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Negation of the Diaspora

Clowders of cats wander the streets of Tel Aviv like stranger kings to whom all must pay their respect. Lying under chairs, sitting on top of cars, relaxing in cafes, they settle on other people’s property without regard for anyone or anything. A friend tells me a story: When the British ruled over Palestine, there was a massive rat infestation. To solve the problem, they introduced cats all over the country. One population was displaced, and another took its place. This story, like most narratives that circulate about Israel, is false. There were always cats here, and they come not from some mistaken British policy, but from the ecology of the region itself. Yet its falseness contains a moment of truth: no origins are given here, nothing is taken for granted as a fact of history—everything is contested terrain.

Photos by Jacob Blumenfeld.

Here’s another example. Sitting in a café in the hip Florentin district of Tel Aviv, I ask a few leftist friends about the war in Gaza last summer. “Horrible, unnecessary,” they say. “Some people just cannot believe that not every war is absolutely essential for the survival of the country, that some are rather functional to maintain the occupation.” Tell me about the anti-war protests. “We were attacked, called traitors, no one from the left parties would officially endorse the protests either.” None except the Jewish-Arab Marxist party, Hadash, which has only a few seats in the Knesset. Not even Meretz would support the protestors.

On a different night in a different bar with different Israelis, I ask the same questions about the summer war. “Horrible, unnecessary,” one woman answers. “Some people just cannot believe that we are constantly under attack, that these wars are necessary for our survival.” She tells me about the tunnels that Hamas built, the rockets, the sirens, the bomb shelters. The “hippies” who protested at Rabin Square enraged her. “Fools” she says, “but they have the right to be stupid.”

Wandering through Allenby Street between chabniks and hipsters, soldiers and synagogues, I fall into a little bookstore overflowing with dusty paperbacks of Hebrew, French, German, Yiddish and Russian poetry and American science fiction, overhearing a conversation between the owner and a customer about skyscrapers, mafia, too many Americans, and remember the good old days when this used to be a socialist country. Cramped, crushed, I escape into the winter sun, landing on a beach packed with people playing paddleball. Passing by Bialik Street and the homes of Hebrew artists, turning down Rothschild Boulevard where sushi stands and juice shops dot the walkway, I glance at hundreds of black, brown, yellow, red, and green soldiers entering a museum for their “culture” day, a museum about the history of the very army they are serving in. Tasting Israeli dim sum and local craft beers at the Carmel Market, then stuffing myself at a little Yemeni hummus shop a few streets away, I stop to catch a breath with a pastry at an Arab bakery in Jaffa. At the Super Jude kiosk, I find the übercool Berlin drink, Club-Mate, now with Hebrew labels. Brooklyn style vegetarian cafes run by a women’s collective serve bagels near Ben Yehuda Street. Even the army is going vegan.

White Bauhaus buildings remade as new with old chic stand pure next to decrepit, empty shells of homes. Avoiding birthright and birthwrong tour groups, I meander down the boardwalk, overhearing Hebrew mixed with English, French mixed with Russian, Arabic mixed with Hebrew. In South Tel Aviv at the ghostly shopping-mall-bus-station-shantytown, asylum seekers from Eritrea sell trinkets while Ethiopian Israelis guard the doors with AK47s. Anti-fascist graffiti of the ultras supporting the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team on one wall, messianic nihilist graffiti supporting the self-destruction of Israel on another. Raving religious Jews jump out of a bumping techno van at the corner of King George and Nahalat Binyamin, dance for a few minutes to German beats, trying to recruit some fresh blood for the ecstatic love of Adonai. Even Jews need to be converted to Judaism sometimes.

Everyone here complains, whether it’s the rent, the wars, the politicians. Gentrification, immigration, annihilation: pick your poison. Kvetching didn’t die with the diaspora, but solidified into a national identity. Another day of sun, another day of hell. Sababa. Sipping disgusting Israeli coffee with a few friends, all from military families, now radical leftists. They are philosophers, doing critical theory and feminism. Some lived in the states for a while, and are now back in Tel Aviv. Radicalized—or at least opened to the left—in their university days, when the “campus would not remain silent” around the second intifada. Coming back after the financial crisis and Arab Spring to a daily life of class resentment and permanent war, they wonder why they returned. At least the food is good, they chuckle. In a renovated warehouse club at the harbor in Jaffa, I talk to a bartender who complains about the Arab Spring because it cut off the good weed supply to Israel. What about the uprisings? I ask. What about them?

