A Personal Zion

Israeli tanks cross into South Lebanon in June 1982.

I resigned from the Jewish community almost exactly thirty years ago. It was a few days after the Israeli army invaded South Lebanon in June 1982. I have my aunt to thank for that.

My resignation came about in one of those moments of complete rupture as I, with characteristic teenaged self-righteousness, ran headlong into the kind of unquestioning Zionism – a sentiment more than an ideology – that I had never really thought much about. My aunt had come out to my family’s home for a visit. The Friedman family has always been, and continues to be, as much a debating society as a kinship group. We have opinions, and we are not hesitant to express them. This time, I found myself in a dialogue de sourdes.

For me, the invasion was naked militarism, for my aunt it was justifiable self-protection. “What if someone deliberately spills their coffee on your sofa?” She asked on that sunny Sunday in my parents’ living room, smiling in that way that kindergarten teachers do when they teach particularly slow children complex ideas with simple parables. She waved her coffee cup over the couch. My mother cringed, no doubt considering the exact same question as the liquid precariously slopped over into the saucer.

“What if they keep doing it, and keep doing it? Won’t you try to stop them?”

Middle Eastern geopolitics reduced to an analogy of hot beverages and suburban furniture: the point wasn’t totally lost on me. Munich, the Ma’alot Massacre, the Golan Heights – these were Israel’s Alamo. The conventional wisdom, shared by virtually every fellow Jew that I had ever encountered to that point, was that Lebanon was a dangerous backdoor for terrorists and it had to be closed.

My aunt was a good, decent woman who had always been kind, even indulgent, to my siblings and me. My father loved her unconditionally, and that was an endorsement that I took very seriously. But the invasion stunk of invasion. Going to war with Lebanon seemed vastly out of proportion with any justification of self-defence. You don’t shoot your neighbour because his dog bit you; you don’t mobilize tanks over coffee stains.

Nevertheless, what troubled me most was the simplistic, unquestioning faith that my aunt had in a kind of Zionist manifest destiny. “This is our land,” she said. “We have to protect it.” At that moment, the contradictions inherent in being a Jew – in accepting on one hand the comfortable diaspora Zionism that celebrated hardy Sabras, the one-eyed general at the Wailing Wall and the construction of Tel Aviv in a night, and in the ritual pleas for peace and a commitment to Tikkun on the other – became irreconcilable. I felt betrayed.

I felt betrayed by every Jew who did not see that there might be a problem there, by the Temple leaders, by the Jewish National Fund blue box on the counter next to the fridge, and by my aunt. There was something wrong there.

Until that point in my life, being Jewish had been the most important element of my identity. One of the few Jews in an overwhelmingly Anglo-Protestant suburban community west of Montreal, I had been completely and thoroughly Jewish since before my Bar Mitzvah, though that ritual had clinched it. I wanted to be a Rabbi. I kept kosher as best I could despite the fact that my family did not. I attended Schul regularly. I dreamed of visiting Israel.

The invasion changed that. Sabra and Shatila, three months later, made it impossible for me to go back. If anyone in my family or the community had any doubts about that, they were erased by the impassioned, vitriolic letter I sent to the local daily newspaper. I hung up my yarmulke and tallis that summer in the most public way possible.

My problem in 1982 was my aunt’s “we.” Judaism and Israel existed as an immutable equation then. To be a Jew was to be a Zionist. We faced “Jerusalem of Gold,” liberated by the heroic citizen soldiers of the Tzahal in 1967 every Shabbat. At the Jewish summer camp that my father directed in the 1960s and 1970s, we wore kibbutznik hats and sang Ha Tikvah while we raised the Israeli flag. We had trees planted on our behalf in eretz Zion. Every spring, the Montreal Jewish community marched to Jerusalem and ate falafel to demonstrate our Zionist solidarity and raise money for Israeli causes – just which ones, I was never sure. And there was always the blue box.

To be a Jew was to be a Zionist but, in 1982, it wasn’t difficult, even for a teenaged Jewish boy in the suburbs, to be an anti-Zionist. There was a cognitive dissonance in the equation; something had to give.

At the point of rupture, I found myself allied with a political left that had been growing increasingly anti-Zionist for several years, at least since the 1975 UN resolution number 3379 that found that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Apart from aggression in Lebanon, Israel seemed to have some questionable bedfellows. Israel was a major weapons supplier to South Africa and thus, to oppose Apartheid implied, to some extent, opposition to Zionism. Israel supported the Contras in Nicaragua; to support the Sandinista revolution was to oppose Israel.

It all made sense in a way that continued identification with the Jewish community did not.

Yet, my deeply-held political convictions raised new contradictions. Though a renegade from the Jewish community, I found it difficult to completely erase my identity as a Jew. It’s not that I didn’t try. Friedman is a German name – a point that I tried to make clear whenever the question came up. The child of a mixed marriage, I had the convenient option of emphasizing my blue-eyed, Anglo-Canadian heritage at the expense of my Jewishness. I wore a kfieh around my neck in the winter.

Still, for all of my efforts, it was hard to turn my back on the Jews. Sometimes it was trivial things, like a taste for bagels, hamentaschen and latkes. At other times, I felt myself drawn to identify with fellow Jews on the Left. I felt pride in the heroes of the Jewish Left: Canadian Social Democrats David and Stephen Lewis, Rosa Luxemburg, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, even Leon Trotsky. Most importantly, in Latin American support organizations, Leftist bookstores and agit-prop theatre companies, I found a disproportionate number of fellow Jews who shared my political experiences. June 1982 was something that we had in common.

But things were never uncomplicated in my personal interactions with gentile friends and comrades. The conscious separation of Jewish identity from Zionism that began to make sense to me was rarely so clear to non-Jews. The Jewish community’s self-equation with Zionism had evidently worked all-too-well, and the anti-Semitic subtext in the Left’s anti-Zionism made my hair stand on end.

And it was never just a question of Zionism, either. It was a time when we assaulted the patriarchy, and Judaism – along with various shades of Christianity and Islam – was held up as a paragon of patriarchy. “What about that Jewish prayer ‘thank God I’m not a woman?'” I was asked more times than I can remember. What, indeed?

I found myself in the similar kind of position with the left that my politics had placed me in with the Jewish community. However, in the same way that I wanted to conceive of myself as Jewish, but alienated from the Jewish community, I sought to articulate my political convictions without necessarily being tied to the movement politics that seemed to subvert my Jewishness. And it became increasingly clear to me that things like bagels, hamentaschen and latkes – and Andre Schwarz-Bart, Moshe Dor and Chaim Potok – were as much a part of me as a commitment to social justice and liberation.

I began to understand that there was a difference between community as a moment of identification and community as an organism or a system. It’s the difference between the ephemeral “we” that is constituted by its members individually and the pre-existent “we” that you join. The two kinds of community are not necessarily contradictory, of course, but neither are they quite the same thing.

There seems to be a fundamental difference between a shared personal performativity, a communal exchange of “this is what I choose to believe and these are the values and cultural artifacts that I use to produce my identity” and an adherence to a constructed, even pre-fabricated system of values, observance and ideology. The one can inform the other, but an experience of community is ontological, a self-revelation in the moment and in a context that may never be duplicated, the system of community is axiological and, to a great extent, teleological. It defines a coherent system with an explicit purpose.

Jewish geography – that game we Jews play when we compare the details of our and our ancestors’ experiences, and talk about summer camps, food and that time when we all realized that Paul Newman was Jewish and Penny Marshall isn’t – is performative. So is the recognition of the resonance of Tikkun Olam. It is not that one seeks to heal the world or engage in constructive social activism, or oppose violence and injustice because one is Jewish, but one can be a Jew in embracing it and pursuing its mission. And one can find resonance and commonality with other people who share those values, and call them by familiar names.

That’s why Jewish geography is such an important part of the experience of community. It is a process of genealogy, where Jews create themselves in the moment of contact with other Jews to pull together the threads and narratives of their shared Jewishness. It exists in the details. The moment might pass quickly, or the deployment of the genealogical strategy might become a defining characteristic of self-revelation, maintaining a continuous and fluid expression of identity. But at the same time, it requires an action of self-invention rather than the passive assumption of an essentialized Jewishness.

