Fractures of Israeli Identity


Moshe Zuckermann


The ‘Israeli Collective Portrait’ by Roland Fischer consists of hundreds of individual portraits, assembled into a giant tableau, of Israeli students, both male and female, from Tel Aviv University. At first glance, it is striking how heterogeneous the sitters look. Of course it can be questioned whether this is a specifically Israeli trait. Would not a French, German or Norwegian collective portrait yield a comparable diversity of human faces according to their ethnic, religious, cultural or other group attachments? Has not diversity long since coagulated into the standard image of Western cities and metropolises in this era of economic globalisation and massive surges of migration? Is there still the genuinely German or French or Norwegian cityscape, if we are speaking of their inhabitants? Moreover, the question might be raised what the external facial features of the sitters could possibly convey about their mindsets, views, ideologies and hence their identities. Roland Fischer attempts to address this question in his film ‘A Normal Day on Rothschild Boulevard’, which consists of a montage of statements made by passers-by on the Tel Aviv boulevard on a normal day, picked at random. The interviewees were likewise selected haphazardly and yet their answers yield a highly interesting mirror image of the collective uniformity and individual particularity of Israeli identity as well as its fractions. The fact that this melange, ascertained as it is in an isolated and synchronic manner, exhibits a sociological and historical depth is to be the topic of discussion of this text.

For years now the problem of Israeli identity appears to be solving itself: there is an ongoing bloody conflict with the Palestinians and it is commonly accepted that nothing works quite as well for the cohesion of heterogeneous entities as the power of an external threat. Nations riven by internal antagonisms and antinomies tend to develop surprising feats of internal solidarity in times of war and natural disaster and retain a sense of ‘national unity’. This process is nevertheless sustained by a delusory ideology. For it is not only the Israeli society that is in the throes of a perilous disjointedness; the state that contains it, or rather its purported underlying and confidently proclaimed identity, is also challenged with increasing vehemence in the public discourse. The dominating Israeli-Palestinian conflict can veil the inner-Israeli turmoil only superficially. A causal relation between the external threat and the potential for inner conflict may be stipulated, or hypothesised at the very least: it is certainly not unthinkable that the external threat is ‘maintained’ in order to defuse or delay the volatile internal menace, thus ideologising the issue of ‘national security’.

In doing so the problem of ‘identity’ not only points to sensitivities and publicly staged navel-gazing but, in fact, touches upon grave structural elements of Israel society. These are, in turn, the result of certain contradictions and aporias in the classical ideology of Zionism or, respectively, the discrepancy between the postulates of said ideology and the historical practices that have emerged from it.

It is common knowledge that the Zionist ideology is based on the requirement of radically negating the diaspora. Jewish life in exile, which was considered as decaying on account of centuries of anti-Jewish pogroms and persecution as well as their ostracising within the respective societies they lived in, was to be abandoned in favour of founding a new Jewish collective entity and hence a ‘New Jew’. The historical implementation of these ideals went hand in hand with two peculiar processes that affected the overall structure of Zionism. On the one hand, the territorial designation of the Zionist state occurred before a society that was to populate it even existed in a sociological, let alone a political, sense that could have constituted it. That this even contemplated the territory of Palestine or Eretz Israel derives from the archaic-mythical claim to the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants – a quintessential ‘Jewish’ claim. Moreover, that this designation has been justified and politically reinforced by the ideologeme of a ‘country without a people for a people without a country’ forms the basis of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians that was thus inscribed into Zionism from its very beginning. On the other hand (albeit structurally concomitant with this), the population of the envisioned state not only had to be consolidated but actually created in the first place: that is, artificially assembled and merged. In stark contrast to the formation of every European nation state, which, as diverse and sometimes contrary as they were, were always based on a centuries- or even millennia-old collective of people living on a more or less unchanged territory, the exiled Jewish people were scattered all over the world and had to be joined, mixed and ‘melded’ in the ideal image of the New Jew. Inherent in this were those contradictions that would later prove to be the structural axes of conflict within Jewish society.

For, while classical political Zionism, be it in its Eastern European socialist variety or in its Central and Western European liberal manifestation, conceived of itself as a secular liberation movement, the religious element had entered its self-conception as a constituent – namely as a criterion of belonging to the Zionist state and as a raison d’être of its specific territorial designation. While it predicated itself on a Western or European form of national consolidation, it was, at the very latest after the founding of the state of Israel and in the aftermath of the 1948 war, dependent on proclaiming and actively organising a massive influx of population from outside of Europe. While its actually dominating pre-statehood values were specifically socialist, and later social-democratic, the universal inherent in these values was limited from the outset by the primacy of Jewishness and soon – certainly after the 1967 war – contaminated by the outbreak and takeover of capitalism. Related to this is the fact that, while Zionism was committed to the idea of the Western civil state and thus to the universal concept of the citizen, the very definition of the state of Israel as the ‘Jewish state’ has formally undermined this universality and refuted it by the sociological reality of the large Arab minority remaining in Israel after 1948, who were treated as second-class citizens from the outset.

