A Settler’s Remorse: The Holy Spirit of Israel’s Middle Class
When I made aliyah two years ago, I did so in the hopes that I would meet my Jewish country-folk, integrate into Israeli society and identify with the political reality that made my overseas migration possible. However, I made many mistakes in my wanderings and until quite recently felt frustrated in my attempts to become part of Israeli society. I felt alienated, foreign, uninvolved and disconnected, unmoored and anti-social. My friends shared my enthusiasm and ideology but I remained aloof, slowly losing my idealism and my dreams.
I write to you now in the hope that I might help those considering aliyah with their daunting task. I myself lacked the necessary guidance in my experience. My mentors lacked the fundamental perspective that would have helped me understand my experience and my position in Israeli society. I deemed them too American, too Israeli, too idealistic, too pragmatic, and lacking the essential well-roundedness to guide me on my voyage of discovery. I failed to appreciate some quality advice at the time, and I suffered as a consequence, but I also do not regret the ambition of the adventurous, brave young man who set out to figuratively conquer Israel. I wanted to know my new country, to experience its society, and the knowledge that I have accumulated may one day make the pain I suffered worthwhile. Until then, I wish to convey to you, my friends, my findings as regards the Israeli nation.
Israel is a young nation. We recently celebrated 71 years since its birth, but Israeli society has existed for much longer than that. The people of Israel were not born alongside the state, they existed millennia as Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc. Accordingly, in order to understand Israeli society, one must disregard the post-modern, superficial designation of “Israeli.” We are more than a neat, unified definition.
Israel is an old and weary nation. She has suffered much in her 71 years of life, and the Jews suffered much more. My rabbi likes to comment that while we commemorate the 23,741 brave men and women who died al kiddush Hashem every Yom HaZikaron, many, many more died in the anonymous pogroms that swept through Eastern Europe in the years that preceded the Holocaust.
Israel is a scarred society, we still remember the suicide bombs and the wars. We feel the wrath of Gaza’s eye of Sauron, forever gazing on our border communities and making life uncomfortable, traumatic and absurd. Around six months ago, I spent a few days visiting friends along the Gaza border, and, inauspiciously, my poorly timed visit resulted in my sleeping a few nights in their yeshiva’s bomb shelter, a precaution we took on account of deadly barrages that bombarded our homes and psyches.
Don’t you dare think that we have given up hope for peace; we don’t have any feud with the Gazan public. Just understand that peace remains a far-off dream when western-backed dictatorships like Hamas destroy our peace of mind and our daily routines. We live in constant fear, mongered by corrupt politicians and western influence, but we insist on living our lives proudly as Jewish Israelis.
But Israeli society is not uniform. We are not all equals. Western influence has corrupted the fabric of our society, creating the pseudo-identity of a united Israeli public that lacks the bare essentials of national cohesion. Middle Israel has its issues. Ashkenazim and Sephardim have their differences. We fight amongst ourselves over the most minute and stupid thing: money. We don’t have enough money, yet we can’t have enough of it. Money pervades our societal interactions, spoils our societal interactions and uproots the commonality that could one day unite us together. Money and status become the gods of Israel, money and the hedonistic pursuit of raw, unrefined happiness scourges our countryside, destroying our morale and debilitating our national resolve.
Israel is a divided country. Jewish Israel exists as a thin slither of a densely-packed population and as a dispersed periphery, sandwiched between dueling elites and neglected by all. Tel Aviv, along with its elitist satellite communities continuously confirms its identity as a non-Jewish agglomeration of suntanned, white colonialists, uninterested in their surroundings, indifferent to the struggle of their less-fortunate brethren. To the Tel-Aviv elitist, weed and a vegan diet matter more than the impoverished situation of fellow Jews. To the bourgeois, apathetic elitist politician, the interests of marginal groups such as settlers, LGBTQ, migrant workers and Haredi draft-objectors matter more than the struggle for survival that more and more middle-class Israelis must experience. Israel’s southern border got ransacked and pillaged and there’s a housing bubble, but the show must go on. Joy to Israel, Eurovision is come.
The settler elite has also forsaken the plight of the Jewish nation. In redefining Israel’s Jewishness around geographic artificiality, they have distanced themselves from us, from Torah and from God. They have turned holy land into political bargaining chips, indifferently exploiting Middle-Israel’s youth to guard their elite, bourgeois communities from the expropriated peasants they have unjustly impoverished, while manipulatively guiding oversized budgets to their elitist communities, schools and public infrastructure. Seconds after hearing of any terror incident involving settlers, municipal leaders instinctively force upon the terrified, stunned public the issue of settlement expansion, defacing the memory of the dead and deifying the Stalinist-style monstrosities they call housing that defile the land and cause havoc for its inhabitants.
Monotonous rows of identical, adjoined houses have become vogue in many places of Israel, exposing the true nature of the Israeli bourgeois. Though these elites insist on facading their houses with Jerusalem stone, thereby raping the land as a result (through aggressive, inefficient quarrying done by the impoverished Palestinians under the auspices of settler businessmen), they fill their identical concrete homes with vacuous sentiment, neo-religious dogma and systemic corruption.
And they fight. “Tel Aviv has no spirit!”, spout the settler leaders who have identified God’s commandments with their American-style homes in the lush hills of the Judea and Samaria. “The settlers live on stolen land!”, retort the leftist-elite, as they pursue their interests in Israel’s speculative stock/housing bubble.
