Becoming post-Israeli: Why I Immigrated to Berlin

Although like many Israelis of my generation I was experiencing financial difficulties, that was not my reason for leaving for Berlin. The reason was and is the feeling that there is no future in Israel.

Na’aman Hirschfeld
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Tourists take a rest at the holocaust memorial in Berlin on a sunny but cold Monday. March 25, 2013.
Tourists take a rest at the holocaust memorial in Berlin on a sunny but cold Monday. March 25, 2013.Credit: AP
Na’aman Hirschfeld

Over the past few weeks the public discourse in Israel has been occupied with the so called “Berlin” protest, at the center of which stand the exorbitant cost of living in Israel as reflected in a comparison with the cost of living in Berlin, to which many young Israelis emigrated over the past few years. In addressing the issue, Yair Lapid, the Israeli Minister of Finance, stated “these young guys are right – the prices are intolerable” and elsewhere further said “I understand the people who depart for Berlin and even agree with them,” but added: “I am telling the protesters that I understand the daily difficulty, but I am also saying that there should be a discussion of the question whether a young person’s departure to Berlin is only due to the cost of living in Israel or because of identity, and why we chose to form a Jewish state, as well as other issues. This is a complex discussion. We are seeking to form an exemplary society and we shouldn’t give up this effort.”

The cost of living in Israel is indeed very high and young people are struggling financially, yet is that the main reason why many, including myself, decided to leave Israel for Berlin? To a certain extent Yair Lapid is correct, it is an issue of identity; the identity of Israel as a state, its identity as a society and the identity the individual can and is allowed to possess within it. At the same time, the second part of his statement regarding the “exemplary society,” a terminology that invokes the specters of the Zionist utopia sketched in high-school textbooks, touches upon the issue from another direction: The construction of social reality in Israel using a phony and ridiculously detached ideological language. This language hijacks any meaningful discussion of the problems into the fantastic but anemic discourse of institutional Zionism. It is like a cellophane wrapping that covers all the state systems within which a vile corruption is spreading, and it serves to mask and justify the political decay of the public representatives who collaborate in creating a false veneer that belies this reality. Using this language the emigration of Israelis is formulated in ideological terms – it is a “Yerida” (lit. descent), which is the opposite of “Aliyah” (lit. ascent). In doing so, the emigrating Israelis are allocated a specific place within this national-cultural discourse; rendering them props in the theater of Israeli politics. Yet the movement towards Berlin begins not in a ‘Yerida’ but rather in a ‘Leaving,’ and the thing left is first and foremost this very discourse.

Leaving as an act
While Berlin is an alluring and advantageous city for economic, cultural and geographic reasons, no less significant in an Israeli perspective is the fact that in deciding to leave for Berlin, one performs an act of resistance; opposing an entire ideological formation that stands at the center of the mainstream Israeli cultural-political discourse, which posits Berlin in particular and Germany in general as antinomies of Israeliness and Zionism. In other words, the decision to leave for Berlin is not the same as the decision to immigrate to London/Paris/Los Angeles/New York and other places, because Germany is constructed as a negative historical “Other” in practically all spheres of Israeli culture. As such, a willingness to move to Berlin is at the very minimum a willingness to relinquish and go beyond a fundamental Israeli identity narrative. There is a rejection of something of what constitutes ‘Israeliness’ in this move. Yet, the content of this rejection cannot be simply abstracted and defined – this is a dynamic relation, the interpretation of which is constantly unfolding and evolving, because the Israeli who left, is still an Israeli even in Berlin.

Although like many Israelis of my generation I was experiencing financial difficulties, it was not my reason for leaving. Rather, the reason was and is the feeling that there is no future in Israel. The Israeli government does not serve the interest of the people. Nearly every sphere of life is neglected in favor of the state security apparatus and the various corrupt interest groups that leech public resources and finances. The official institutional systems – education, health, social welfare, public transportation, police – are managed in a way that victimizes the citizen by relating to the average individual in an inhuman way as part nuisance, part parasite and part milking cow. Yet this corruption, which very few officials dare to admit and most collude in masking (although every average Israeli experiences it on a daily basis) is a symptom rather than the cause of the disease in the Israeli socio-political body. The cause is the cruel and crushing oppression of the Palestinians in the name of an ideology that seeks to settle the entire territory between the river Jordan and the Sea. Although most Israelis do not adhere to this ideology, they nonetheless support politicians that time after time lend their support to the settlements at the expense of the general Israeli public – either due to their own ideological convictions, or due to dirty political maneuverings which they get away with time and again.

The oppression of the Palestinians leads to a brutalization and corruption of Israeli society, and both are enabled by a semi-intentional blindness on the part of the citizenry, which makes the citizens culprits in their own exploitation as well as in the oppression of the Palestinians. Israeli public discourse is saturated with propaganda and mythography, and one of the central elements that is constantly reinforced by both is the idea of an “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” This term is in fact a euphemism that effaces the reality of occupation and oppression with the mirage of a historic struggle between two national people. For the vast majority of Israelis, the reality of the occupation is invisible as it is subsumed by this historical-nationalistic discourse, enabling Israelis to perceive the “Conflict” as arising from a reality in which ‘we’ are victims and ‘they’ want to destroy us.

Most Israelis neither want nor can afford to see what happens around them and through their choices because their entire worldview is dependent on the justification of the collectivity in the name of which Israel perpetrates crimes against the Palestinians. This collectivity is founded upon an ideological meta-history that Israelis are exposed to already as small children: The Holocaust as the lesson that our enemies seek to exterminate us, no one will do anything except us, and we – not the weak who failed to defend themselves, but the strong who survived – must prevent this at all costs. This myth becomes the measure of things, and Israel for most Israelis is the only counterbalance to a world saturated with fear, hardship and hatred. The Palestinians are dehumanized; they are no longer humans like you and me, but are rather ‘Arabs’, which to the racist means – people that cannot be trusted, who would kill us if they have a chance, who want to see us eradicated. The commonplace stereotypical view of Arabs in Israel is just as racist, violent and full of bigotry as the view of some anti-Semites in relation to Jews. The number of hate crimes against Arabs, in some parts of Israel and throughout the occupied territories, is very high, although many if not most are untreated and unrecognized by the authorities.

During the last ‘non-war’ on Gaza the Israeli extreme right took control of the public discourse. This was a watershed moment: A line was crossed and most people in Israel chose to conform to the violent rhetoric and actions of the extreme-right, agreeing to the delegitimizing of the left while enthusiastically and blindly supporting a manufactured war, brewed to the calculus of a cynical political leadership. I find particularly amusing the fact that the derogatory term “Sleepwalking Left” that until the last two years had been used in public discourse to label all of those left-wing people who think that the conflict is in fact an occupation, exploitation and even a crime against humanity as moonstruck, was replaced with the term “Extreme Left,” which posits the Israeli left as possessing a violent reactionary nature equaling that of people from the extreme-right who rejoice in burning a Palestinian boy alive as an act of “revenge” or at least want to see a third Jewish temple being erected on top of the ruins of the Al-Aqsa mosque. This is a new stage in the development of a fascistic political language that increasingly excludes the left from the legitimate public discourse, gradually but effectively silencing it. This language is at the center, in the mainstream, and it becomes increasingly more extreme.

The vast majority of the Israeli public elects to give power to people who intentionally and actively demolish any possibility of a political solution to the occupation except the creation of an apartheid state. The continuous exploitation of the Israeli public (manifest in the current living-expense crisis for instance) is done in order to support the huge and corrupt security system that intertwines with both the political and economic elite of Israel to an extent that makes their separation impossible. The interest of this political-military-economic complex is to perpetuate the reality in which Israel requires large and well developed armed forces and security services from which this elite (and many international interests as well) benefits tremendously and on which it bases its political power. It is also done in order to support and expand the Jewish settlement on Palestinian lands, in which a shadow state under military authority collaborate and support the Jewish Extreme-Right.

All settlements exist in areas that are under military rather than civilian Israeli rule (settlers though are subject to civilian rather than military law, in contrast to the Palestinians.) The government in these areas is not the normal state of Israel but a hybrid creature in which multiple and often hidden interests converge. The Jewish population in these areas is also not run-of-the-mill Israelis but for the most part Jewish extremists, a large number of whom are driven by messianic beliefs and understand the occupation in terms of a religious conflict with Muslims or even Islam. For many of these extremists the settlements are a sanctified enterprise done in the name of a divine promise and are thus a just cause sanctioned by God. Although they are a minority within Israeli society, they are becoming increasingly more powerful and influential; forming a substantial element of the contemporary military and political elite.

The public discourse in Israel is almost completely devoid of discussions of these issues, in much the same way as most Israeli media is devoid of real coverage of what happens in the West Bank and Gaza, in both normal times and in states of ‘non-war’ like “Operation Protective-Edge” and all its predecessors. One can stand and shout slogans in demonstrations and write texts like this one and it will have no effect on the vast majority of Israelis. The leftist minority will agree and most of the rest are immune to seeing and hearing: We undergo indoctrination - in school, in the army, in daily life, in being exposed to the media and of course to politicians. To some degree we do it out of choice, but for the most part we do it because of powerful group dynamics that demand conformism.