Blood, ritual and ideology are so important to the community. Blood, the matrilineal essentiality of Jewishness, ties descent to a specific point of origin on the banks of the Tigris five thousand years ago. It posits the inviolate identity of that origin and makes what is definite in terms of what it is not. Blood makes identity definite and secure – true, in fact – outside of the moment.

And truth is expressed and reinforced through ritual. It is no accident that Jewish rituals require a minyan, ten men – or, in a more egalitarian context, ten adults of either sex – to perform the formulas of the Kaddish and Amidah. The community requires an assembly, in a specific place, that externalizes the Jew as a participant rather than revealing him or her in the moment. Being a Jew, in this sense, means being part of something, rather than that something being constituted by varied parts. It means entering a communal space rather than constructing one on the fly.

That space is ideology. To exist as an organism, as something essential and exterior that one can join and participate in, the community must define its limits, and the limits of Judaism as a system. In effect, it must be exclusive, prescribing explicit observance and behaviour. It must have rules, and one’s membership in the community depends, to a considerable extent, on how well one follows the rules. To exist outside of those limits, in this sense, is to not be a Jew.

And those limits have objectified physical boundaries to define the ideological boundaries. This physicality is expressed when the community turns toward Jerusalem, toward the point of origin, to pray. It is in the mezuzah outside the door of a Jewish home, in the eruvin draped from telephone poles that describe the pale of the physical community, and in the consecrated location around the Ark. The spaces of the Jewish community exist independently of and anterior to the experience of community.

This is the function of Zionism – that comfortable, uncritical Zionism of my aunt – for the community. Israel, Eretz Zion, provides an objective location, and objective history that claims to transcend the experience of Jewishness in the moment. It makes the Jewishness of the community true and concrete. It’s probably a banality to say that Israel would not exist without the community, but it’s also clear that the community would not exist without Israel.

Thus the defence of and allegiance to the community predicates Zionism, and vice-versa. It doesn’t mean that all members of the community have to agree with the policies of the Israeli government – in fact, many, these days, do not – but it does mean that all members have to identify the interests of that state with their community.

The problem with this kind of Zionist-inflected, concretized Jewishness is that it is so concrete. If space, location and physicality underpin the objective truth of Jewishness, expressed within the limits of the community, then that truth cannot easily be challenged or revised without abandoning Jewishness. To oppose Israel is to oppose Jewishness, just as for so many anti-Semites to hate Jews is to hate Israel.

Yet, shorn of its binding ties to the community – that is the organism rather than the experience of community – Jewishness can be amazingly powerful, creative, and protean. Outside of the essentialized limits of the community – location, space, observance, blood, Zionism and Hebrew – lies a vast uncharted and unchartable terrain of identity.

It is in the tonalities of the opening clarinet trill of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Walter Benjamin’s flaneur walking the streets of Paris and Bob Dylan’s Jeremiads. It is in the abrasive agit-prop of Kurt Weill’s score for Mahagonny, in Baruch Spinoza, Albert Einstein and in the Greenwich Village reading where a poet mines the vocabulary of her Jewish experience to express something deeply personal, yet ineffably universal. It’s in bagels and schmaltz herring.

More importantly, it is in the resonance that a Jew, whose identity is tied to a personal Jewishness, hears when the music is played or the words are uttered and read. It is in that moment that I have begun to find my own community in the interstices of shared experiences. I have found that I do not participate, but interact. “Tell me about God,” I ask a friend whose connection to the religion of Judaism is both stronger and deeper than mine, not because I want to pick my tallis and yarmulke up from the coat rack, but because I want to feel the meaning of her beliefs in my experience.

The community that I have found is a sense of momentary communion, an instant of identification whose content is the constituent strands of my identity. I return to it in the ephemeral “we,” not the one circumscribed by blood, ritual, location or space that is defined by the imperative to defend itself from threats across the Litani River in South Lebanon. Its border rather is a Jordan of imagination whose course is redrawn and re-invented in every moment of being a Jew. I have my aunt to thank for that.