Thursday, March 1, 2012

Swimming in a Sea of Otherness

In my experience, one generally makes much more trouble for oneself in this world by opening one’s mouth than by keeping it shut. But that is apparently not always the case, as was amply evidenced the other day by Justice Salim Joubran, the only Israeli Arab among the fourteen judges on Israel’s Supreme Court, who managed to create a huge brouhaha in Israel without saying a word. The incident occurred the other day at a ceremony honoring the Dorit Beinisch, the ninth president of the Supreme Court on the occasion of her impending retirement. The ceremony ended, as these things invariably do in Israel, with the singing of Hatikvah. But Justice Joubran chose not to sing, a position he is widely understood to maintain on principle. Generally speaking, I admire people who hold fast to their principles and do not abandon them merely to curry favor with others. (Don’t most of us feel that way?) And in that sense I have to say that I admire the justice for having the courage of his convictions. On the other hand, there is something bizarre and unsettling about the image of a man occupying a position at the pinnacle of the justice system of his own country, yet finding it impossible to express his allegiance to country he serves simply by doing something as innocuous as singing its national anthem in public. But nothing in Israel is ever that simple! And although the whole incident is surely in the larger scheme of things just a minor kerfuffle, it so perfectly encapsulates the dilemma facing Israel as it moves into the future that I thought I would write about it today. Nor is this entirely without implications for the way we see our own country and its much-vaunted, yet often more-honored-in-the-breach separation of church and state.

Israel was founded as a Jewish state. Zionism itself is the sturdy philosophical structure built on that single foundational idea, a philosophy that self-defines as the political expression of the Jewish version of the natural longing all nations have to live in peace on their own land and to thrive within secure boundaries. When understood in that way, it feels entirely normal to me for the Jewish people to have its own state in its own homeland, to pursue its own cultural ideals according to its own lights on its own territory, to defend itself from its enemies in the manner of all nation-states, and to self-define in whatever way it wishes. Nor, given the way our people have too-often fared in the lands of our dispersion, is this mere political theory: over the years, Israel has provided refuge for Jewish people from uncountable diaspora settings where their very lives would otherwise have been in danger or at least in which they would otherwise have been unable to live as Jews freely and without impediment. Indeed, when the United Nations finally bowed both to reality and common sense in 1991 and revoked its resolution condemning Zionism as racism, it was merely nodding to the fact that Israel has the same right to self-define that is accorded naturally to every other nation on earth.

Or rather, not to every nation, but rather only the ones with their own property. The world, in fact, is filled with nations that are not awarded the right to self-define as independent states. The Inuit in Canada. The Maoris in New Zealand. The Navahos in our own country, and the Cherokees and all the other Native American nation-tribes. The Chechens in Russia. The Basques in Spain. The Bretons in France. The Copts in Egypt. The Lapps in Sweden, Finland, and Norway. The Tamils in Sri Lanka. You see where I’m going. Nations that merely exist are specifically not automatically awarded the right to exist as independent states, not by the United Nations or for that matter by anyone at all. So it is hardly possible convincingly to argue the Jewish right to self-definition with reference solely to the existence of the Jewish people. The Basques also exist! What was on the table in those dark years between 1975 (when the United Nations voted to equate Zionism and racism) and 1991 (when that hateful resolution was finally revoked) was not whether the Jewish people existed at all, but whether they were rightly to be considered a mere ethnicity with no natural claim to statehood or an actual nation that has the inalienable right to self-define. In the end, and slightly amazingly, the U.N. (at least in this one instance) did the right thing. But where does that leave Justice Joubran? Not in such a comfy seat, it turns out. And that is where the issue of principle comes into play.

Hatikvah, surprisingly, only became Israel’s official national anthem in 2004. But it was widely recognized as the national hymn since the state was founded in 1948 and long before that. (The British briefly banned the public performance of the song in 1919, apparently because they felt it too overtly identified with the political aim of the Zionist movement to rid Palestine of the British and to proclaim on its territory a Jewish state.) The song itself is about the longing of the Jewish people to live the normal life of a sovereign nation. Nor could its lyrics, which all together constitute one long, complex sentence, possibly be more transparent in that regard: “As long as in the inner heart the Jewish soul yet yearns, and as long as an eye still gazes towards Zion, towards the east, towards the future, our hope, the two-thousand-year-old hope to be a free people in our land, in Zion, in Jerusalem, has not been extinguished.” As sentences go, it’s a little convoluted. But as poetry it could not be clearer: as long as the Jewish heart yearns for Zion and as long as the eyes of the Jewish people are trained on the land of Israel, then the hope of the Jewish people to be a free people in its own land cannot truly be said to have been extinguished. The sentiment could not be more noble, but the reality is more messy: if you were an Arab Israeli—Justice Joubran is a Christian Arab, not a Muslim, but that’s hardly the point—would you be able to sing that song with the fervor a Supreme Court justice would naturally be expected to bring to his nation’s national anthem?

