he writes to “provoke a reaction.” Readers in search of a more thoughtful analysis ought to look elsewhere.

The saving grace of “Can I Bring My Own Gun?” is that it keeps the spotlight on a subject most Israelis would rather forget. Palestinian suffering in the West Bank and Gaza is the biggest blind spot of contemporary Israeli society, which has become comfortably complacent, especially now that that the Palestinians are behind the security wall and ostensibly governed by their own elected leaders.

In “The Accidental Zionist,” Pear writes: “Human nature allows us to accept that which should be unacceptable – and in time come to believe the unacceptable is actually the inevitable. Observance of halacha [Jewish law] is meant to prevent this ‘nature’ from overcoming our ethical sensibilities. It is meant to insure that we never accept the unacceptable.” Indeed, Freedman, as flawed as his delivery might be, is helping us make sure that we do not allow ourselves to continue accepting the unacceptable.

Pear is unfortunately silent on the occupation. He hasn’t a word to say about the Greater Israel movement, the occupation or the unavoidable wrongs that have arisen from them. These are the very issues that confound his vision, the spot where injustices occur regularly in the name of the religion and the political ideology that he views as representing the mantle of justice itself.

Both authors have dispensed with subtlety in lieu of conviction at two ends of the Zionist spectrum. But perhaps on the cusp where the two convictions meet – realization of our past and current sins, coupled with a commitment to reignite our desire to live an ethical life in Israel – we can breathe new life into a democratic, Zionist vision for the country.

About Daniel Orenstein

Daniel Orenstein, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies and Ameinu representative on the Jewish National Fund USA Board of Trustees.
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