This week on Unorthodox: Israeli actress Gal Gadot proves she’s a superhero off-screen as well.
Our Jewish guest is Ladino singer-songwriter Sarah Aroeste, who tells us what Ladino is, and why it’s so important to keep the Sephardic language and culture alive. She performs a song from her new Ladino children’s album, Ora de Despertar—complete with ukulele accompaniment—and even (warning!) gets the hosts to sing along.
Our Gentile of the Week is ACLU lawyer Gillian Thomas, whose new book, Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, explores the impact of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited gender discrimination in the workplace. She tells us about the women who took their fight for workplace equality to the Supreme Court half a century ago and assesses the progress we’ve made since then.
We love to hear from you! Send comments, kvetches, and questions to Unorthodox@tabletmag.com. We’ll share our favorites on air.
Unorthodox is a smart, fresh, fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture hosted by Mark Oppenheimer and featuring Stephanie Butnick and Liel Leibovitz. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes. Unorthodox is part of the Panoply podcast network.
(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine)
Ahron Bregman was taking a shortcut through a field on his way home from work when the shocking phone call arrived. Ashraf Marwan was dead; fallen or pushed from his London balcony.
Four and a half years earlier, Bregman, an Israeli lecturer at King’s College London and an expert on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, had publicly exposed Marwan as Israel’s most valuable spy at the top of Egypt’s political hierarchy. It was Marwan who at the last minute tipped off Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, on the looming Egyptian attack of Yom Kippur 1973. For Israel, that was too late.
Murder or suicide, Bregman—who was first introduced to Tablet magazine’s readers in this 2013 article about Marwan—still can’t say for sure. But his conscience will give him no rest. In a bid to “get this out of his system,” he has now published the account of his odd relationship with the man whose death he inadvertently hastened. The Spy Who Fell to Earth is dedicated to “Ashraf Marwan, who deserved a better end.”
“What at first seemed to be a moment of glory and the pinnacle of my professional career,” he writes of Marwan’s exposure, “turned out to be a sheer nightmare.”
Born in 1944, Marwan, a self-confident and extravagant chemist, was the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. When his relations with Nasser soured following Egypt’s humiliating defeat to Israel in 1967, Marwan and his wife Mona relocated to London, where the young Egyptian studied for his masters degree and worked at the embassy. When Nasser died in September 1970, his son-in-law was close enough to his country’s political elite to become the confidante and special emissary of his successor, Anwar Sadat. By the end of the year he had reached out twice to the Mossad office in the British capital and was recruited as an Israeli agent, his handling overseen by Mossad Director Zvi Zamir.
In the following years Marwan would feed the Israelis invaluable information on the Egyptian army and its military strategy. He also provided details of a planned terror attack in Rome devised by Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, revenge for Israel’s downing of a Libyan passenger jet that mistakenly entered Israeli airspace in February 1973. But the ultimate test of Marwan’s loyalty, that which is still debated today, would be Yom Kippur.
Bregman became obsessed with the identity of the mysterious Egyptian mole in the late 1990s, as the ugly fallout of that traumatic war continued to reverberate in Israeli public discourse. The Agranat Commission, which investigated Israel’s failure to preempt the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian strike, had placed most of the blame on military intelligence, faulting it for ignoring the many overt and covert signs of Egypt’s military buildup.
In his defense, head of military intelligence Eli Zeira deflected the blame to Mossad, claiming director Zamir had been deceived by a highly sophisticated Egyptian double agent. Why else, Zeira argued, would the spy have informed the Israelis—at the start of the holiest of days—that the Egyptian attack was to commence at 4:00 p.m. when in fact it began at 2:00? Besides, he had previously given Israel two false alarms for Egyptian assaults that never occurred.
The enmity between the two retired intelligence chiefs, now both octogenarians, continued well into the 2000s through public debates and libel accusations that were settled outside court. After all, it was their reputations and the reputations of their respective organizations that were at stake. Marwan’s name was never revealed by either man, however. That’s where Ahron Bregman came into the picture.
