Entry 19: Israel, an Elegy

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This is Entry 19 in the Mondo Awards end-of-year Inspire-us contest. The writer has asked to use only one name.

I live in the US now, a country I threw my lot with well over 30 years ago. Though I lived in several towns and moved between two states, I feel strangely rooted – as an America – in a way true immigrants to this country know. But my story is not quite the same as many other immigrants. It is neither tinged with the nostalgia for the “old” country, nor guilt over those left behind. It certainly does not have the bitterness of the refugee, reluctantly departing. Instead, my own experience is one of double estrangement – not just of a place that once was and no longer is, but of my own memories of it, which somehow cannot be reconciled with either the person or events of the present. It’s as if memories of both self and place were somehow corrupted by time, twisted in way that I cannot recognize as personally mine. The loss of personal history is perhaps the steepest price one pays for moving beyond an ideology, one so deeply engrained, that to cast it aside meant disconnecting, both literally and emotionally, significant parts of one’s own past.

I had a different home once, back in Israel, the country I immigrated from, on a one-way ticket, never intending to return, much as immigrants do and did the world over. But there is this one unique aspect that when you emigrate away from Israel, it is called Yerida – a “descent”. You – as a once native of the land of Israel – are expected to never really cut the ties that bind, and out of guilt, continue to offer life-long excuses for why it was that you left, and, more importantly, just why have you not returned. In my case, the reasons I had for leaving at the time were probably simple enough; I say “probably”, because such reasons as they were, have long ago been meshed with newer, more sophisticated rationales that evolved as opinions and viewpoints changed and deepened over the years. Not too surprising that, given that reasons we may have had in our twenties to do anything often seem to matter little decades later, if only because the narratives of what we thought we were change as we accumulate years and settle into our adult version of view of ourselves. So yes, we all play games with our own history, individually and collectively. It’s just that typical immigrants from Israel tend to do so more consciously because it is expected of them – by way of offering perpetual amends – to themselves, mostly. I do know that long ago, I checked what guilt there was into an empty locker somewhere in the emotional basement, right along with much nostalgia and who knows what else. Nowadays I am fond of saying that for me, moving to the US was a form of “aliyah”, an ascent to the Second Zion, the better one. It sounds like a good reason – in retrospect.

The place I grew up in was in a nice little town strung along high rocks overlooking a goodly expanse of beach on the Mediterranean shore. The sand was white, the sea blue, the beach goers deeply tanned, at least in the summer. Life was as carefree as it can be for those who have little by way of material goods, and much by way of certainty. An aptitude for swimming, sports, ball games and easy tanning helps to keep one near the top rung of that particular ladder. The town was little then; it no longer is, of course. No town on a beach anywhere can remain quaint and small decades later. Not if it is popular with tourists. Still, when I last came for a visit, in 2008, that town felt somehow as foreign as a shopping district in Hong Kong, yet strangely familiar, like a beach town transplanted from some nowhere town just outside Miami, Florida. Hotels sprung up all along the beach, where small, nondescript friendly bed and breakfasts, and modest villas used to be. The multi-storied hotels cast long dark shadows, breaking the horizon into a jumble of concrete and glass blocks, the unmistakable mark of a supposedly advanced civilization. The once rickety lifeguard tower of my stow-away memory now looks like an inhospitable, fortified structure, the lifeguards aloof in their towers, securely settled behind trendy dark sunglasses, as they scan the tanning multitudes and the sea horizons beyond. Those who once were approachable, the symbols of ready-access beach culture, have now morphed into authority figures, skimpy bathing suits notwithstanding. Many more breakers now cut deep into the smooth lines of the sea, carving up the continuity of water in a way I find disconcerting, almost violent. Restaurants, coffee shops and changing stalls dot the beach, and loungers, once the province of the “older”, are now ubiquitous for all, young and old alike. So the pretty wild beaches gotten all built up – as often is the fate of small town beaches everywhere developers have the ruling say, and sensibility cowers before greed. The tourists have changed as well – they seem to be mostly from France now, rather than Scandinavia. Where have all the Swedes gone, I kept asking? To Dubrovnik? The locals would suggest and shrug. Only main street, small beach town, Israel – a familiar fixture in my imagination, has been mercifully preserved, even as shops changed hands, displays updated, decaying facades painted over. Quaint, unremarkable main street shops, relics of smaller less presumptive times, projecting a measure of that old world warmth I seem to remember – or think I do. Still I wonder – why does it all feel somehow so artificial? Wherefrom the cold shivers in such a warm climate? Is it just that over-active imagination and tricks played by a shifting memory combine to take on the look and feel of a software patch, one that needs periodic updating to keep up with newer histories?

