Trending Topics:

Exile and the prophetic: Hiding in plain sight

on 8 Comments

As a wannabe psychologist, I’m not trying to out Noam Shpancer on his Israeli background.  His novel, The Good Psychologist, is all the rage.  By all accounts it’s a good read. 

I’m not so much into novels these days, though.  Reality is way too interesting.  Making it up isn’t half as interesting as history in the making, at least when the story behind the story is told.

Like the reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s office is a drop-off site for millions of dollars – in cash – from the United States and Iran.  How does the cash arrive?  In SUV’s and plastic bags.  Where does it go?  To every faction, tribal leader and drug kingpin under the Afghan sun.

The reviews are clear on The Good Psychologist.  It’s a stunning debut novel with shortcomings, mostly in narrative development.  Reviewers also complain there’s a little too much lecturing.  It seems Shpancer discusses psychology and the life of the psychologist in a professor/clinician way.  It’s understandable.These are Shpancer’s day jobs. 

Here’s the kicker, though.  From the reviews I’ve read, Shpancer is light on the details of geography and personality.  Details of where the novel takes place are fuzzy.  The reader knows the psychologist through his professional titles.

There may be a reason for this.  Though the book is a best seller in Israel, few Israeli books translate into market share in Europe and America.   Obviously, for the American market books written in Hebrew are translated into English.  The only Hebrew language market for Jews in America is for Israelis who, like Shpancer, live mostly outside Israel.   Basing the novel in a generalized landscape gives the novel a wider appeal.  Does it also function to hide another landscape that increases in controversy daily?

Israelis living outside Israel area growing niche market. This is what interests me in Shpancer’s work.  After all, where we’re from and what we’ve done in life is important.  Israelis have been the Jewish boots on the ground in our post-Holocaust life. An Israeli psychologist’s view is immensely important here, especially when the psychologist enters the discussion of trauma and its effect on individuals and nations at large as Shpancer has.

Psychology is grounded in the human psyche.  It’s also contextual.  What are Jews thinking about consciously and otherwise after the Holocaust – and after Israel?  How has the Jewish state changed our psychological make-up?  What does it mean for our individual and collective psyche to be raised in or to support a state that in our parent’s or grandparent’s lifespan cleansed another people from their land? 

Psychologically speaking, what does it mean to be born in a state that believes itself to be the last refuge for a persecuted people – and then leave it?

Israelis have experiences that Jews born outside Israel cannot understand in depth. Perhaps Shpanser’s is writing about these very issues now.   Whether I agree with his conclusions or not, it’s important and weighty subject matter.   Our Jewish future depends on hearing these views.

Our post-Holocaust boldness that celebrated Israel’s prowess has ended in a whimper.  More and more Jews downplay their support for Israel in public – in private it’s even worse – and when Israelis travel or leave Israel, they hope their identity will slip under the radar. 

Hiding in plain sight is a Jewish fixation in history. It is rarely accomplished.  At this point in history hiding isn’t an option.  It means abandoning responsibilities to ourselves as a people and, yes, abandoning our responsibilities to those whom we have displaced and now occupy, the Palestinian people.

More and more Israelis are coming out.  They’re speaking the truth of where they come from and what they’ve done. 

When Israelis come out it’s an amazing sight to behold.   They encourage other Jews to come out as well.  What do we really want as Jews?  Is our future to permanently occupy another people?

Even a wannabe psychologist like me knows that Jews can’t hide in plain sight.  Nor should we.

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

Other posts by .

Posted In:

8 Responses

  1. Danaa on April 30, 2013, 2:12 pm

    One wonders how the views and impressions expressed in the novel dovetail with those of Abigail Abrabanel, who also has deep psychological insights of the israeli collective. Abigail’s take of course is dark and somber, which reflect mine rather well. I’ll just have to check out Noam’s book one of these days. In the meantime, I’ll share a bit of my own viewpoint as an ex-Israeli (rather than the Israeli ex-pat that most who left israel like to view themselves) .