And we watch them. In the news, in the streets, demonstrating and yelling. We read about them, we vote for them and we almost always lose.
We feel unnerved by the infighting, but, as I have come to understand, we don’t do the fighting. We watch as Israeli society falls apart, torn asunder by the warring, dueling, tag-teaming elites.
When you come to Israel, don’t visit Tel-Aviv and don’t spend time in the fenced-in, gated communities of the bourgeois settlements. Don’t make the mistake that I made when I threw my lot in with the country’s elites; when I sought out false consciousness among my elitist, obnoxious settler friends and snobby socialist “allies.” I made friends and did not waste my time isolated from my environment. But I painfully understood that friends who cannot identify with your struggle for existence, friends who have experienced lives of luxury (both social and material) and have been taught to condescend from a young age, who have been forcibly extricated from the natural rhythm of life by over-exacting expectations, ideological turmoil, speculative philosophic babble and alienation from society, cannot help me in my goal to find the Jewish people. They, like me, struggled with egotistic nonconformity. They, like me, were corrupted by Western imperialism.
I grew up in a small, outlying community of Jewish New York, close enough to taste the joys of the opulent Jewish establishment, far enough away to see my non-Jewish neighbors and envy their natural lives. I attended an upper-class Jewish elementary school, so I “naturally” interacted only with upper-class, Jewish children. We could not afford to live in the luxurious suburban paradises alongside most of my classmates, and so I would find myself alone during vacations, nights and weekends, alienated from my elitist peers. I longed for normal friends, but my Jewish identity stood in the way. I was different, taught to separate myself from the gentile population, and thus endured a long, lonely childhood.
In high school, I connected with some down-to-earth peers from the more traditional, grounded communities associated with YU, but, even then, the geographical and cultural differences kept me apart. I could not assimilate into the superficial artifice of Teaneck society, with its specific code of conduct and social norms. I grew up with an independence that superseded my allegiance to what seemed to me as a foreign, external hierarchical structure. Hearing the names of rabbis and successful families had some effect on me, though I failed to integrate myself into the system. I could not find my footing in the homogeneity of Modern-Orthodox society. It lacked the authenticity, intimacy and sincerity of my small-town community.
When I meet and connect with normal, average, middle-class Israelis, I feel as if I am returning to my childhood self — to the young, alienated boy in need of friends. I complete the long, drawn-out search for belonging that began all those years back, when I suffered from the class-dynamics of suburban, post-war American sprawl. My battered soul finds respite in the middle-class Israeli identity, which still has room for me and will hopefully adopt me as one of its own. Only with my enslaved brethren will I find solace; only alongside my distressed brothers do I feel a sense of identity and dignity.
I made the mistake of following my gut and accepting warmth and support without a second thought. I was young, afraid and lonely, and the siren-song of the elitist settler communities, strong and idealistic, appealed to my senses as authentic, true Judaism. I was entranced by the familiarity of American, Ashkenazi elitism. Hearing my mother tongue spoken unabashedly in public, knowing that others had made the same daring journey that I had and “succeeded” desensitized my defenses and diminished my intuitive resistance to an exploitative, bourgeois, irresponsible and inept society. I desperately needed the love that I received from my friends and mentors at yeshiva, I was lonely, though I now know that their hugs belied their true feelings, and that I was never to be part of their own. Sadly, I was betrayed by the gross nature of such superficial attributes. Upon the sorrows of many innocents they built their beacon to the nations, upon stolen land and political machinations they continue to consolidate their political prowess.
I strongly urge anyone who desires to make aliyah to heed my warning. Do not affect yourself to the elitist circles of Israeli society. They harbor no spiritual advantage, nor do they offer a safe solace from Israeli society. I pity those fools who continue to pursue such illusory societies. They will surely fail in their ultimate goal and they will be corrupted by the forces that be. I pity those idealists who see Israel as their savior, who think that the land radiates magical qualities that minimize the suffering of the soul. It is not so. That is a speculative lie.
If you wish to join the Jewish people of Israel, you must make sacrifices. You must enslave yourself to the economic corruption of neo-liberal policies, consign yourself to the diabolical characteristics of anonymous, post-modern society. You must learn Hebrew well, acquaint yourself with Jewish history (and meet Sephardim) and forego any idealistic condescension (no one cares that you made aliyah). Americans have accustomed ourselves to a luxurious lifestyle. Proximity to the political establishment has wetted our appetites for power, comfort and stability. Real Israeli society provides none of the above. It diminishes the individuality of its citizens, it prefers practicality over comfort and it offers little stability for the middle-class worker. Such a challenge poses much difficulty for older olim and it requires great sacrifice for even young dreamers, but it remains a necessary path to citizenship for any prospective immigrant. If you cannot conform, if you cannot accept the mundane, unenlightened Israeli society, you are not welcome here. If you can maintain your integrity and Jewish spirit, we shall embrace you as one of our own.
I have been informed that this piece technically concludes my writing tenure (20+ pieces!) here at The Commentator. I very much enjoyed the opportunity this paper granted me to write home once-in-a-while and apprise my friends and family of my thoughts, opinions and activities. I hope that I provided an enlightening perspective for the paper’s readers. I wish the next generation of students much success.
Leshanah Haba’a Beyerushalayim Habenuyah.
Photo Caption: Israel’s Dueling Elites
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons