Shiri Raphaely is an American-Israeli currently living in Israel and working in the human rights field with the Mossawa Center and Friends of the Earth, Middle East. She co-writes on Midthoughtblog.com.
I recently watched The English Patient for the first time. Throughout the film, Count Almasy — the central character — balks against nations and allegiances that become increasingly immutable as World War II progresses. There is a beautiful phrase from the book describing Almasy’s love affair with the desert, driven by his revulsion towards boundaries, ownership and nationalism: “The desert could not be claimed or owned — it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East…All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries.”
Throughout the last year, living in a zone of conflict I have often felt an itchy desire to remove my clothing of nationality. This movie spoke to why, perhaps, I have felt so uncomfortable, by honing in on the tragedies that nationalism can create when combined with violence.
I sharply felt my natural tendency to bristle against nationalist labeling when in May 2010, the receptionist at the Haifa office of the Ministry of the Interior refused to stamp my traveler’s visa, kindly reminded me that I have been an Israeli citizen since leaving my mother’s womb, and set the appointment for me to get a light blue ID card. Now, I can vote; I have a bank account, a phone plan, and an Israeli passport; I am categorized as a toshevet choseret (returning citizen); and I suspect that the officials in the Ministry of the Interior believe I am staying forever. This bureaucratic process transformed by cultural and historical connection to Israel into an official part of my identification. I am no longer an observant visitor but am part of the state system.
My resistance to this labeling does not come from embarrassment but rather is a result of experiencing the very positive and very negative aspects of belonging to a culture/nation/state. On one hand, my Hebrew improved, I found a support network among my parents’ childhood friends and made my own friendships. At the same time, I was in the midst of a shocking real life intensive course on the injustices committed by the Israeli government in the name of security. While I was receiving benefits because of my Jewishness, I also felt critical of political actions that appeared increasingly senseless, violent and immoral. They felt against my interests as a Jew and as an Israeli. Against this backdrop, I didn’t want my official identification as an Israeli to shut me out of conversation or to implicate me in crimes. Likewise, I also felt that despite officially being Israeli, my American roots made me less legitimate in conversations about Israeli society and politics.
However, I believe there is privilege in two passports — largely because it grants me literal and figurative flexibility. In a sense it enabled me to connect with numerous cultures, since I’ve never felt attached to a specific one. I view the Israeli element of my identity as a toolbox that I can use to gain further understanding of this region. It allows me access to the emotional struggles and the complications that are abundant within this conflict. It doesn’t mean I understand everything, but it’s a convenient vehicle for learning. I am connected to individuals here and have built relationships because of shared experiences. That is the part of Israel I feel attached too.
At the same time, because I didn’t grow up here, it is simply less complicated for me to make friends with the “other side.” I do not have the same feeling of taboo that my parents grew up with. As an American, I have distance from the conflict in Israel/Palestine that allows me to shape my opinions without the intoxication of fear and power that has great influence in the region. (I am aware that this is a fragile and fortunate privilege that could easily be taken away.).
It’s important to note that I am not “proud” of my Israeli or American identity, nor am I ashamed. I think that pride in national identity is a strange phenomenon: it is rarely something one chooses, but is simply a circumstance that contributes to a false sense of differentiation. The characteristics of a national identity are a fragile thing that can shift and change as easily as it is invented. By attaching pride to these elements, we run the risk of placing inflated value on their importance. That in turn allows us to have unrealistic expectations and act irrationally if our national pride is “hurt.” This, I think, can be dangerous.
Why is this important for me to explore and write about?
On one hand, it’s important simply because I think the idea of nation building is fascinating. As Jews –Israeli or not — we are somehow connected to the building of the Israeli state. There has been an effort both in Israel and within Jewish communities around the world to make Jews feel like they have a relationship with Israel. At the same time, within Israel, there is the challenge to create, from scratch, a national identity that represents a religious (ethnic?) group that has also become part of a diverese array of other nationalities and cultures. Part of that process includes culture, art, language and literature. When you add a state that has evolved in a conflict, where the stakes are higher and the nation needs to group together in order to confront an enemy, it is necessary that this enemy is differentiated and dehumanized. It is possible that the need to dehumanize is both a result of and a cause of the conflict — now fully part of the Israeli mentality. (And the Palestinian one too.)
Current political nationalist rhetoric in Israel encourages a world of US and THEM, whether it’s Arabs and Jews, or the Jewish nation and those other countries that attempt to delegitimize it. I think it is important to think about how these national identities are formed and what we find intrinsically appealing, or unappealing, about them. If for a moment, current national labels were removed from the equation, would it be so easy to justify inhumane things?
For example, what are the elements of the Jewish state that make us uncomfortable? For me, they include the occupation, discrimination, the fence and other looming choices that may take place in order to maintain a Jewish majority. I believe that these actions are inherently harmful for the long-term security of Israel and the dignity of all those involved in the conflict. At the same time, I can see the validity of the opinion that these actions are militaristic strategies for the benefit of the State of Israel. Some may answer that human sacrifice is needed, and that for security purposes occupation must go on, and the ongoing expulsion of Arabs from their homes in Jerusalem and the Negev is unavoidable in the path to a secured Jewish State. If that is their choice, then I ask them only to be honest about what the cost is of such activities on current and future generations. What will it mean for the character of that future Jewish state? What are the sacrifices that are being made to secure this character? How far are we willing to go as Jews, Israelis and human beings in the name of the nation? Is there a feasible way that nationhood can be established and maintained without an act of immorality — or is it simply a minor cost for the achievement of a goal?
I write this only to try to understand better. I am not arguing for a Utopian world where states are immediately erased. Instead I’d like us, specifically in relation to Israel, to evaluate the cost of this nationalism and ask ourselves what our goals and limits are, and, what we may gain and what we may loose. I would love to hear a response.