    As I mentioned here often enough, I came to believe that to step outside israel for real is more akin to leaving a cult, than emigrating from a country. The emphasis here is on “for real”, which is something that israelis who grew up in israel, served in the military, married and started families there, but ended up making their residence outside when well along into adult life – can’t really do. For one, most of those who leave israel do so usually for economic reasons – they are actually economic migrants, not moral pilgrims. The economic reasons often have to do with opportunities – which is why so many israeli ex-pats are in hi-tech and/or academia. When they look back on Israel from a far – after having been out for a while – they start seeing many flaws – as is common with every ex-pat from anywhere – the defects in the glass come into focus only when one can look at it from the outside. When one is inside, the defects merely serve to darken the sky in patches, breaking up the horizon into a crazy quilt of patterns, which are then attributed to the state of affairs in the “world out there”, and then held to be true. From the outside, it’s the defects that become clear, even as one carries one’s recollection of those patterns originally absorbed as an insider, continuing to project them on the glass’ outside surface, like it’s some kind of comfort-food. The difference with other emiimmigrants, is that for the israeli emigre (who often won’t even admit to themselves they are an emigre), the realization that they are now looking through the glass more darkly (just for knowing that it was glass all along in which they lived), comes with loads of guilt. Not only have they escaped that place, now seen as full of ‘defects”, but they left their bretherns behind to suffer the vagaries of an imperfect state of affairs. Between guilt, nostalgia and desperately trying to maintain family ties, they usually manage to stay firmly within the cult, even as they profess to a more “global” outlook. But it’s an existence that requires continuous atonement – one in which their children, growing outside the israeli state apparatus, don’t share, even as they partake of the Israeli customs – zealously kept as a token of atonement. So many of the families I know have these layers of estrangement built-in. Quite noticeable to the type of “outsider” who in their wanna-be matured states still cares to consort with teen-agers (now, who could that be?).

    It helps that the majority of the Israeli ex-pats – especially the ones who came for jobs and university positions, are married to another israeli. At home they will continue to speak Hebrew. Outside the home, their social circle will include mostly other israeli ex-pats – almost never – or only many years later, actual jewish Americans. Even outside israel, the Jewish and israeli gestalts remain strictly separate. When israelis take on American citizenship, they remain Israelis – often in that curious way where they have amazingly little curiosity of what America- that amazing assemblage of semi-autonomous states bound by a constitution and a bill of rights and a 200 year history – is really like. What they learn of the US usually comes as gift of their children’s education in American schools. Their inborn racism towards others not like themselves remains intact, though it evolves, as they learn to tamper what they say about people of color, natives of all sorts, and most importantly, Christianity. They still feel vastly superior to Christians but slowly begin to accept that Christians and those with Christian background have their “good points”, even Catholics! Unfortunately, many (I don’t have a percentage, sorry – it’s all anecdotal) become even more entrenched in their Arabophobia and contempt for Islam. Certainly, no israeli I know of would understand Phil in the slightest. This blog would both mystify and anger them. Marc Ellis’ pieces would make them break out in hives, assuming they would ever care to read through even a paragraph, much less think about the meanings contain within. A caveat here – as I said, the majority of people I know were technology/science oriented, so they are more often than not, philistines, just like others in those fields, at least till they grow a bit older. Ellis would be way too “intellectual” and “humanistic” for them. (translated into Hebrew: “yumanisti ve intellectuali”). I am sure Shmuel would have a different perspective, though without the American angle, alas (still, would love to hear all its angles – hint, hint).

    What’s all this has to do with Ellis’ comments about the book? well, I should read it first, shouldn’t I? in the meantime, it’s Ellis’ fault for causing inspiration….

    • American on April 30, 2013, 3:34 pm

      ”Even outside israel, the Jewish and israeli gestalts remain strictly separate. When israelis take on American citizenship, they remain Israelis – ”

      humm…makes me wonder how many of the racist, I-first comments I see on various boards are coming from those US Israeli ‘expats’ instead of homegrown Jews. That might explain a lot of the really vile ‘others hate’ you see coming out . ..and being anonymous on the net is an outlet for what they cant say to ‘others’ in public.

      • Citizen on May 1, 2013, 10:12 am

        So how’s that bill in congress coming along, the one that would give us the first US visa waiver reciprocity legislation that is in fact not reciprocal in that it would codify into US law the Israeli discrimination against American Arabs/Muslims, allow them as visitors to be rejected by Israel at the airport–just for being of Arab descent and/or Muslims?

      • Donald on May 3, 2013, 9:15 am

        “makes me wonder how many of the racist, I-first comments I see on various boards are coming from those US Israeli ‘expats’ instead of homegrown Jews.”

        No idea, though many people in the US are brought up on a whitewashed history of Israel. That includes many Christians too. Someone in my family referred to the Boston bombings the other day as “what the Israelis go through”, a bit of propaganda she innocently picked up from the media or friends that is obviously put out there to make it seem like it’s all us decent folk in the US and Israel in the same boat, suffering from the actions of irrational and evil terrorists. And Israel defenders whatever their origins all spout variations on the same theme–Israel is a bastion of Western civilization amongst the barbarians.

        The ideology is widespread–it’s why hophmi comes into certain threads and gloats how Americans who identify as pro-Israel far outnumber those who identify as pro-Palestinian. Of course nobody who wants a 2SS as the liberal Zionists profess to want should be happy about this situation, as it just means the Israelis won’t feel pressure to bring about a 2SS. But then, support for a 2SS is largely a fig leaf for many people, something they say they want, while opposing any pressure on Israel that might bring it about. (All this aside from whether or not one thinks a 2SS is a good idea, a possible stepping stone to something better, or just a way of dodging the fundamental issue of equal human rights.)

