What Israel Needs Is a Dose of Self-hatred

It’s often said that our intellectuals are defaming Israel and are addicted to hating it. Actually, most of them are so loyal it’s embarrassing

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A man wrapped in the Israeli flag.
A man wrapped in the Israeli flag.Credit: Alex Levac
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

“That’s the truth about Austria. By nature the Austrian is a National Socialist and a Catholic through and through, however hard he tries not to be. In this country and this nation Catholicism and National Socialism have always been in balance – now more National Socialist, now more Catholic, but never just the one or the other. The Austrian mind thinks only in National Socialist and Catholic terms. And this is true also of Austrian philosophers, who use their unappetizing National Socialist Catholic minds no differently from their compatriots. If we take a walk in Vienna, the people we see are all essentially National Socialists and Catholics, who behave at times more as National Socialists, at times more as Catholics, but usually as both simultaneously; this is why we find them so repulsive on closer acquaintance and close scrutiny whether we’re prepared to admit it or not.”

This malicious text appears in the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s novel “Extinction” (1986; English edition 1995, translated by David McLintock). Having grown up in the Nazi era, he surely had a good reason to describe his country in those terms. Still, you get the impression that his abundant loathing of Austria didn’t stem only from the country’s Nazi past. Bernhard wasn’t writing in the 1940s or even in the ‘60s, but in the ‘80s – Austria’s social-democratic period. But with or without Nazism, Bernhard (1931–1989) absolutely abominated his Austrian homeland.

Most of his books contain wild outpourings of the type quoted above. In his 1984 novel “Woodcutters,” he describes Austria as the urinal of Europe, a country that has reached such a state of obnoxious dreariness and filth as to be unbearable. He uninhibitedly slandered his homeland even when he took the stage to accept one of his country’s most important awards. Nor was he content with theoretical hatred: His will prohibits the publication of his books or the staging of his plays in Austria for 50 years after his death – just so he could laugh from his grave at his country and countrymen.

It’s fitting to cite the example of Bernhard when we talk about the supposed lack of patriotism among intellectuals in our own country. It’s often alleged that Israeli writers and artists are insufficiently fond of their country, or that they defame it abroad. It’s not rare to hear comments like, “No country is as critical of itself as Israel,” or “We are nation battered by self-hatred.” But such claims totally lack perspective. With few exceptions, Israelis are embarrassingly loyal to their country and revere it the way a toddler admires his preschool teacher.

A search for the Israeli equivalent of Bernhard will almost certainly prove futile. Nor will we find parallels to the hatred vented by Edgar Allan Poe against Americans (“a race of children of Baal and worshippers of Mammon”) or Jean Genet’s rant against France (“Oh the word isn’t strong enough, to ‘hate’ France, that’s nothing, it’s more than hatred, more than vomiting up France”).

Earlier this month, Channel 10 broadcast a piece by journalist Oshrat Kotler titled “Israel in the Eyes of Its Writers.” David Grossman, Etgar Keret, Zeruya Shalev – they all showed up and offered the usual cloying clichés about the agonies of life in Israel and the anxieties about the future, punctuated by genteel words of criticism. But all of them were at pains to make clear, in one way or another, how much they love Israel and how dear it is to them.

That’s the way of our intellectuals. At most they’ll express hatred for a particular element in the country or society: for Benjamin Netanyahu, Miri Regev, the settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, the Ashkenazim, aggressive drivers, the security checks at the airport. If you hate the country, you have to make clear that you love the people. If you hate the army, you’ll explain that you love Jewish tradition. If you loathe Jerusalem, you’ll declare that you’re mad about Tel Aviv. If you hate Israeli songs, you’ll swear you’re wild about Israeli food. But you won’t find anyone who simply hates Israel, Israeliness and the Israelis.

I envy countries that have writers who truly hate their nation with a seething, roiling passion. Despite all the talk about self-hatred, Israeli culture is stricken with pathological self-love. A vivid example is the endless preoccupation with the torch-lighting ceremony on the eve of Independence Day. On television, in the newspapers and on social media, people are engrossed by this vacuous ceremony as if it were their wedding. In general, holidays and collective ceremonies thrill Israelis in an infantile way. Even highly educated people who consider themselves individualists have a hard time creating an independent life story for themselves, one not subordinate to the tasks forced on them by the state: now sit down, now be happy, now contemplate the Holocaust, now eat cheesecake on Shavuot. The national calendar dominates life.

David Grossman.Credit: Reuters

Safe emotional distance

There’s a widespread notion that intellectuals have to love their people and country even when they’re critical of them. That argument prevails on the right but no less on the left, which in this connection likes to cite a quote from George Orwell about the thrill he got at the sight of the flag waving. Fortunately, not all intellectuals sound like Orwell. Against the backdrop of the cloying national celebrations, which recall a fun day in a sadistic work environment, it’s worth remembering that in certain situations the intellectual’s task is precisely to hate his nation – even to feel nauseated by it.

You don’t have to think that Israel is a fascist country to keep a safe emotional distance from it. There’s no need even for overly complex reasoning. In fact, what we have here is a bizarre paradox, because sometimes it seems as if all Israelis feel like strangers in their own land. The Mizrahim feel that the Ashkenazim imported them like so much stuffing, and the Ashkenazim feel that the Mizrahim took their country away from them. There are those who hate Arik Einstein and those who are frustrated because his songs aren’t played enough. Still, instead of hating the experience, everyone insists on clinging to love of the homeland and hope for its future.

The writer J.G. Ballard once said that what Britain needs is more decadence. By the same token, what we can wish Israel on its 70th birthday is more self-hatred. It might actually be beneficial.

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