This originally appeared in Ha’aretz on February 24th 2015. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.644075
I do wish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would stop telling me where my home is.
In the aftermath of the Paris tragedy it felt a little bit distasteful and opportunistic. But one was willing to be somewhat forgiving.
In the aftermath of the Copenhagen shootings it feels a lot more intolerable; it seems that Netanyahu really does feel it his place to tell the Jews of Europe how they should live their lives.
What I find particularly bothersome is how Netanyahu presumes to know what being Jewish means to me.
As a Diaspora Jew, I have been forced to do battle with a complex and fragmented sense of identity, and to try to understand what roles, both positive and negative, Judaism might play in that mix. And it is an ongoing struggle, particularly at a moment like this.
While a certain approach to Jewish education in the Diaspora may have contributed to a sense that we are all simply failed Israelis, “armchair Zionists” who chickened out of aliyah, many of us have come to realize that that simply isn’t the case.
At some point this summer, driving on a motorway outside Tel Aviv, the thought crystallized in my mind: I am not an Israeli.
I may love the country and its people, I may stand in awe at some of its achievements, I may be bowled over by the everyday courage and heroism some of its citizens regularly display. I am extremely fond of the time that I spent in the country, and grateful for what I learnt there, and for the positive effect it had on my sense of Jewishness. I have family and close friends who live there, and as someone deeply connected to the culture of the Bible and Talmud it carries a historical resonance which seems unlikely to be re-created elsewhere.
For these and many other reasons I want what is best for Israel, and endeavor to contribute in that direction when possible.
But this is not the sum total of my Jewishness, and it is certainly not the sum total of my humanity.
A rich Diaspora tradition
As a Diaspora Jew I am part of a tradition going back some 2,600 years to the first Babylonian exile. Judaism at that moment ceased to be a national concern and became instead a universal and transportable system of values, a dynamic and evolving way of living.
According to the Bible, a large proportion of Jews did not return to Israel when Cyrus encouraged them to in 539 BCE, nor did they follow Ezra and Nechemia when they “returned” decades later.
In his recent study of the Book of Esther, my good friend Professor Aaron Koller argues that the text may have been written as a statement of counter-ideology to the nationalist and ethnocentric vision of Judaism being preached by Ezra. Mordechai, the hero in the story, represents a different ideal, that of the acculturated Jew, accepted by Persian society, enriched by his surrounding culture, strengthened by his heritage, and through his leverage in the empire able to exert broad influence across the global politic.
Judaism was no longer about Temples or Jerusalem, but about truth and tolerance, about navigating the thicket of identity troubles while coming to accept that one might never quite feel at home in the world.
It is in this sense an extremely modern story, and speaks to an increasing suspicion in today’s world of the idea of “home” as some safe and final resting place, where we will comfortably fit in without jarring incongruence. In a post-colonial world the universal condition is one of exile – the possibility of “home” is a fantasy.
We do what we can to come to terms with ourselves, to make peace with our inner unrest, and we may gradually come to feel comfortable in one place or another. But the idea that there is a singular geographic region, or even a community, which gives us a final sense of home, is misguided and dangerous.
Sense of victimhood
French President Francois Hollande said of the recent desecration of Jewish graves in eastern France that it was “the expression of an idea that corrodes our Republic.” His response was not to tell Jews that they don’t belong, but to make it clear that they do, that they are an integral part of the French nation.
Netanyahu’s response, by contrast, reduces Jewishness to a sense of victimhood and persecution, to never forgetting the numerous traumas of Jewish history. But while anti-Semitism may not have disappeared completely, and may indeed never do so, it is certainly no longer the dominant way of thinking in Europe.
More than this, I strongly doubt that focusing on tragedy is the healthiest way for us to think about Jewish identity. The reason we re-visit trauma in psychoanalysis is to try to free ourselves from the terror inscribed in the buried memories. We thus seek to liberate our creative humanity from trauma’s grasp, not to heighten the fear and deepen the enslavement.
Living in London I feel extremely grateful to be part of a tolerant, liberal and multi-cultural metropolis. These are words which are often mocked, which are equated with weakness and a fear of commitment. But they might actually represent the zenith of human achievement, an awareness that our problems do not lie in our religion, ethnicity or skin color, nor in those of the stranger in our midst.
Resisting the call and calculus of the apocalypse is not a sign of feeble mindedness but a willingness to live in the present, with all of the inevitable uncertainty and unease that it brings. Danger can never be wholly banished; to believe that it can is to abandon reality and enter a delusional world of fantasy.
It is not inconceivable that I might – for positive reasons – one day choose to live in Israel. But for as long as I am living in London and raising my family here, contributing to the Jewish and broader community, I will choose to view this as very much my home. And I will kindly ask Netanyahu to stop undermining and delegitimizing this choice with his negative and fearful rhetoric.
If you’re interested in learning more about the book of Esther, I’m teaching about it on Sunday 1st March at 8pm at jw3 in a class called ‘Purim for Atheists‘.