    • Shmuel on May 3, 2013, 2:45 am

      I am sure Shmuel would have a different perspective, though without the American angle, alas (still, would love to hear all its angles – hint, hint).

      I can take a hint (although it sometimes takes me a few days). Italy is not exactly the “golden land” for Israelis. Heaps of Israelis come to travel and study here (especially medicine and art), but very few actually stay. Then there are the diplomats, “shlichim” (envoys of Zionist movements and associations), reps of Israeli companies, etc. (Aside: Why do Israelis — official and non — always ask me whether I’m a “shaliach”? But hey, someone asked me whether I work at the mosque, yesterday.) People have offered to introduce me (“dont’ you want to meet other Israelis?”), but if I wanted to hang out with Israelis, I could have stayed in Israel. I have come across the odd Israeli pro-Palestinian actvist and a number of Palestinian citizens of Israel, but they are not the subject of your comment or Ellis’ post (or Abrabanel’s insights).

      My “sample” is thus very small. Limited to a few friends who have left the country (one more or less fits your pattern and the rest don’t, but I’m guessing I have somewhat of a “selection bias”), and various friends and family-members who would like to leave or have left and gone back.

      By the way, Have you read Sami Michael’s “Maof habarburim” (English title: Flight of the Swans)? There’s an incidental story of two families who decide to leave Israel and go to the States (some time in the ’60s or ’70s). One man is “sent” to head the El Al office in New York, while the other, decides to follow his friend, explaining that Israel is too racist and warmongering (he is married to a Palestinian woman, who converted to Judaism) and he hates the place. He decides that he will sell Israeli-made clothing to the Americans (do you remember the “Ata” brand? LOL). A rather odd choice, all things considered. His Palestinian wife cannot bear the thought of leaving her homeland and her family.

      • Danaa on May 3, 2013, 3:40 am

        Shmuel, your reply is much appreciated (delays not withstanding. What’s a few days between rebels? it’s not like either of us is going to win over the hearts and minds that count anytime soon). I should really try to do a survey** – go beyond the personal circles. Must figure out for example how Mikko Peled came to the place he did and not one of the people I actually know ever came close. Richard Silverstein told me once he knows two others, in the Seattle area. One was Oren’s son I believe. Have them on my tiny list.

        There I was, thinking it is my sample that’s too small, or selective (tech and all that). But I do understand the need to be selective…friction goes only so far in keeping things hopping….before it gets a tad sour.

        No, I did not read Sami Michael’s book but it sure sounds interesting (darn – I have like 10 books ahead of it – why, of why, did I decide to take a sudden interest in Economics theories? it sure is a lonely hobby..). I’ll put the book on my list for sure. Please keep recommending reading materials (but please, no more macroeconomics. not even marx – who was apparently 150 years ahead of his time….).
        ** am pretty good at designing surveys, if i say so myself. Now who could possibly underwrite such? ZOA?

      • Shmuel on May 3, 2013, 5:51 am

        Are we really rebels? Had I been a real rebel, I would have stayed in Israel (I got a little finger-wagging about that last week from a visiting Palestinian MK). I know Israelis who have gone the way of Miko Peled, but they tend to stick around and fight “on the ground” (although they often blame their non-emigration on language, culture or family).

        As for books, my two most recent (highly recommended and NOT macroeconomicky): Romain Gary, The Roots of Heaven; Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun. The two are actually related, in their rejection of simple dichotomies of human good and evil (without losing sight of right and wrong), as in the following passages:


        You won’t believe the story of the loaf…. You believe, as I’d like to, that we don’t kill our children and toss them under trees. You like things clear and simple. The murderer is a known quantity, likewise the person killed, and it’s up to us to see that justice is done. Unfortunately, master, it wasn’t as simple as ‘them’ and ‘us’. It was something different that’s hard to define.

        Gary (the tale of the prisoners and the may-beetles):

        “Hey, Rotstein.” “Yes.” “Are you still alive?” “Yes. Don’t interrupt. I’m giving a concert.” “What are you playing?” “Johann Sebastian Bach.” “Are you mad? A German?” “Precisely. That’s just the point. To restore the balance. You can’t leave Germany on its back forever.

      • Donald on May 3, 2013, 9:00 am

        “Romain Gary, The Roots of Heaven;”

        Read that as an adolescent–my father had a lot of books on the shelves that I’d read at random. I should reread it–from what little I remember, probably a lot of it went over my head at the time.

Leave a Reply