It’s not such an easy question to answer. The French-language version of the Canadian national anthem defines the great accomplishment of European Canadians as the conquest of the territory that now is Canada with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other, but most Jewish citizens—if they even know the words in French—consider that a joke, an amusing comment on their nation’s past rather than a provocative insult to non-Christians in Canada today. Other nations too define themselves in terms of the majority’s sense of the nation’s inmost ethos. British law requires that the head of state be a member of the Church of England. Norwegian law requires that the king be a member of the Church of Norway. The president of Lebanon has to be a Christian, but the prime minister has to be a Muslim. (The deputy prime minister has to be a member of the Greek Orthodox faith.) Nor is any of this unusual in terms of the way the countries of the world conduct their affairs. All countries pass laws regularly intended to promote their national character in uncountable ways ranging from the languages that are taught in their schools to the specific days they endorse as national holidays to the designs on their national flags and coats of arms. And so too does Israel seek to promote itself as a Jewish state in a thousand different ways, including its choice of its national anthem.

I’ve just read the most interesting novel, a book called Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashua. Born in Israel and fluent in Hebrew, Kashua is a graduate of the Hebrew University and writes regularly for Haaretz and for the local Jerusalem newspaper, Ha-Ir, as well as the dialogue for the Israeli sitcom Avodah Aravit (“Arab Labor”), which once won the award for best television series at the Jerusalem Film Festival. He is also an Arab who writes openly about the situation of Israeli Arabs and the bizarre, sometimes tragic, way in which they are inevitably caught between the dominant culture of Jewish Israel and their own Arab culture. It’s a painful book to read in some ways, affecting and upsetting at the same time, because it highlights the paradox with which Israel must live, and with which those of us whose hearts beat with Israel must therefore also live. We want Israel to a Jewish state. We want Jewish culture to flourish there. We want the gates always to remain open to Jewish refugees from wherever they must flee to safeguard their lives or their property or their heritage. We are nothing but proud of the degree to which Israel has managed all that. But we also want Israel to be a democracy in which all citizens are treated fairly and equitably, in which no citizens are by definition second-class or deemed to possess fewer rights than others. Most of the time we tell ourselves that there’s no real problem, that we American Jews feel fully possessed of the rights of citizens and have made our collective peace with living in a Christian society that, for reasons none of us truly understands, considers it rational for Christmas to be a national holiday and does not find it bizarre for there to be Christmas trees in post offices or public hospitals, let alone in the White House itself. It’s just how it is, we tell ourselves, and, on the whole, it’s not that bad. In fact, we are beyond fortunate to be here, to be citizens of this great democracy. And that we surely all know as well.

In my opinion, the Israelis who were outraged by the incident involving Justice Joubran last week are making a huge deal out of nothing. The man is a respected jurist and, by all accounts, an intelligent man. He has made his peace with who he is and with where he lives. He serves his country in a very public position and has, by all accounts, acquitted himself well. (He was, among other things, one of the three judges who upheld former Israeli president Moshe Katzav’s rape conviction last November.) So he doesn’t want to sing a hymn in public that ignores his people’s presence in the Jewish homeland and fails even to nod to the issue of their presence. He’s not the first. Ghaleb Majadale, the first Muslim appointed to serve in the Israeli cabinet, also got himself in hot water for refusing to sing the song, remarking at the time that the song was clearly written “for Jews only.” There were those who responded to that thought not by acknowledging its reasonableness (for the record, Majadale was certainly correct in his assessment of Naphtali Herz Imber’s original intention when he wrote Hatikvah in 1878), but by being outraged at his scandalous behavior. My counsel is for everybody to calm down. I could not feel myself to be more of a patriotic American, but I still avoid the post office in December as a silent (and, yes, meaningless and other than by myself unnoticed) protest against that irritating tree and all that it gratingly represents. It’s my small way of asserting, at least to myself, my sense that America has failed to live up to its own ideal of no religion being granted primacy of place, let alone “established” as our national faith. President Kennedy’s vision of an America “where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials” is exactly right. That we come up short was not his problem, then, but it remains ours. (If you haven’t read President Kennedy’s remarks lately, originally delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, and you are reading an electronic version of this letter, then you can click here to read them in full. They are beyond inspiring!) And maybe that’s the way it should be, that it has to be: minority types make small gestures to assert their identity in a sea of otherness while nevertheless serving their nations and feeling proud and happy to do so. That’s how I feel about my country. That’s presumably how Justice Joubran feels about his. It’s even sort of how Sayed Kashua feels, although in a painfully raw, disconcerting way. I encourage all my readers to read his novel, Dancing Arabs. His second novel, Let It Be Morning¸ I’m just about to begin. A third novel is due out in the spring. I’ll read that one too, I’m sure.

Wanting Israel to be a multicultural democracy that embraces all its citizens and wanting Israel to be a Jewish state should not be incompatible ideas. The Norwegians seem to have figured it out. So have the Brits. And so will Israel. Not all paradoxes, after all, are fatal. There are those you can just learn to live with. I hardly go to the post office anyway.

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