Bregman bought Zeira’s double-agent theory and began propagating it in his books Israel’s Wars, published in 2000, and A History of Israel, published in 2002. Lacking a “smoking gun” proving the identity of the spy as Marwan, Bregman was hoping to provoke the Egyptian to come forward.
“My plan was to raise the bar gradually, notch by notch, to try and elicit a response from him,” Bregman writes. “Should his reaction be too strong I would then have made a quick retreat and have forgotten about the business altogether.”
But Marwan’s reaction was not too strong. In fact, he didn’t respond at all. So, Bregman mailed autographed copies of his books to Marwan’s London address with the dedication “to Ashraf Marwan, Hero of Egypt.” But again, nothing.
The breakthrough came from Egypt, when in December 2002 a local reporter confronted Marwan with Bregman’s claims. Marwan responded by saying that the theory put forward by the Israeli was a “a stupid detective story.” Bregman notes the he was, “in a childish sort of way,” offended by Marwan’s out of hand dismissal of years of painstaking research. At the same time, he interpreted Marwan’s reluctance to sue him for libel as admission that he was in fact correct; Marwan was indeed the famed Egyptian spy. So, in an interview with Egyptian daily al-Ahram soon after, Bregman went all the way and asserted that Marwan was the spy previously referred to in his books simply as “the Son-in-Law.”
Bregman “felt a shiver” when he saw the interview in print, realizing there was no going back in this incredible game of chicken. But the most frightening moment came on Dec. 30, 2002, when he received a phone call at home while sweeping leaves in his garden. “I am the man you’ve written about,” said the voice on the other end, in a heavy Arabic accent.
“That’s when I realized the magnitude of what I’d done. That there was a real person there. I understood I had made a mistake.”
Marwan’s decision to make contact with the man who’d exposed him turned Bregman from “merely a historian whose task is to record events” to “an active participant in them,” he writes in his book. But it also had a profound psychological effect.
“Until the exposure he was in my hands. But after the exposure I was entirely in his, because I was afraid something would happen to him and he knew it,” Bregman said. “It turned me into a very fearful man.”
Marwan asked Bregman to become his adviser on the memoirs he was writing, memoirs Bregman never saw. The Israeli professor realized the book was simply a pretext to co-opt him as a source of information on developments in his story in Israel. Bregman meticulously collected Hebrew news articles on Marwan, translating them and reporting back to him on a regular basis.
On the day he died, June 27, 2007, Marwan was meant to meet Bregman in downtown London to learn about Zeira’s libel suit against Zamir, in which his name was publicly cited for the first time by an Israeli official. But the Egyptian never showed up, and Bregman headed home, to receive that devastating call.
Today Bregman believes that Marwan—who was depressed and in failing health—meticulously planned the meeting, leaving numerous messages on Bregman’s answering machine in order to mask his suicide as murder. For a Muslim, murder is more honorable than suicide and could safeguard his legacy as a double agent taken out by one of his disgruntled handlers.
“We used each other all the time, but at the end he had the final word,” Bregman said.
When people think of double agents they often imagine died-in-the-wool ideologues like the protagonists of Cold War-era spy novels. But in reality, spies like Ashraf Marwan are usually motivated by more mundane urges, like greed or a sense of adventure, Bregman says.
“Ashraf Marwan worked with everyone and played everyone,” he notes.
The epigraph of his book is taken from John le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold:
“What do you think spies are, priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too … people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”
Bregman may identify the trait of “vain fool” in himself as well. He says that Marwan and he both shared “a reckless streak”: In Marwan’s case, it led the spy to nonchalantly arrive at meetings with his Mossad handler in London in a diplomatic car bearing Egyptian plates. In his, it caused the researcher to accuse another man of espionage without a shred of hard evidence.
“It was a game of poker and he couldn’t see my cards. It’s terrible,” Bregman says.
Nowhere in the book, though, does Bregman conclusively determine whether or not Marwan was a genuine agent for Israel. He believes that Marwan himself was undecided on the matter.
“I think we’ll never know whether Ashraf Marwan worked [only] for Israel or whether he was a double [agent]. I think he was neither here nor there. That’s the real answer. Marwan worked for everyone: The Israelis, the Egyptians, the Italians, the British. But—and this is the interesting part—when, a second before the war, the moment of truth came when he needed to decide whether he is an Egyptian or a Zionist-Israeli, he decided he’s Egyptian. That was his deception.”
Bregman will not shirk his responsibility for Marwan’s downfall but is nevertheless critical of Mossad’s mishandling of the entire case. Not only was the Israeli intelligence negligent in adequately masking Marwan’s identity from individuals within the organization, but it fell short in later safeguarding him from “predatory” researchers like Bregman who would stop at nothing to expose him.
“Once you’re in the game, you fail to see things you’re supposed to see,” he admits. “[Mossad] messed up by not coming to me, or sending a friend, to tell me I’m playing with fire. They should have informed me that while nothing will happen to me, someone else could die. That would have shaken me.”
Rather than ignore his findings, Bregman adds, Mossad should have publicly endorsed the double agent theory in order to protect Marwan from potential Egyptian assassins seeking revenge.
“They should have waited for the man to pass away and then come out and say he was a genuine Israeli spy, but we didn’t admit so earlier because we protect our people. Instead, they allowed researchers to doubt Marwan.”
Today, when Bregman discusses his tragic brush with espionage, he normally gives two pieces of advice.
“I tell people: ‘Don’t be a spy because there will always be a Bregman who tries to expose you. But if you’re a Bregman, don’t expose. The end is usually bad.’”
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Elhanan Miller is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world. His Twitter feed is @ElhananMiller.
Map of towns in Palestine (Israel, West Bank, and Jordan), undated. (Library of Congress)
My approach to clarity is to go to the ambiguous side, or to put it more high-mindedly, to turn to Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances.” “The Jews,” in other words, exemplify the sort of social entity Wittgenstein spoke of as “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.” There are, in the case of the Jews, as Wittgenstein said, “overall similarities,” and he went on: “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.” All manner of qualities and boundaries are stirred together in that “Etc. etc.”—doctrinal, institutional, legal, textual, ritual, national, and whatnot. Seen from within or without, there are resemblances but not identity. Curious, then, and interesting, that concepts like “Jewish identity” should be hazy at the boundaries. It is not irrelevant that Wittgenstein was himself baffled about being a Jew—three of his four grandparents were Jewish, but one of them, his paternal grandfather, born Moses Meier, became a Protestant and changed his middle name to Christian. This might well be a biographical root for his interest in family resemblances.
The genealogy of Jewish identity as a problem is ancient.
It can’t be denied that, for centuries, the “complicated network” of the Jewish condition was, and continues to be, channeled through an overlapping obsession with a story contained in a book; by identification with it (as in “The People of the Book”), and by contestation within it; with the effort to know, cherish, and preserve that book, and to honor those who take it seriously, to recite, decipher, and dispute it, to try to manage its contradictions, to honor the chain of commitments and sacrifices described there, to use chapters and verses of that book against other chapters and verses, aspiring always to make sense of a world full of absence in which the one certainty about life is that it ends. The most important activity of an honorable Jew was to study the book which told the story of a tribe that was anointed as God’s deputies on earth, along with the sanctioned commentaries on it.
The people of Abraham, “father of many,” found it beneficial, or at least comforting, to confront, or evade, radical mysteries of their existence in the company of a tribe equipped with, if nothing else, a common vocabulary. The Jews had a story that featured them. There was convergence on that story concerning a unique and immensely powerful deity Who created the world and flooded it to punish a failed species, saving only the line of Noah, a uniquely just man, and Who later came to an otherwise undistinguished descendant of Noah called Abram, and spoke to him, and set him toward a destination in Canaan, otherwise undistinguished as well, and set him on his journeys and his tasks, and arranged for an endpoint in a land whose meaning to them derived strictly from the fact that it had been designated by God.
As you know, a great deal ensued, including rituals, miracles, enemies, exiles, escapes, the delivery of commandments and the setting of laws, and eventually, defeat and centuries of Diaspora (vastly longer than the time of the Jewish State), and further on, throughout all the failures and defeats, the punishments meted out for their failures to do well by their assignments, millennial yearnings for a return to the Holy Land. Even Jews who disdained any foothold in the varieties of doctrinal Judaism felt the calling to locate themselves on a map whose once and enduring center was in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was what you had a relationship to, even if that relationship was mysterious, abstract, and hypothetical. The language of Jewish longing for a surpassing, redeeming deliverance was saturated with a hunger for Zion even in the breasts of Jews who were not Zionists.
The Jews were the beneficiaries of a particular kind of story: It was not just a narrative of characters and events of the form, A did X to B, upon which C happened. It was not a story prescribed for a self-contained tribe. It was a morality tale that traced variations on an overpowering theme: A single God chose a single man to engender a singular people. Here’s what happened when they tried to live up to their mission; tried and failed; tried, failed, and tried again.
In the Jews’ story, the age of gods in the plural was now to be overshadowed, and the age of God had arrived. This designated people told a story about themselves in which their story was central because the single God whom they recognized, different from all the gods who were of surpassing value to all other peoples, determined that they should matter, because He had chosen them—and not to worship a local god but to be the people of the single God. The single God was not only their God, the local God of their tribe, but the God, God in the singular, everyone’s God, whether they knew it or not. So, a universalist claim is built into the history of the Jews. God hammers it home when He addresses all the Jews in the world from Mt. Sinai (after finally delivering them from bondage). The Jews are a particular people charged with universal significance—if you like that paradox, you like the Jews. The Covenant declares a mission that exists not only for God and for the Jews but for the others. As it is written in Genesis 12:3, “by you shall all families of the earth be blessed.” “ … all families of the earth.” There were others, goyim, Auslander, to contend with.
In a word, the Jews were designated a people among peoples, with a particular mission and task: Jewish exceptionalism. To be for themselves in the name of being for others, and for others in the name of being themselves. Not to be “a people” but “the people on behalf of the people.” The logic was circular but weirdly compelling, as was it also perplexing to the people whom God singled out. The story mattered because the single God must have known that there were other peoples holding to other gods. The Talmudic story of the young Abraham makes the destruction of idols a proof of virtue, in fact.
The idea of chosenness was not unique to the Israelites. But, unlike other people’s parallel claims, it persisted even as the meaning of chosenness proved elusive and even obscure. It was the inescapable magnet for Jewish identity. And perhaps for this reason it had the probably unintended effect of provoking a zero-sum challenge to all the peoples left unchosen. As Liel Leibovitz and I wrote in The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, “The promised land’s native inhabitants struggled against a theology that declared them to be, in effect, the children of a lesser god. When they resisted becoming history’s beautiful losers, they construed their defeats as martyrdom, built identities around humiliation, set out to regenerate themselves through acts of magic and will, and began to rationalize the next war.” The later Abrahamic religions developed their own forms of either-or chosenness. They too recognized the power of the idea: the universal in the particular. Even toward the end of the 20th century, 50 percent of a national sample of American Jews conducted by the sociologist Steven M. Cohen said they agreed with the statement, “Jews are a ‘chosen people.’”
Breaking out of the ghetto, the Jewish Enlightenment altered—widened and complicated—the scope of Jewish ideals. Some Jews who entered the outside world, in Cohen’s words, “universaliz[ed] what had been a particularist civilization,” but it was a particularist civilization with a difference. They would take up the Hebrew language but they would also sign up with ways to belong to distinct nations. For these Jews, there was not only an opportunity but an imperative to return to one or another version of the divine election that stemmed from their origin—to open the Jews up to broader Enlightenment currents of thought, to enlarge and in part secularize Jewish education; to make the Jew a citizen of the world, equipped, or saddled, with ethical obligations, even to point the way. A universalist tendency had long been latent in the cloistered Judaism of Europe; now, let free, it could flourish. What was good for the Jews would be to complete Hillel’s triad: to be for ourselves; to be for others; and to be all that now. In other words, the Jews in the Diaspora were a people of ethics.
