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Apr 11

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2010)

I was at the bookstore the other day, killing some time before a movie, when I wandered uncharacteristically into the Graphic Novel section. My eyes aimlessly scanned the rows of spines, when they settled on one colored white and blue. The cover depicted a young woman wandering about what looked like a developing country and announced an ironic promise: How to understand Israel in 60 days or less. I was instantly intrigued; I visited Israel myself in 2008 and returned with more questions than those I had initially packed at home. The back-cover summary informed me that the novel chronicled the physical, cognitive and emotional adventures of Sarah Glidden during her Birthright tour of the famed land of milk and honey. (This was the same tour group with whom I had traveled.) The short review excerpts praised the book as heartfelt and evenhanded. I impulsively decided to forego my compulsion to first gather evidence from reader reviews at Amazon.com–a decision even more uncharacteristic than my trip through the Graphic Novel section–and immediately purchased the book, subsequently voraciously consuming it within two days.

To the goys among our readers (and if you’re not sure if you are a goy, then you are), Taglit-Birthright Israel is a charity that sponsors free cultural heritage trips to Israel for Jews around the world who have never visited their homeland. It is meant to awaken a sense of Jewish identity and connection to Jewish history and culture. A few days into her trip, Sarah meets with her cousin, who is currently completing his university studies there. Enthusiastically relating her experiences so far, Sarah is promptly diagnosed with a case of “Birthright glow.” I must confess that I, too, contracted the glow during my visit. So much so that, upon my return, I immediately purchased Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel (2003), which counters common arguments against the existence of the Jewish state. But, by then, the Birthright glow was quickly subsiding, and the book remains unread. Still, Glidden’s illuminating novel managed to momentarily reawaken my decidedly fleeting interest in Israel and, by association, Judaism.

While I have never believed in a supernatural being, I did not renounce religion until my young adulthood. In The Simpsons episode She of Little Faith (2001), Lisa Simpson, dissatisfied with her Christian church, begins to shop around for alternate religious options, in the end settling on Buddhism, thanks to Richard Gere. Like Lisa, I was also unimpressed with what Judaism had offered me so far, and spent some time researching what else was available to me out there, only to realize that religions were, as far as I could see, all alike. My conclusion: like with capitalism, while we are given many choices, these amount to no more than an illusion, as they are truly indistinguishable from one another. To be sure, this does not mean these choices are hollow, especially since they possess great personal meaning. Yet, that is exactly the problem: religions bury truths about humanity beneath stratums of extraneous meaning. As expressed in an earlier post, religious beliefs mystify (just the same way psychiatric beliefs medicalize) our most human of hardships and longings. I admit the inherent utility of religious (and psychiatric) beliefs, but deny their extrinsic reality. As such, I prefer to excavate Truth using my trusty (not to mention time-tested) Occam’s razor.

To put it bluntly, the difference between, say, Judaism and Christianity is, to me, analogous to the difference between “outdated” cathode ray tube televisions and “modern” liquid crystal display televisions. The difference is illusory, yet we continue to believe there is one because differences “sell.” Indeed, to enlist a share of the consumer/follower base to a particular brand/religion, one must claim his respective product to be “new and improved!” Think about it: to a first-century man going religion shopping at his local Jerusalem Soul-co, his choices would have been “outdated” Judaism and “modern” Christianity. Evidently, nothing has changed.

Still, all of these musings could not shake away the fact that I was born Jewish, and a part of me desperately wished to make amends with my imposed origins. To this end, I recall reading two books during this time. First up was Michael Carin’s thought-provoking The Future Jew (2001). In it, Carin puts forth an attractive argument: to empower themselves, and permanently reclaim all that history keeps taking away from them, the Jewish people must finally renounce God. This reading was followed by the less controversial God Optional Judaism (Seid, 2001), which outlines, as the subtitle explains, Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, And Community. What I learned from these authors is that one may still be Jewish even though they do not believe in God, by appreciating their history and cultural heritage, and communally sharing that appreciation. Still, I could not and still cannot help but feel that while history and heritage may define what I am, they do not define who I am. Let me explain. I consider my being Jewish and gay similarly: both describe me, neither define me. I am no more proud of being Jewish than I am of being gay. And that is certainly not to say that I am ashamed of either. These attributes are neither good nor bad; they just are.

Still, many Jews boast a Jewish identity that is to them a great source of pride. Toward the end of her Middle Eastern journey, Sarah attends a lecture given by Rabbi Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute. To Sarah’s (and my own) surprise, Hartman proclaims:  “The difference between Jew and non-Jew does not exist. We are all members of the human condition… As a Jewish state, Israel should be leading the protests of the atrocities in Darfur. We pray for two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Beautiful. But why can’t we pray for one million Africans? We must get out of this family mode” (2010, p. 198–199). Hartman’s hopes for his country are admirably affectionate and open-minded. Yet, in them lies an inevitable paradox: how can Israel, a family state, rise above a family mode?

In Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography (1976), philosopher Karl Popper wrote of the post-World War II Jewish people: “Admittedly, it is understandable that people who were despised for their racial origin should react by saying that they were proud of it. But racial pride is not only stupid but wrong, even if provoked by racial hatred. All nationalism or racialism is evil, and Jewish nationalism is no exception.” (p. 105; it should be mentioned at this point that Popper’s parents were born Jewish, converting to Lutheranism later in life, prior to their son’s birth). While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jewish nationalism is evil, I will admit that I am more than slightly perplexed by it. I cannot help but attribute a certain level of arrogance to national pride, of any kind. Implicitly embedded into it lies a worrisomely divisive “us versus them” philosophy. In agreement with Popper’s remarks, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who was also born to Jewish parents but does not consider himself Jewish, observes: “[If] Jewish is beautiful, then gentile is ugly” (The Myth of Psychotherapy: Mental Healing as Religion, Rhetoric, and Repression, 1973, p. 143). Incidentally, Popper’s arguments regarding Jewish nationalism are equally applicable to Gay Pride, but perhaps that is the subject of another post…

Sarah’s journey continues to complicate these issues for her, making her question all national pride, be it Jewish, Palestinian, or otherwise. She, at one point, encounters members of the Bereaved Family Forum, an organization that encourages dialogue between families on both sides who have lost loved ones to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a moving and inspirational speech, one of the members, Maha, explains to Sarah and her trip-mates: “We ask only one thing of you and that is not to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, but to be pro-Peace. And when you go back to your country explain to your friends about what we do here and help them be pro-Peace too” (2010, p. 152). While I know of Israeli-Palestinian pacifist groups, I have only ever met people who are either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine in their rhetoric. Indeed, nationalism implies one-sided allegiance, effectively limiting the number of options available when conflict arises, and certainly eliminating the possibility of mutual cooperation. In some way, national pride amounts to deciding the answer to a problem before it is even stated: we wish for what’s best for our people, not all peoples involved, whatever the sore point. Being pro-“Us” begets more conflict, while being pro-Peace begets resolution.

On the last night of our Birthright trip, my group was asked to sit in a circle and express what we had learned during our journey “home.” My discovery: “I feel no more or less Jewish than when I first arrived here.” Indeed, I feel no more or less Jewish than when I was first born, and I don’t remember feeling particularly Jewish then. It was just how I was born. In an age of ever-expanding globalization and transcended borders, and in light of the escalating necessity for humans to become better global citizens, I think that is something to be proud of.

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