What did undoubtedly change, big time, is people’s hearts. The intervening years seem to have hardened them, and then some; young and old alike. I don’t think I am imagining that. A defensiveness has crept into encounters with the visiting stranger, an attitude that I seem to tease out better than most, just by being – and speaking. Conversations do not seem to flow easily; even if allowances are made for the resentment directed at the once-resident who chose to pitch their home in a supposedly more comfortable elsewhere, or even the sense of suspicion that greets my somewhat aggressive affinity to English. That suspicion, at least from those who knew me once, is understandable enough. Most ex-pat Israelis – all I know, in fact, instantly revert to Hebrew when meeting compatriots, exclusively so when they visit the old country. That is probably plenty common for the vast majority of immigrants from anywhere. But I have come to prefer English, accented though it is, perhaps because a newly heightened political state of being and the diversity of thoughts that need expressing were all cultivated outside Israel, in another language. I cannot relate the tenor of my current life in Hebrew, which for me, at least, does not appear to have either the breadth of vocabulary or the emotional nuance I need to do justice to the substance being communicated – be it on matters large or small. It’s also all too easy to be angry in Hebrew, almost inevitable, in my case, so perhaps better not. Yet, even with those who do not recognize me as a once native speaker of Hebrew, and are oblivious to the accent, conversations seem to have become increasingly strained, especially when American places, names or events come up, such as the approaching election. Quite a few offer, unbid and unsolicited, an off-handed derisive comment of Obama – a code of sorts, no doubt designed to elicit the tourist/visitor to stake a position — for or against? Friend or foe? Once I let on to being a supporter of Obama, the sense of disapproval would become palatable. The code has been recognized. A potential foe. Should I, at any point, admit to having grown up in Israel, the look of suspicion would harden further, becoming set in concrete. Nothing spells otherness more than abandoning the native tongue, especially when accompanied by supporting a “black guy”, a “kushi” for president. Why – isn’t he a Muslim, they say? The ultimate betrayal – confirmed by being in the Obama “camp” – leads to immediate circling of the wagons. Not surprising that my visits tended to stray to the confrontational all too readily. I know, based on all I hear and read, that since 2008, opinions have only hardened further among the majority of Israel’s population. It’s really a good thing I did not try to visit since the attack on Gaza and the publication of Goldstone’s report or I’d be in real trouble.

Sure, distance is bound to develop between those who left a place and those who stayed. It’s just that in my case, I can’t help but notice that the increasing distance from Israel’s present was accompanied by a growing emotional distance from my own past in it. Sometimes, in a way that seems to dismiss that past, even though it was, by and large, a positively eventful one. It’s not even that memories are fading, as they are bound to. It’s that something seems to deliberately keep them at arm’s length. The Israel I lived as a child-person took place in more innocent times, at least for those of us who grew well encased in the impregnable bubble of the Israeli/Zionist narrative. We were, all through childhood and young adulthood, hermetically sealed within it. The times before and just after ’67 were times occupation in all its inglorious ills, has not yet reached its tentacles into every section of society, slowly strangling its soul, corroding its view of its collective self as basically good; a process that’s been steadily and tragically unfolding for all who care to see, for many decades now. Many of us within and on the sidelines of the conflict sense that a seemingly victorious, powerful country, or at least its ruling ideology, is set up for a precipitous fall. The fall itself is inevitable. The shape it takes eventually unknowable at the present. Somewhere between tragic and mundane, but it does matter where.

Still, once upon a time, Israel was a place where we, the children of refugees from Europe’s collapse, could grow idealistic and oblivious to society’s ills, as we were blissfully unaware of the concerns – and lives – of others outside our group. It was possible then to remain ignorant of what was happening in much of the world outside, and indeed, of the deep fault lines within the country, or even inside any one town. The immediately visible local inequities could be easily cast aside – none of us were politically awake on any level that mattered. We had no access to TV and little use for newspapers, getting almost all our information from newsreels and radio. The one intermittent, the other well censored for our consumption. Precious little chance for any alternative narratives to seep through the impregnable boundaries of our cocoon. Life in a small town in Israel in the later 50’s and into the mid 70’s was a perfect set of bubbles within bubbles, set up like nestled Russian dolls. We lived in complete isolation from groups other than our own. Seculars away from orthodox, or even observant; Ashkenazi away from Mizrahi, Kibbutznicks away from urbanites or Moshavnicks, Polish away from Hungarians and everyone away from Arabs. I had not a single friend who was not from my own, carefully constructed milieu. Nothing to challenge the crafted histories we were handed – of Zionism and founding myths and the pre-ordained role of the Jews in the world. We were persecuted because we were both different and smarter; the Palestinian inhabitants of the land, primitive farmers for the most part, just upped and left one day, because their attachment to the land was less than their fear. Our war triumphs were the natural product of righteousness, made manifest. We knew as little about conflicting tales, as we knew little of the struggles of our own parents. For the most part, none I knew cared to learn more. None asked questions. Not even I, a designated rebel who asked questions about everything else. Ignorance is bliss, and cliques and clans helped keep it exactly so. I cannot now think of a more cliquish society than Israel was then and, to all appearance still is. Maybe cliques are necessary to sustain a tribal society, though of course, we thought of ourselves as cosmopolitans with advanced consciousness, taking great pride in supposed personal individuality that was in glaring contradiction to the conformity all around and within us.