Exiles did not cease, and new homelands were founded. Under pressure, many European Jews flocked to varieties of the secular left and then, eventually, under the pressure of oppression, to Zionism, which, although ostensibly secular, carried in its bones a millennial spirit of return to the biblical homeland. In America, Jews went to work founding—in the words of a recent New York Times Magazine ad for an Upper East Side condominium complex—“a new tradition.” New traditions, actually, and quarrels among these traditions, both religious and secular, perched uneasily on the foundations of older traditions.
In the historical land of Israel, as Leibovitz and I wrote, “undercurrents of chosenness rattled the ground. … Even as [Zionists] fiercely disputed all manner of things, including the nature of a Jewish state, and what policies to pursue, a spirit—one might even say a dybbuk—of chosenness inhabited them, and continues to do so.” But in America, the old question came to the surface again: chosen for what? A good part of the answer would become: chosen for success. Jews were acculturated into a pot for partial melting. But also chosen to stand for justice, to complete Hillel’s triad.
It was another turn of the screw of ironic history that the Holocaust—as it came to be called—should have opened up American society for Jews. Barriers fell. Anti-Semitism withered—both the genteel type and the murderous type. Restricted covenants were banned by the Supreme Court in 1948. University quotas were phased out. Turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe could join in the American celebration and give over their hearts to the newly founded Israel even as their children were retreating from Yiddishkeit. Even as the Holocaust left us reeling, Jews overwhelmingly joined in a combination of redemptive spirit, old-country nostalgia, and successful assimilation. Rituals of religious observance, holidays, and food, cleared for acceptance by dietary laws that were held to be inscribed with the imprimatur of God. The grandchildren, like myself, found ourselves freed for secular lives infused with what we thought of as Jewish values. This is a story for another day. Even as religious connections thinned out—Jews attend religious services at much lower rates than other religious denominations—the Jews, at least in America, became a people of ethics. In Cohen’s words, “Jews are ethnically hyperactive and religiously indolent.” I would say also: ethically hyperactive.
But here was yet another turn of the screw: The Holocaust now became a badge of Jewish identity. Whatever you thought about the Jews being chosen by God, our people had been singled out for the worst assaults ever delivered upon a whole people in modern history. A Christian might say that the Jews were crucified. And to have suffered this crucifixion, vicariously, to feel forever scarred by it, became a badge of identity. As Steven Cohen wrote about his 1989 survey: “The Holocaust is more important to more respondents than any other symbol [of Jewishness]. As many as 85 percent say it is at least very important, and 56 percent call it extremely important. Both figures exceed comparable rates for all other concepts in the series”—the High Holidays; an attachment to Israel; God; the Torah, all of them.
The Holocaust was the ultimate denial of equality, of dignity, of justice. And if anything, it only elevated the significance of the affirmative values that had been so atrociously annihilated by Nazi Germany. As the Holocaust became more central to the Jewish imagination, so did the ethical core of being Jewish—a commitment to equality, dignity, justice. So it is that the liberalism of American Jews has withstood decades of disillusion. It should not be surprising that, as Judge Richard Posner noted recently in the Washington Post, “the three liberal justices besides Sotomayor are Jewish”—though as he quickly added, they are “not, it seems, influenced by Judaism in their judicial work.” Not by Judaic doctrine, but by the penumbra of egalitarian ethics that, to most American Jews, feels like their birthright.
So, what does Jewishness mean today, in America? Is there a core, an essential overlap, in the thick of all the family resemblances? Let’s look at other social surveys, a quarter-century after Steven Cohen’s. In 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 87 percent of Jews said that the Holocaust was “somewhat or very important for informing their political beliefs and activity.” Nearly half (46 percent) of American Jews cited a commitment to social equality as “most important to their Jewish identity,” twice as many as cited “support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent).” In 2013, a Pew poll found that:
U.S. Jews see being Jewish as more a matter of ancestry, culture and values than of religious observance. Six-in-ten say, for example, that being Jewish is mainly a matter of culture or ancestry, compared with 15 percent who say it is mainly a matter of religion. Roughly seven-in-ten say remembering the Holocaust and leading an ethical life are essential to what it means to them to be Jewish, while far fewer say observing Jewish law is a central component of their Jewish identity. And two-thirds of Jews say that a person can be Jewish even if he or she does not believe in God….The view that remembering the Holocaust is essential to what it means to be Jewish is shared by majorities in all of the large Jewish denominational groupings.
As Hitler’s movement had chosen the Jews for annihilation, the Jews could now choose themselves: not only as survivors but as redeemers. But what if there is no consensus on what it means to “live an ethical life”? What if a chasm divides the values of American Jews, Diaspora Jews, from the Jews of the Jewish state?
Between 1948 and 1967, American Jews could cherish the state of Israel on both particularist and universalist grounds. Israel was the state of the Jews, for sure. It had a part to play in the great universalism of nationhood. But it also leaned socialist. It could be exhibited as a case study of national liberation. Palestinians had no reality to the great majority of American Jews, but the Israeli victory in 1947-48 served both particularist and universalist needs. The Jews of the liberal-left were doubly blessed. Be it Old Jerusalem or New, Holy Land or God-fearing America as a “city on a hill,” the exalted state located elsewhere had long been, for the Diaspora, a badge of identity, a palpable sign that history has a vector and of renewal. Pride in the survival—indeed, the triumph—of the Jewish state evoked pride.
The Israeli victory in the Six Day War for a while re-cemented the salience of the Holocaust. David had crushed Goliath. But in the conquest of the Territories lay demon seeds. The statehood of Israel had the sanction of international law. It still does. But when Israel became an illegal occupier of the territories it conquered in 1967, it forfeited its universalist mantle. It made Israel look like a less compelling answer to the immense question of what might be left of chosenness, which dovetailed with the problem of what meaning might be found in the Holocaust. First under center-left Labor governments and more radically under the Likud, Israel interpreted chosenness as a title to land and a warrant for defying world opinion and international law. It justified its aggressions as defenses. But this was an almost fatal mistake. Israeli exceptionalism abandoned the high moral ground. Gripped by messianism and a volatile brew of desperation and truculence, Israel defies the hard-fought achievements of the Diaspora as it becomes steadily more illiberal, and thus more offensive to Jews who remain among America’s most liberal populations. In a world of sinful nations, Israel now, simultaneously, claims the privilege of victimhood and the right to be honored as democratic even as it abandons liberality. This is a hell of a climb-down from tikkun olam, the injunction to repair the world and welcome the stranger. It offers little solace or cohesion for American Jews. For the built-in ambiguities that face all minorities in America, Israel is no spiritual refuge.
By now, a growing minority of younger American Jews are so intensely angry at the actually existing, increasingly illiberal Israel, which is no longer the Israel of Martin Buber and Paul Newman, as to reject “Zionism” as a dirty word and endorse the whole bundle of BDS politics, including the academic boycott—a direction made easier as American-Jewish oligarchs fund land-grabs and implant enclave fortresses in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank. Some are naïve; some are thoughtless; some can think of no other way to get the Israeli government’s attention. Not many liberal American Jews go so far, but the gulf that has opened up between Israeli and American Jews will be a fundamental feature of the Jewish landscape for a long time.
Obviously Israeli politics is in an inflammable state, in no small part because Palestinian politics are dead-ended. The polarization in Israel-Palestine generates aftershocks in America. And we are in the throes of a nasty feedback loop. When the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations lays claim to speak for American Jews (the Israeli philosopher Menachem Brinker has asked whether there are any minor Jewish organizations), it reveals itself helpless to resist the soft messianism and aggressive desperation of the West Bank Occupation. The more the American Jewish establishment colludes with Netanyahu, the more damage the Israeli right does to the prospects for peace, and the more polarized are American Jews. As Israel becomes steadily more illiberal, it becomes more vexatious—more divisive—for Jews who, all in all, remain among America’s most liberal populations—and the younger the Jews, the more so. Minor Jewish Organizations will likely proliferate.
As a cement for American Jewish identity, the Holocaust is aging. The cracks will grow—and not only over Israel but whether the Jews are really a people of values, and if so, which they are. Schmaltz, however marketed, will not hold together a fractious population whose two world centers, Israel and America, are increasingly irreconcilable. The people of values are once again tested to decide what their values are. Which is where we came in.
This text is adapted from a speech delivered at the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, March 15, 2016.
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.
(Photo: Elsin Davidi)
Israel is a country founded on the idea of immigration—the return of Jews from around the world to their historic homeland. The very word used for such immigration, Aliyah, or ascent, constitutes a value judgment, combining the ancient religious imperative to settle the Land of Israel with a modern political implication that only in Israel can Jews live fully and freely. It follows that the phenomenon of yeridah—emigration or “descent” from Israel to other countries—is problematic for Zionism, as the negative connotation of the very word suggests. Yet the fact is that emigration has always been a feature of Israeli history. Estimates of the exact number of Israelis living abroad range from 300,000 to 700,000, or 5 to 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Of these, the majority live in the United States and Canada.
Israeli literature has grappled extensively with the experience and meaning of aliyah, starting perhaps with S.Y. Agnon’s 1945 novel of baffled immigration, Only Yesterday. But how does an Israeli write about the experience of leaving Israel behind? The Best Place on Earth, the debut collection of stories by the Canadian-Israeli writer Ayelet Tsabari, gives a suggestive answer to this question. Tsabari’s book was originally published by a Canadian press; after winning the Sami Rohr Prize for fiction, it has now been issued by Random House in the United States.
Really, Tsabari offers a whole series of answers, since each story in the book comes at the question of Israeliness from a slightly different angle. Several of the characters we meet are, like the author, expats in Canada; others are spiritual seekers trying to find themselves in India. But even the ones who stay in Israel are haunted by a sense of belonging elsewhere. Tsabari writes about Yemeni immigrants who cherish the old customs (her own background is Yemeni), a Filipina nurse who sends money home to her daughter, and a girl who is homesick for the Sinai settlement where she grew up, now part of Egypt. To be Israeli, she suggests, is to feel the tug of war between Israel and abroad, no matter where you live. In such a young country, virtually everyone can call somewhere else home.
Where to find “the best place on earth,” then, is an open question for Tsabari. In the title story, Naomi, an Israeli visiting her sister Tamar near Vancouver, sees the phrase on a Canadian license plate: “Beautiful British Columbia. The Best Place on Earth.” Tamar, who has found love and peace in her Canadian life, is inclined to agree. But Naomi experiences a series of shocks, seeing how her sister has adapted to her new environment. She is in love with a non-Jewish man; her home has no mezuzot or other Jewish symbols; she won’t eat the Yemeni dishes they grew up loving, since she has become a vegetarian.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about Israeliness, in this story, is how easily it falls away. Meanwhile, Naomi herself remains dedicated to another “most beautiful place on earth,” Jerusalem, which Tsabari describes in a series of picture-postcard images: “like at sunset, when the sun reflected crimson and gold on the limestone, and the Dome of the Rock shone like a rare amber in the middle of the city. Or on a winter night, when it snowed and everything was briefly muted and still, the sharp edges softened.” Even the stressful aspects of life in Jerusalem can be exhilarating, addicting: “She was so used to living in a constant state of urgency, verging on emergency. … Yet she couldn’t fathom living anywhere else.”
