In the chilling interview Ilana Dayan held a few months ago with the prime minister’s lawyer, Jacob Weinroth, he said: “I think Bibi is basically an American. He’s not Israeli, really.” The statement didn’t make waves, perhaps because it was drowned out by seemingly more burning issues, or perhaps because of another, deeper reason.
Weinroth in fact contends that although Benjamin Netanyahu was born in Israel and his mother tongue is Hebrew, his early years in the United States molded his identity. But beyond the interesting biographical aspect, the fact that Weinroth’s statement was ignored is important. For some reason, nobody felt it was an insult to Netanyahu to say he was an American.
It’s hard to think of equivalent statements that would have been passed over with such indifference: “Avigdor Lieberman is basically Russian. He’s not Israeli, really.” Or: “Amir Peretz is basically Moroccan. He’s not Israeli, really.” What’s the explanation for this?
Netanyahu’s American character isn’t seen as an identity that subverts his Israeli identity. The fact that he’s “basically” American – that is, Jewish-American – doesn’t carry a negative connotation and is in a way invisible, it doesn’t stick out through the layers of Israeliness covering it. Although Netanyahu is American, his identity doesn’t undermine his standing and make him suspect in Israelis’ eyes. Defense ministers Peretz and Lieberman will die as a Moroccan and a Russian, respectively. Does that indicate the failure of the Zionist enterprise?
Zionism wished to establish a new state and build a new man and woman. Indisputably, it succeeded in establishing a state. Not merely a political entity whose institutions are all recognized, it actually built a country. However, Zionism invested no less intensity and effort into building a new man and woman. Zionism acted as a national melting pot, and not metaphorically at all, as the series “Salah, This is Israel” shows. It hewed and chopped and smashed and broke down human resources in a way that’s difficult not to describe in violent terms regarding immigrants from Arab countries – with all the force necessary to melt down an identity in a mold drawn to the proportions of its creators, for the industrial production of Israelis.
Did Zionism succeed in doing that? Are there Israelis in Israel? And if so – who are they? And do they still exist, or have they broken down and reverted to their component parts?
Looking at the political arena shows that Habayit Hayehudi has taken over the term “Jewish.” Labor and its outgrowths have taken possession of the category “Zionist.” Likud unifies behind an abstract nationalist idea, whose particular expression is “Likud.” Its voters are first and foremost Likudniks. That’s a pre-nationalist category, like family.
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Yair Lapid appropriated for his party, Yesh Atid, the category which he turned into a brand: “the Israeli.” Even before entering politics, he acted as though he had purchased the copyright on this brand. But it seems Ortal Ben Dayan was accurate when she posted on Facebook a paraphrase of his iconic question, “What is ‘Israeli’ to you?” Instead, she put the question as, “What is ‘Ashkenazi’ to you?” For Lapid, “the Israeli” is nothing other than “Ashkenazi.”
But the deeper question isn’t the branding of political identity, but whether an Israeli identity exists at all anymore. Or maybe, as Gabriel Bukobza aptly described Lapid (in Friday’s Gallery section, Haaretz Hebrew edition), the Israeli today is an imitation without an original, “a duplicate of a made-up man.”
If there’s hope for Israel, it lies in the possibility that the country is in the developmental stage of a revolutionary undermining of “the Israeli,” in which it negates the term by returning to the people’s roots, or alternatively denies it by adopting a seemingly universal identity. And after the stage of negation and denial, the correction will come dialectically: by reclaiming the category “Israeli” and rebuilding it.