Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Not Your Mother's Israel

I've made my way through Max Blumenethal's Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, with profit though I wouldn't say exactly with pleasure.  Any book that might be entitled The NeoNazification of Israel is not going to wind up on the shelf next to your DVD of Springtime for Hitler.  The book is, in short, pretty much what the author promises--a serious of vignettes, 70 or so, designed to show what is really going on in Israel these days, and a pretty picture it is not.

I've also read a bit of the blowback-notably the exchanges between Blumenthal and Eric Alterman (start here and Google for responses by Blumenthal, Alterman and others; this one is particularly subtle).  Though I'm actually a little surprised that there isn't more blowback; the American Likud noise machine must have decided that the best strategy against Blumenthal would be to ignore him--but I noticed a full page ad for the book in the NYT a couple of Sundays ago so it sounds like he isn't just going to go away.

I can't add much to the give-and-take although it is perhaps already obvious that I tend to think Blumenthal has on the whole to the better of the exchange (I'm open to the possibility that there are particular instances of error or distortion--with 70-odd examples, there are bound to be).  What I would like to do is to offer a bit of context. Specifically, I suspect that those of my generation (is there anybody left in my generation?) simply haven't got there mind around the idea of just how complicated the demographics of Israel have become.

That is: however careful we are in keeping up with the news, we can't disentangle ourselves from the sense of gauzy optimism that consoled us back when Israel was all about earnest social democrats building kibbutzes to make the desert bloom (saying nothing about the sense of guilty relief that might have overtaken us when the refugees on Cyprus took events in their own hands and simply claimed the country for themselves, rather than trying--heaven forbid!--to come here).

Yes, yes, we know better, sort of, but the seductive old vision (buttressed by a liberal dose of Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof ) dies hard.

Or maybe it is just me.  Anyway, review some basics, culled variously from Blumenthal and a bit of supplementary Googling.  For starters, some 20 percent of the Israeli population is Arab; most of the rest is "Jewish," although there are a lot of problems of definition here.  Of the Jewish portion, barely half are "Ashkenazim:" the ones who pretty much structured the new nation and fashioned its narrative.  You knew that, or you should have: you've been on notice since they elected Menachem Begin--himself from Belarus, but in politics the voice of the voiceless.

Way more important, I think--and still pretty much misunderstood in the west--would be the immigration of something like a million Jews from the old Soviet Union, mostly with the enthusiastic support of the United States foreign policy establishment. And what a mixed bag they are: something like a third aren't even "Jewish" by theological standards and an unknown portion really don't have any tie to Judaism at all, except that it provided a ticket out.  The cohort surely includes a large number of people who have made Israel second to (almost) none in skilled labor and high-tech entrepreneurship; also a who's who of Russian gangsters who get to call Israel home as long as they practice their trade elsewhere (recall how Cyprus ceded over its banks to the Russians on more or less the same principle). The cohort also includes quite a large component of the most bellicose nationalists--but a nationalism not so much rooted in Biblical tradition, nor even the memory of the Holocaust, as in the notion of "we're here, stay out."

Which brings me to the final major piece in the puzzle: per Blumenthal, something in excess of a million "Israelis" now live outside the Promised Land--lots in America, quite a few in Germany, particularly Berlin.  Apparently most of these are young, highly skilled; most descend from the old Ashkenazi originals.  Which is to say: an Exodus (heh) of "traditional" Israelis that more or offsets the former-Soviet immigration.  Not your mother's Israel, nor anybody else's mother's, either.

More: For on Russian emigres in Israel, go here.  For more on the "demographic time bomb" facing Israel, go here (though I don't think I buy it).

1 comment:

marcel said...

Your 2 separate links to the Alterman-Blumenthal exchange both take one to Alterman's piece in The Nation - not 2 distinct links at all; unless you believe that on a 2nd reading, Alterman's piece is more subtle than it first appears to be. ;-)