“The Best Place on Earth” is last in the book, and its summary of Tsabari’s themes feels a little blunt and direct. The sisters’ conflict ends in an emotional reconciliation, suggesting that there is room enough in the world for both those who stay at home and those who leave. It is, in fact, a continuing temptation for Tsabari to wrap up her stories’ conflicts in a neat bow, with love overcoming division. The same thing happens in “Brit Milah,” where an aging Yemeni mother, Reuma, visits her daughter in Canada, in order to meet her newborn grandson. Here again the different weather provides a metaphor for culture shock: “Toronto was covered with patches of white, which from the air looked to Reuma as though erased, as though parts of the city were missing.” But the real shock comes when she discovers that her grandson has not been circumcised, a break with tradition that Reuma cannot bring herself to countenance—until she can. Like Tevye with his rebellious daughters, she ends up allowing love to triumph over strictness, and the story ends with the grandmother taking her grandson in her arms, “the weight of his little body against her familiar and comforting.”
If Canada represents a world of relaxation and acceptance for Tsabari, the stories set in Israel tend to be harsher and more emotionally tense. Often, it is a character’s encounter with the army, the ultimate national institution, that provokes a private dissent or rebellion from Israeliness. This does not make the rebel automatically heroic: In “Casualties,” the narrator is a bored, flighty young woman who supplements her army salary by selling forged medical leave forms, or gimelim. Her boyfriend, Oren, is serving in Gaza, and every time she talks to him he seems more miserable and desperate. The two of them are both misfits in their own way, but Oren’s neediness repels the narrator, until at last her crime and his dread intersect in an unexpected fashion. Here there is no resolution, just a demonstration that the martial rigor of Zionism comes at a high price—which is itself a classic theme of Israeli literature.
Most interesting are the stories in which Tsabari looks at expatriates themselves with a critical eye. “The Poets in the Kitchen Window” is set during the first Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles fall on Tel Aviv. Here the main character is a boy, Uri, who is about the same age Tsabari herself must have been during the war, and she writes vividly about the experience of bombardment: the sirens, the gas masks, rushing to the safe room or shelter. But the focus of Uri’s anger and confusion is not the war; it is his older sister, Yasmin, who has just come home after years of wandering in India. Yasmin, who calls herself by an Indian name (“Tanmayo”) and spouts the self-serving cliches of self-realization (“Sometimes people have to help themselves before they can help others”), is a keenly satirical portrait of the Israeli in India, trying to leave behind her country and its dilemmas. Uri, who has no choice but to stay home, turns to poetry to capture his conflicted emotions, while Yasmin simply outruns them; and there is no doubt where our sympathies are meant to lie.
The protagonists in Tsabari’s stories are mostly younger people, in their teens and twenties, for whom questions of identity present themselves in the form of love and sex. Tsabari’s people seldom talk explicitly about politics and almost never about religion; rather, the themes of these stories are embodied in action and character. A dark-skinned Israeli girl goes to India and half-pretends to be Indian, until her boyfriend—an actual Indian, but one raised in London—reflects back to her just how far she is from being a native. A young man, weak and timid, who avoided army service brings his Canadian girlfriend back to Israel then fears he may lose her to his father, a tough Sabra IDF officer. A girl who was raised fatherless realizes that her actual father was not a European tourist, as her mother told her, but an Arab neighbor.
In each case, Tsabari shows that Israeliness is not an answer but a question, one that must be continually posed even when it seems to have been left behind. In this sense, Tsabari’s stories are in the main tradition of Jewish literature, which is similarly obsessed with the meaning of identity, the way it is inherited, and how it shapes and misshapes the soul. To read Tsabari is to see Israeliness, which was intended as a remedy for the ills of Diasporic Jewishness, turn into a new kind of Diasporic identity. It is a fascinating transformation, and The Best Place on Earth may be the herald of a whole new genre of Jewish literature.