In 2011, the biggest social movement in Israeli history brought hundreds of thousands to the streets to protest against high rents and low wages, in effect, good old class rage. Not necessarily working class, but rage nonetheless against the economic status quo. These tent protests did not attack capitalism, did not even connect their woes to the economics of the occupation, and so ended up with some new parliamentary candidates, some new populism, some new old slogans. What was left of this momentary massive outburst? Marx’s Capital was republished in Hebrew, but no Marxists emerged. The blossom of class war soon wilted when security returned as the only conceivable horizon of politics. Yet something changed. Cooperatives sprouted all over the country, urban kibbutzim bloomed and connected into a network of self-managed, self-organized bars, cafes, and restaurants, in short, a sustainable subculture. Yet the rents, prices, and wages didn’t budge an inch. In the face of neoliberal restructuring, when massive street protests fail to put a dent in austerity, it’s normal that people turn to each other to collectively share the burden.

Waking up in Jaffa to the call of prayer from the mosque, grabbing a coffee on Rabbi Pinchas Street, where artists, proletarians, and the haute bourgeoisie mingle, picking up some seasoned bread at Abulafia’s “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” bakery, you can almost forget where you are for one second, before it comes crashing down on you like a guillotine. On a warm winter morning, a busload of people are stabbed by a “lone wolf” terrorist by the Maariv Bridge. A few days later, some soldiers are blown up by Hezbollah on the northern border, allegedly as retaliation for an Israeli strike a week earlier. Election ads surround Rabin Square from the right and center parties, each with the same slogan: It’s either us or them. The Arab parties are united—communist, nationalist, and Islamist—due to a new law requiring a higher percentage of votes to enter Parliament. Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe are making headlines every other week or so, with Israelis shrugging. Now you see, someone tells me. A war in the north is coming, everyone says, and another in Gaza. It’s just a matter of time. How to prevent it? End the occupation, one burly guy tells me, and stop the blockade. Another laughs and replies, why don’t we just shoot ourselves and skip the collateral damage? A third woman chimes in that Israel should just annex it all and make them full Israeli citizens. But what about Israel being a Jewish State, the first guy says, a permanent refuge for persecuted Jews? This is a capitalist state, she answers, not a Jewish one. Money doesn’t care about our gods.

The special exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is currently on the concept of Erasure. While the pieces are mostly conceptual, one wonders about the choice of theme itself. What is being erased here? What is inerasable? Perhaps the fear of collective erasure itself is the subtext? Compared to Germany or the United States, the Holocaust is barely memorialized here. The Jewish Diaspora Museum has only one room dedicated to it. On the streets, markers of local suicide attacks or signs documenting Jewish militia activity in Mandate Palestine are more common. The museums are themselves relics of another era, when cheesy installations and romantic docudramas of history were meant to inspire the next generation of Sabras to embrace the early Zionist values of collectivism, idealism, and sacrifice. Today, those words are demonized attributes of a leftist bogeyman that dare not return unless you want ISIS and Hamas to eat your children alive. That is, unless you’re talking about the army.

I’m on a bus with 20 Germans and Americans touring the West Bank with Breaking the Silence, a human rights N.G.O. composed of ex-soldiers who show people the reality of life under occupation. Driving through the South Hebron Hills, our guide describes his transition from religious, ambitious, wide-eyed soldier to conflicted, morally-torn, human rights activist. We see land that can’t be developed because the laws are so convoluted that not even a real estate tycoon can scam it. Families moved from one acre to the next and back again depending on some baroque mix of Ottoman, British, Jordanian, and Israeli law. Archaeological digs displace the exact people who themselves would love to work at such sites. Settlers attacking villagers protected by soldiers, who are then reprimanded for interfering with settlements. I ask a Palestinian farmer about his hopes for the future, and he tells me, we had a future once, when Jews and Arabs worked together for peace during the Oslo days; but then you killed Rabin. Seems like the dream of the ’90s is alive in Palestine. The Germans and Americans on the tour rattle on about apartheid, boycott, racism; the tour guide says it’s a bit more complicated than that.

In the middle of Haifa, you can walk into bars where everything is in Arabic, or a university cafeteria where Druze, Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all discussing some Russian text in Hebrew. Thank God we have B.D.S. (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction) to boycott such horrors. An Israeli woman I met in Haifa just returned from years living abroad in a peacefully boring country to find the prices in Israel tripled, the rent outrageous, and the job market impossible. Grown-ups are moving in with their elder parents, debt is becoming a part of life; the promised land of the start-up nation is running out of spiritual credit. “So why did you come back?” I ask. “Where else would I go?” she responds. “Europe?” Amos Oz recounts a funny story in How to Cure a Fanatic (2010): “When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, ‘Jews, go back to Palestine,’ or sometimes worse: ‘Dirty Yids, piss off to Palestine.’ When my father revisited Europe 50 years later, the walls were covered with new graffiti, ‘Jews, get out of Palestine.’

In Letters to an American Jewish Friend (2013), Hillel Halkin argues that Jewish life in the diaspora is on a slow but sure decline into insignificance, and there is an ethical imperative for Jews to migrate to Israel if they still want to be part of Jewish life. The diaspora is fine if you want to be something else, but if you want to be Jewish, there’s only one place for you, Zion. But does Israel truly escape the diaspora? In Philip Roth’s soul-bending book The Counterlife (1998), it is the Jews of Israel who are condemned to repeat the diaspora: enclosed by enemies all around, isolated from the world, always anxious, self-deprecating, fearful. The Jews in America, on the other hand, are free, confident, successful, happy, and proud to be who they are. In his even funnier book, Operation Shylock (1994), Roth takes this logic to its absurd conclusion, where a double of the author himself, while visiting Israel, advocates diasporism, the movement for massive Jewish emigration to Europe, where they’ll supposedly be welcomed with open arms. This idea sums up a lot of left thinking on “the Jewish question” today. Why not just send them back to diaspora?

One of the pillars of Zionist ideology was the concept of “negation of the diaspora,” shlilat ha’galut. What does it mean to negate the diaspora? According to Hegel, there are two types of negation: indeterminate and determinate. A determinate negation not only rejects a claim, but also simultaneously births a new claim from within the critique of the old. Zionism didn’t just want to negate the diaspora; it wanted to create a new idea of Jewish life: hence, a determinate negation. But with every such negation, something of the old is preserved and incorporated into the new. Tel Aviv is that remnant of diasporic negation that not even the Zionists could eliminate.

Is there still a difference between the diaspora Jew and Israeli Jew? In Joseph Cedar’s film Footnote (2011), the struggle between diaspora and Zion is restaged as one between father and son within Israel. The old diaspora Jew—stubborn, rude, bookish—is being upstaged in his own field of Talmudic research by his son—strong, warm, personable. The clash of generations climaxes in a case of mistaken identity, in which the son must decide how to deal with the obsolescence of his father’s relevance. But the father never really disappears, always returning to haunt the son, like a wandering god forever unsatisfied with its creation.

One of the funniest Israeli writers today, Etgar Keret, tells stories about the problems of narrative in a time of utter confusion. In some sense, his writing is a retrieval of the centrality of storytelling for Jewish life, diasporic life especially, in a place where stories are crushed by facts, wars, and propaganda. In his very short parable, “Pick a Color,” a silvery God arrives in a wheelchair to visit a yellow priest comforting a black husband mourning a white wife. In response to the priest’s insult, God retorts with the following:

What do you think … that I created all of you like this because it’s what I wanted? Because I’m some kind of pervert or sadist who enjoys all this suffering? I created you like this because this is what I know. It’s the best I can do.

Alas, not even a god can save us.

How do you explain the work of Sayed Kashua to a Zionist, Anti-Zionist, diasporist, or nationalist? One of the best living writers in the Hebrew language, Kashua is an Israeli Arab or Palestinian Israeli, depending on your linguistic politics. His stories, dialogues, and incredibly hilarious television show Arab Labor provide an image of diaspora within the homeland, the Arab minority within a Jewish state, reflecting on the paradox of belonging and non-belonging that has plagued Jewish life for millennia. In one episode, the Arab family seeks to impress their Jewish neighbors by staging a “traditional” Muslim holiday dinner. The joke is that the dinner is a complete fake, an attempt to appear “authentic” to impress the Jewish family whose Passover Seder impressed them. The Jews fall for it, duped by their own orientalist respect for a foreign culture. The level of satire, critique, irony, and double-consciousness at play in this one scene is enough to give any Larry David sketch a run for its money.

If only life was so funny. Perhaps nothing better captures the tragic comedy at the core of Israeli society as Nadav Lapid’s film The Policeman (2011). Symptomatically arriving the same year as the massive tent protests in 2011, it captures the class divisions of a society caught on the edge of an abyss it cannot recognize for fear of falling over. On the one side, a fraternal order of young elite policemen bonding over family and loss, on the other side, a group of young anarchists planning a spectacular action to wake the public up to its own misery. The slow burn of the film is punctuated by the repetition of an insurrectionary manifesto that the female protagonist reads with vigor. The dialogue of the youth expresses the hopeless hope of a generation that knows no future and can’t identify with the past. Caught in the pincers of the present, they seek a messianic rupture with dead time. But the messiah always comes too late. In the following scene, two young revolutionaries debate their manifesto. I give them the last word:

It’s time for the poor to get rich and for the rich to start dying. The majority is numbed with hatred of the other. This is obvious. The minority, perceiving itself as free, is numbed with individual freedom and free sex. Today nothing is less subversive than sex. We, a group of comrades who refuse to detach what we think from the way we live. We—at the age where supreme happiness is not sleep or leisure. We have decided to act. Herzl wrote: “The Jews, precisely because of their history—”

Forget about Herzl.


Jacob Blumenfeld

JACOB BLUMENFELD lives in Berlin, at home in diaspora, serving proletarian beer and bourgeois philosophy for a living.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2015

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