I now believe that the insularity I experienced growing up in Israel has, over time, led to a caste-like system, rife with matter-of-fact exclusion of others, weighted down by perpetual friction between the haves, the have-a-bit-mores and the have-hardly-anythings. Over time, the bubbles of enforced innocence in which we grew, shielded from each other and from reality, seem to have hardened their outer shells, turning into a series of interweaving gated communities. The gates serve to separate and exclude, rather than protect. As idealism receded, the gated community bubbles started to shrink in on themselves even as they continued to diverge from each other ever faster. And so citizen was separated from citizen, even as the boundaries of the self-contained bubbles expanded to touch, eventually coalescing to grow outer skins, much toughened to better keep the entire Hebrew community away from the world at large. The better to prevent it from interference from a more universal sense of morality? Who knows? What I do know is that such deep internal separation of society from itself, its internal break-up into ever smaller fragments, even as the external shell surrounding them all became harder to penetrate, is the mark of a doomed collective. Somewhere along the line, the Israeli body-politic became more like a cult, its members brain-washed into conformity, its young immersed in a toxic brew that’s bound to tear the country apart — eventually. Ironic it is, isn’t it, for the country of Israel, once so promising, to have become a boiling rather than a melting pot? Worse yet, the culture of rejection of the other appears to be endemic to such bubble dynamic, corrupting, over time even the best of the very ‘Hebrew’ culture that liberal Zionists such as Bernard Avishai extol so much. That much heralded culture seems to have ossified over time, having extracted the Yiddish and the Mizrahi and the Arab, turning its back on those quaint European customs of civility. A bit of a sad culture it is now, encased in invisible cement, with the best appreciated only by elites. Most of Israel seem to partake in something of a diminished ‘culture’, mostly consisting of popular crass elements – mostly imported from the US — the worst of it, I dare say, recast in Hebrew and spiced with a good measure of exceptionalism, parochialism, rejectionism and sheer arrogance thrown in for a good measure. Repackaged as “evidence” of a vibrant cultural life.

As for the future, during that last visit I couldn’t help but note the pervading sense of fatalism that seems to have taken hold of most Israelis — especially among the secular (I don’t know the orthodox so well). It’s a “live today for tomorrow we die” outlook which bolsters still more inertia. Why try a difficult compromise if things can be left well enough alone? I call this the “manyana’ attitude — a form of extreme laziness, where will itself — political, spiritual, communal — has been sapped to the bone. The statement one hears most often in Israel – a common refrain to almost every complaint or criticism — from inside or outside — is: “Ani kvar ayef mizeh” — freely translated as “I’m too tired for this’ which naturally leads to “ me tzarich et zeh” — the hell with it all. That’s the mentality quagmire where all issues — and proposed solutions — go to die a not so quick and not so painless death. It’s a sink or swim attitude with sink being the likely result. Be it the environment, the water scarcity, the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Americans, the government, taxes, traffic, crime, Russians, Ethiopians, ultra-orthodox, civic responsibility, fire fighting equipment, soccer, sports, what not.

Especially – and most notably – Obama. They are all so very “tired” of Obama. We in the US, may have serious issues with Obama’s approach to the ME, to be sure. But in Israel, they are just “tired of him”, just as they are “tired of it all”. Is that the mark of a forward looking society? Or is it the sign of something decaying, deep underground, the rumble of a house coming apart as the seams give way, bubbles expanding beyond their natural elastic limits, eventually to pop, or just leak air and slowly shrink.

Seeing it in this light gives me little hope for any “peace” process. The ground is hardly fertile for the changing consciousness real peace would require. I do not – and cannot share in the hopes expressed by many others, seeing what I see, be it two state, one state, any state, really. Perhaps when I can reconnect with my own memories of the place, reattach them, so to speak to the self of the present, I’ll be able to find the hope for the future. All I know is that in the meantime, the reaching out between Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Arab, is a necessary ingredient to bring about, some day, a rapproachment of sorts between deeply conflicting narratives. That is the only antidote I know for toxicity. I come to this site often to see the few positive and spirited signs out there that some day my own history can return from exile, and memories be played out in color again.

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