The Dichotomy That Is Israel
Blum, Albert A., Contemporary Review
THE first time I visited Israel was shortly after the end of the Six-Day War. My host, proud of the victory, took me to the Golan Heights. I noticed, with admiration, the difference between the land that had once been Syrian and the land that continued to be Israeli: the former was brown, with no vegetation; the latter was green, replete with vegetation. But I also noticed something else: the land so lovingly cared for and so bitterly conquered was covered with garbage, casually dropped by Israeli tourists.
This is an example of the dichotomy between the dreams and the reality that is Israel which has also troubled me during my subsequent visits and assignments in Israel and which trouble me far more today. And I am not alone. I increasingly have company among other Jews in the diaspora as well as among Israelis themselves.
I had become conscious of the dichotomous nature of Israel long before there was an Israel. While eating my salami sandwiches in the cafeteria at the City College of New York (an urban campus for bright students), much of my time was spent arguing with a host of different types of young Zionists who also ate their salami sandwiches in the different alcoves of the cafeteria. I could not understand how this group of idealists could talk about socialism, the brotherhood of man, and the co-operative and loving nature of the kibbutzes and, at the same time, preach a fervent nationalism -- demanding for themselves a piece of land for which they had a deep and anthropomorphic feeling -- namely, Palestine, but which already had other people living on it who did not want to leave it.
I was unimpressed by the Zionists' nationalistic arguments but, at the same time, was impressed by their idealism and sincerity, and by the urgency of the case, given Hitler's holocaust. The arguments for the state of Israel thus had my grudging sympathy until its formation, and then, after 1948, my grudging support.
From afar, I watched with growing admiration what appeared to be the fulfilment of the dreams of my former classmates. Israel had become the haven for the victims of the holocaust. A democratic socialist movement was bringing equality to Israel's inhabitants; its kibbutzes were experimenting with shared relationships and shared outputs; its land was changing colour as it became fertile despite its being an island of democracy surrounded by people dedicated to its destruction. And these enemies were and still are authoritarian (usually too inefficient to be totalitarian), corrupt, and unconcerned with the real needs of the masses of their people for food and democracy. Israel became the Arab leaders' opiate for its masses and thus relieved them from the need to do anything that might raise economic and political standards of their people and thus weaken their power.
But then I went to Israel for the first time in 1968 and my sense of Israel's dichotomous nature returned. I have been back for varying periods of time since then, although not recently, and my troubled feelings concerning Israel's confused purposes persist. In fact, they have steadily become even more pronounced.
I started this discussion with a minor example -- garbage at the Golan Heights. What troubled me as I saw this junk, as it has at other times when I have had to wade through soda cans and banana peels, for example, while walking through Tiberius toward the Sea of Galilee was the intense love of the land that I felt as I talk with Israelis but who, at the same time, did not hesitate to soil that very land with the rubbish they casually drop on it.
I became aware later of another dichotomy. This one deals with learning and scholarship. Israel is a good antidote for a Jewish boy who grew up in New York of immigrant and uneducated parents, was placed in special schools for bright children, and went on to City College and Columbia University. And who did he find in these places set aside for bright youths but mainly Jewish boys and girls, from similar backgrounds, who not only shared his love for Kosher salami but also for books, learning, music, politics, and arguments. …