Why Israelis Should Still Feel Like Strangers, Even When They're Home

Building an Israeli identity that can encompass Israelis from ultra-Orthodox to post-Zionists may rest on a paradox: We are all at home, citizens of the Jewish state, but we must also feel that we are still in exile, as we have not yet arrived at the realization of our ideals.

William Kolbrener
William Kolbrener
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William Kolbrener
William Kolbrener

Toward the end of his life, Freud remembered his 1904 journey to Athens to realize a life-long dream: The ascent to the Acropolis. Upon arriving on the Greek Temple Mount, Freud, however, confesses his confusion: "According to the evidence of my senses," he remembers, "I am now standing on the Acropolis, but," he continues, "I can’t believe it." Freud’s arrival in "sacred Athens" – the "piety" that he confesses drove him there – leads him to not believing in the ground on which he stands.

Outside of the powerful resonances of Athens for Freud’s imagination, he may have, he admitted, doubted the place’s actual existence. Athens at the turn of the twentieth century on the stony hilltop impinges upon the dream of the place that Freud had harbored for a lifetime, and Western culture for two millennia. It’s easier, Freud’s experience of Athens suggests, to live within the dream than to face the demands of reality.

On this Israel Independence Day, there are ultra-Orthodox Israelis whose reaction to the State of Israel is like the assimilated Freud on the Athenian Temple Mount, where the reality of Israel's statehood impinges upon the cherished age-old dream of Eretz Yisroel. The return to Jerusalem, for those who ostensibly most desired it, is experienced, for some, even now, only as traumatic denial. "We are now standing in Jerusalem, but we do not believe it." When the children in my ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood gather, as they do on every Independence Day, next to Mount Herzl, it is almost as if they are watching the spectacle of fireworks of another country. We are here, but we are not here.

Freud described this as "estrangement." For all of its drawbacks – denial of reality, and among the ultra-Orthodox in Israel today, rejection of citizenship and service – Freud’s estrangement may be the most true and enduring aspect of his Acropolis experience. To suggest, as the ultra-Orthodox do, that we are still in exile, does not have to be a cynical rejection of the State and its institutions. But, rather, it is a reminder that we are not living in Messianic times, that though this is the Land about which the Bible speaks, we are not living now living in the Land of the Bible. Freud would have looked in vain for the Platonic Academy or the Greek dramatists; as we do for the patriarchs and prophets. The Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 invoked the principles of "freedom, justice, and peace" by those very prophets of Israel. But we still wait for the full realization of those principles. We have not yet fully arrived.

I do, however, say to my own children as we approach the Mount Herzl fireworks: "If it were not for the State of Israel, you would not be here." Freud’s experience on the Acropolis may help us think, or even re-conceive, of what it means to be here, to be Israelis in the twenty-first century. For the ultra-Orthodox, and their strange bedfellows, disillusioned post-Zionist secular Israelis, estrangement has become an ideology, a fixation: "This story of Zionist triumph is not ours." Both groups protest against the corresponding but opposite fixation, the belief espoused by many religious Zionists, that not only can God’s will be known, but also that we are His agents, that we are decidedly and decisively already here and the end-time nigh. But this feeling fully at home turns out to be – though it’s a paradox – another form of denial of reality.

Zionism – like all nationalisms perhaps – has become a conjuring act, a magical spell to cast over reality (though over the years with less and less effect), a way of disavowing reality. Some Zionists in their exuberant excess avoid recognizing the demands of contemporary Israeli reality as much as their post-modernist secular and ultra-Orthodox counterparts. Trauma – and there has been no shortage of such for Jews in the past century – makes, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, "fundamentalists of us all," fixating on certainty, incapable of doubt. Retaining our status as strangers, even as we are home, means understanding that we don’t live in Messianic times – the State of Israel does not represent the end of history. Though existentially fraught, that acknowledgement of the distance between our ideals and reality, a nurtured sense of estrangement, remains our best defense against the menace of apocalyptic thinking.

We are all Freud today, not on the Acropolis, but in Zion. Freud, fulfilling his own story of return to the origin of Western culture, doubted that he would ever travel such a long way: "I only doubted that I would ever be able to see Athens." And on his arrival, his doubt returns: "Am I really here?"

Zionism is the one remaining modern narrative of return in a post-modern era. In a world that has given up on closure and endings, the Jewish State has not given up on that ideal. Our doubts about the full realization of that ideal, however, need not transform into cynicism; nor, however, should our piety – maybe even gratitude –turn into triumphalism.

We are here – sixty-five years now – and must face up, all of us, to the demands of service and citizenship. But the future of Israeli identity – and Zionism – may well depend on acknowledging the ways in which even as we embrace both where and who we are, we remember that we are still, in some sense, like Freud, estranged.

Professor William Kolbrener, Chair of the English Department at Bar Ilan University, is author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and most recently Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his introduction to the first Hebrew translation of Milton’s Areopagitica is forthcoming this month from the Shalem Press.

Israel Independence Day 2012 celebrations. Credit: Shiran Granot

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