Monday, February 13, 2006

Paradise when?

Yesterday I saw the movie Paradise Now, a Palestinian film which is the first to be nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category. The movie is not as great as the reviews and the nominations make it out to be, but it is an interesting approach to a thorny subject. Its point of view reminded me of Munich, the Spielberg film he calls his "prayer for peace". Both films question the moral validity and ultimately the effectiveness of answering violence with violence.
After watching the movie with friends who are most dear to me, we had a bitter argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don't really want to go into the who said what. My dear readers will have to trust me that what started as an attempt to explain the historical context, soon developed into a heated, personal discussion. I must confess I got very defensive and took it personally. I said things that were certainly not valid arguments to defend any posture, right or wrong. And for that I'm deeply sorry. But what kept me awake all night was that I couldn't shake my deep frustration, and even deeper sense of failure at trying to make my non-Jewish friends understand why their being hostile to Israel triggered such a deeply personal reaction in me.
Yesterday it was said that the establishment of the State of Israel was unjust. It was unjust to the Arabs who lived in the region and had nothing to do with the Holocaust, which left hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees, many of whom had just survived hell on Earth. Yesterday I heard things like "Jews go about like they're always victims", or "why didn't they go back to their countries after the Holocaust?", or "Israel has killed as many Arabs as there were Jewish deaths in the Holocaust", which is as unacceptable as saying that Hugo Chavez is like Hitler. Once the argument got out of hand, we were saying stupid things on both sides.
So I, who pride myself in being a cosmopolitan who chooses to share my life not only with Jews but with the world at large, who has always opposed the Occupation on the principle that historically the Jews are the last people on Earth who should oppress others, tried to explain that the reason for picking that arid sliver of land between the desert and the ocean was not an arbitrary whim but a historical, geographical attachment to the place where Jews originated. This argument was found to be unconvincing. Last night, as I reflected at home, I found myself thinking of the possibility that perhaps having a Jewish state was indeed unfair, that perhaps it was a mistake.
I always joke, half seriously, that instead they should have established the Jewish state in a remote, deserted island in the Pacific, surrounded only by the ocean, away from everybody, so we'd stop annoying the hell out of the world. The Jewish people dreamed of having their own country, of returning to their roots, because the logic was that in their own state persecution and violence would finally come to an end. This was what Zionism was about. Unfortunately, the ideal of a free nation living in peace with its neighbors has not come to pass yet for reasons in which both Israel and its enemies bear responsibility. Me, I'm convinced that Jews and Arabs can live side by side in peace. It seems impossible, but having lived in Jerusalem, I think it is possible. Hopefully sooner rather than later, both sides will tire of the useless bloodshed and agree to accept each other and let each other live.
It occurred to me that Jews have only had their own state in two occasions in their millenial history. The first one was when the Hebrew tribes consolidated themselves into a nation after their exodus from Egypt and in time Israel became a kingdom. It wasn't peaceful either. There were always wars, invasions, expulsions. The second is right now. In between the destruction of the second temple by the Romans and 1948, give or take 2000 years, Jews lived, meek and fearful, in foreign lands, always depending on the whims of the rulers, on the discriminatory laws that kept them from fully participating in society, always expecting relentless violence, abuse and persecution, punctuated here and there by periods of relative stability and peace. They protected themselves from harm by stubbornly sticking to each other and their ancient books. Is this what bothers people? It would have been easier to just drop it, no? Convert to Christianity, blend into the population and forget all the pain. Many did. It could be very easy for me to do the same. I don't need to convert to anything in this day and age where religion is irrelevant. I could pretend the state of Israel and being Jewish mean nothing to me, I could deny my origins, who could care less? That would certainly save me lots of grief, yet I can't do that. I am a self-described atheist, a thoroughly non-religious, even anti-religious person, and yet I am a Jew and will be to the end of my days. And it is hard for me to explain to my non-Jewish friends how this feels and what it means to me.
My family was very fortunate that most of it left Europe way before the rise of Hitler. But I have always considered what it must have taken for generations of my ancestors to get me to be born Jewish, free and into peace in sunny, welcoming Mexico. It must have been a heroic, monumental effort. If only to honor their memory, I cannot pretend it's nothing to me.
Jewishness is not just a religion. I'm the perfect case in point. Jewishness is not a nationality either. I lived in Israel for four years, gave it a shot, and did not feel quite at home. Luckily, today we live in a world where Jews can live uneventful lives in other places, places that don't require endless sacrifice and lives of strife and conflict. But if the day ever comes when the tide turns, I can tell you, we're all going to go running back to Israel to save our ass. Because that's what it's there for.
I'm not one of those Jews who loves Israel no matter what. But because I believe it is just and necessary that it exist, I hold it accountable for its mistakes. It pains me that the untenable reality of the Occupation undermines everything that Jewish history and ethics stand for. But sometimes I feel that no matter how much one tries to assuage the righteous indignation against Israel, it's never enough. I know I'm not responsible for the Occupation or the intifada or the suicide bombers, but the fact that Israel is generally regarded as the villain of the story pains me. I take it personal.
Some people think Jews insist on being different as a way to rub in some sense of superiority or victimhood; that "chosen people" slogan has cost us much misunderstanding. I don't feel like I'm a victim and I don't feel I'm superior either. I just feel different because I know I am. Being Jewish is in my past, in my history, in my own wanderings, in my dreams at night. I take it personal.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:29 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.