Although this is not unique to Israel, the severity, intensity and degree of intentional ideological intervention in this process is exceptional. The result is the creation of a mental apparatus that allows a person to contend with things that do not fit in the mainstream worldview through readymade and often automatic responses that translate these things into terms in the discourse of collective identity, survival and responsibility. An alarming but mundane example is the lack of empathy with which most Israelis were and are able to cancel the validity of the suffering of civilians in Gaza, including children, as this became fundamentally entangled with the above mentioned discourse: Only one side can be a victim, and Hamas, an entity that ultimately seeks to ‘destroy us’ is responsible. Despite the disparity of power between Hamas and the IDF, they are victimizers and we are their potential victims.

Our ‘non-war’ is therefore an act of self-preservation, and the civilians in Gaza are in fact the victims of Hamas, not us. Actually, their situation is ‘their fault’ because they elected Hamas democratically and now do not overthrow it. This mechanism also enables the collective repression of complicated experiences that cannot – at least in the short term – be integrated into the national narrative. A chilling example is the monstrous murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, which disappeared from the Israeli mainstream discourse almost immediately and was subsequently buried in collective memory by the two months of bombardments that followed.

And now Berlin: To immigrate here is a recognition of the impossibility of being in Israel; of the impossibility of making a change; of the fact that one’s voice and actions have no substantial effect. It is to understand that I have no role except for being a fig leaf for those who say: “see, Israel is a free and democratic state, even ‘haters of Israel’ – left-wing, draft-avoiding Arab lovers like these – can speak their mind without finding themselves in the holding cells of a secret police”. Perhaps with the exception of being mentioned in a footnote to be written in future history books: “There were Israelis that opposed the rape of the Palestinian people.”

I have a brave step-brother who is engaged in multiple left-wing activities, especially as part of the “Combatants for Peace” organization. I asked him once why he continues to demonstrate and participate in other political activities even when he knows that his actions have very little impact on the Israeli reality. He answered with a question: “What is better? That there will be left-wing demonstrations and political actions or not? If all the left-wing people leave, Israel will do whatever it does with no internal resistance.” He is right – I would and still do want to make a difference, but I feel and think that within Israel I cannot do so without being trampled myself and that even then it is only through a very partial, asymmetric and miserable solidarity with the Palestinians.

We are not the “Fallout of Cowards,” as Yizhak Rabin famously labeled Israeli emigrants who chose the promise of a life of plenty in the U.S.A over participation in the Zionist Project. We choose to leave our place, our families and to a degree our culture because of a feeling of powerlessness – our choice is between an ability to have an effect on our environment and an influence on our future (as who we are!) on the one hand, and a life as part of a national community on the other; both cannot be done simultaneously.

The very act of leaving embodies the choice in becoming post-Israeli: This is no longer a deviation from the Zionist narrative along the lines of post- or anti-Zionism but rather a breaking away from Zionism. Over the past decades ‘Zionism’ underwent a right-wing appropriation that gradually replaced the historical content of this term in a way that makes it analogous to ‘Settlement.’ Today to be a ‘Zionist,’ at least within the Israeli public discourse, means to support the “Settlement Enterprise” of the “Zionist-Right” and to accept this political language as a truthful description of reality. There are people who will argue that this is not Zionism at all or not all of what Zionism stands for, but to argue for a historical Zionism rather than the contemporary discourse is merely a feeble grasping at a lost (and somewhat fantastic) past.

In deciding to leave for Berlin there is an acceptance of an internal paradox that forms the infrastructure of being Post-Israeli: In the movement to a place that represents the negation of the nation within the national-cultural discourse there is a rejection of this identity discourse using the elements inherent to that discourse itself. With the departure this tension is not resolved but rather transformed, becoming an intrinsic although paradoxical element of identity. I am Israeli but I choose to break away from my nation – in the worldly sense of this term – and free myself from its destructive history and narrative. Yet, one cannot simply sever a historical link, Israeli history is to a degree my history, but I choose to stand outside it to the extent a person can really choose to do so. I have a strong and deep connection to Israel that I neither can nor wish to sever, and while being away from Israel gives me more peace than being in it, it is also self-exile.

Does this have a political significance? Absolutely. I possess an Israeli citizenship. Most of my world is still in Israel and my native language is Hebrew, but I am not willing to take an active role in the state of Israel. I did not leave in order to support Israel from the outside as a ‘goodwill ambassador.’ I left in disgust, feeling oppressed and exhausted. This was desperation mixed with necessity: I am here because I am unwilling to submit my future and fate to the government and state of Israel. The leaving to Berlin is a statement that I am not willing to be one of Yair Lapid’s “Guys in Berlin.” By leaving I stopped being one of the guys, period.

Na’aman Hirschfeld is a PhD candidate in the Institute for Cultural Studies at Humboldt University of Berlin. His dissertation is concerned with late 19th century studies of mythology. He lives in Berlin with his wife and child.

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