Who Are They to Tell Us Who We Are?

Jewish Israelis don't need the Palestinians, or Netanyahu, to define their national identity for them.

Carolina Landsmann
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Carolina Landsmann

The demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish State — rather than simply recognize the State of Israel, as in the peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan — is the new “There’s no partner for peace.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like Ehud Barak before him, is no more than a copywriter of impossibility. Sometimes it seems that our leaders believe that all the public demands of them is to provide a scientific proof that it’s impossible to solve the conflict with our neighbors. It’s interesting that the leadership’s insistence on receiving external validation of the state’s national identity doesn’t arouse patriotic anger at the blow to our national pride. After all, though the state is young, it’s already 65 years old. We passed the stage of defining and registering it as a political entity long ago. So what is this regression? Why are we turning with fear and trembling to request recognition of our autonomy? Where is the “Who are they to tell us who we are?"?

Apparently, 65 years is nothing in historical terms, and the source of our demand for recognition is an old habit — a desire for autonomy instead of auto-emancipation. We haven’t been liberated from the minority mentality that was the lot of the Jews for thousands of years. The perception of being a minority blinds us to our responsibility for the minorities in the country and to our relations with our neighbors. The Jewish majority behaves as though it is under foreign rule, and so does not hold itself responsible for its injustices. The direct result is that the most important responsibilities of a sovereign state are not handled with the necessary dedication.

Only the perception of being a minority can serve as an explanation (not an excuse) for the fact that after weighting the facts and assessing the options, after trying to make moral and military decisions, we conclude that we can live with the status quo — that is, with a situation in which Israel is operating an apartheid regime in the territories.

In the case of the Jews, this may be the tragedy of a nation that is not ripe for political independence and the responsibility it entails. The exile has become a basic element of our identity, and we are only able to formulate our identity as a nation vis-à-vis an enemy. That is why we have developed mechanisms of dependence on the enemy. The fear of Amalek has undergone a mutation. In its present incarnation, it is not only a guarantee of our survival, but also of our identity. The perception of being a minority, which creates a perpetual sense of victimhood among the Jews, not only serves as an alibi for our moral faults when it comes to the minorities under our rule, but also as the glue that connects us.

The school system has turned Holocaust studies into one of the basic elements of the curriculum to satisfy an existential need. The fear of forgetting stems not only from the fear that they will again rise up and try to destroy us, but from the fear that without such a threat, we won’t know who we are. The state has assumed responsibility for embedding the memory of the exile in its children as though it were an individual rather than a collective memory — a memory to serve as the cornerstone on which the national identity of each and every citizen is built.

When Netanyahu and his supporter American Jewish business magnate Sheldon Adelson failed in their attempt to bring about a third world war by remote control and the radiance of the Iranian threat dulled, there was a need to quickly identify a new enemy to serve as an anchor for our national identity. For the time being, the historical default was chosen: the Germans. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett was sent to condemn Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, in the Knesset, and Netanyahu cast the shadow of the Holocaust over German Chancellor Angela Merkel — finally one can use the word “Nazi” without any fear of violating the new laws of discourse.

Dependence on the enemy prevents us from attaining full independence, and we are left without positive anchors to guarantee our identity. Being unable to draw our identity from being part of a country with values and a vision has created a crisis of identity in us. Because while we were nurturing the autonomy of high-tech we distanced ourselves from religion, and we have no source of identity to connect us.

In the vacuum of Auschwitz and high-tech achievements, we stand as helpless beggars without an identity. The question “Who is a Jew?” which in the past was hurled at us to identify us, is cropping up again — this time as a question we are asking ourselves. The time has come to overcome the historical habit of subordinating ourselves to an external definition. We have to devote ourselves to a profound clarification of our own identity. The question “Who is a Jew?” should be replaced with the question “What is a Jew?” — in other words, "What kind of nation do we want to be?" — even if the material significance of that clarification dictates nothing short of an Israeli Spring.

The slogan “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” brought Netanyahu to power in 1996. Well, if the Jews aspire to strengthen the strong and weaken the weak, to nurture a dog-eat-dog society, to hate the stranger and to identify success only with money, Netanyahu is definitely good for the Jews. As for the others — those who preserve in their hearts a memory of a different Jew, those who dream of national fulfillment in the guise of a State of Israel and a rebirth of the Jew as an Israeli, and those who feel that their identity was stolen from them by profiteers who exchanged the memory of the Holocaust for dollars — for all of them, Netanyahu is not good.

Remember, anyone who voted his conscience, and at the same time is flourishing economically or creatively under Netanyahu's leadership, under an illusion of an autonomy within an autonomy: History will be indifferent to the ballot you cast at a time when Israel repeatedly voted for Netanyahu and the other politicians who enable him to be elected. If there is any real significance to our distress about what is happening in the country, it must be reflected in an act of condemnation of the man who leads it.

The time has come to complete the fulfillment of the Zionist idea, not to make do with a high-tech autonomy that absolves itself of responsibility for the behavior of the country in which it lives, but to behave like an independent sovereign nation, with healthy borders, both physically and mentally, which takes responsibility for itself and its surroundings.

File photo: An IDF soldier holding an Israeli flag.Credit: Ilan Asayag

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