What might have appeared to be contradictions inherent in the ideology were by now covered up by the Zionist ideology underpinning the state. For decades, the classical ideas of Zionism fulfilled the function of that ideological putty which allowed it, on the one hand, to homogenise the heterogeneous by ideologising the external threat to the Jewish state – be it in the form of a real security issue or  the form of the teleological narrative of Zionism, namely the history of Jewish suffering, culminating in the Holocaust. On the other hand, however, these seminal ideas also allowed any emerging conflict that derived from said heterogeneous structure to be brushed under the short-term political carpet and thus delayed indefinitely. Now it is exactly the above-mentioned putty-function that has begun to lose its cohesive character over the last thirty years and hence has provoked the question of the so-called ‘Israeli identity’. This has brought to light those axes of conflict that pose an increasing challenge to an identity previously taken for granted: the religious block has gained strength and introduced a new Jewish-religious discourse with political implications into Israeli political culture, while the orthodox groups have grown more nationalist and the national-religious parties have become more orthodox. It is no exaggeration to speak of the danger of a struggle for Israeli culture, which will encompass every neuralgic point of classical Zionism. The astonishing success story of the Shas party and the parliamentary movement of orthodox oriental Jews, as well as the emergence of a strong, argumentative, Oriental Jewish intelligentsia, have invigorated the criticism of ethnic hegemony of Ashkenazim in various areas of Israeli life, of which culture is but one example, palpably chipping away at the traditional (‘Ashkenazi’) values of Zionism. The Arab minority, schooled by decades of discrimination and underprivileged status, has, in turn, introduced the issue of its own self-determination into the political sphere, culminating in the slogan ‘Israel – Jewish state or a state for all its citizens?’ Additionally, the privatisation and finacialisation of the economy over the last few decades has widened the gap between rich and poor to an enormous degree, leading to increasing disunity and dwindling solidarity within the anomically structured Israeli society. We will pass over other significant factors, such as the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s, the smaller influx of Ethiopian Jews and the massive import of foreign labour. They should nevertheless be regarded as symptoms of an objectively growing pluralisation of Israeli society.

What is generally taken to be the problem of Israeli identity is, in its final analysis, the historical emergence of the objectification of contradictions that were already built into classical Zionism. To weather this in an inner-Israeli conflict appears forbidding to many Israelis. However, it could herald new opportunity. Of course, this would presuppose peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. Such a peace would probably turn out to be a significant factor in consolidating a new Israeli identity. Yet that is precisely what started to wane during the second Intifada in the aftermath of the collapse of the Oslo peace process. While the internal fractions of identity between Oriental and Ashkenazi Jews, between the religious and the secular, between Jews and Arabs and other interfaces and axes of conflict began to stiffen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly moved into a historical cul de sac and with it the future of both collectives into a perilous lack of perspective and prospect.

In the case of Israel it will presumably result in serious effects on the issue of identity sketched above. From the point of view of civil society. heterogeneous identities per se are not necessarily a disadvantage; on the contrary, they may even turn out to be a virtue: peaceful coexistence may be elevated to a criterion for a relatively free society. Heterogeneity is a curse only if it is not recognised and accepted as such but instead degenerates into a battleground for power, dominance and hegemony of particular identities, being supported by a culture charged with resentment. For sustainable ‘peaceful’ viability, such a structural heterogeneity requires a constant consolidating force in the form of an external threat. This is not a negligible strain on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it must not be resolved, as it were, as long as the putty of the external threat fulfils its function for the internal, incompatible particular identities.

The real ramifications of this basic state of affairs on the intensity of the identity fractures are highly significant. The reason for this is that the ossification of a search for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a direct result of Israeli actions (and inaction) and its responsibility for perpetuating the conflict. If the conflict is considered to be one about territory, and that is the major part of its nature, then it is chiefly incumbent on Israel to initiate steps to resolving it – namely by bringing about a withdrawal from the occupied territories in such a way as to enable the existence of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel for the first time in history. But since Israel decidedly does not want this (albeit while paying mere lip-service to it), the need for consolidating external pressure becomes pure ideology: all criticism of Israel’s political practice as an occupying power is apostrophised as anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic, as if Judaism, Zionism and Israel and, as corollary, Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel, all amount to the same thing. An identity policy of perceiving themselves as the victims of a world that is hostile towards them everywhere and all of the time has risen to be the predominant factor of Israeli foreign policy and the propaganda it promotes. At the same time the peace movement inside Israel has almost completely atrophied. It is no accident that Benjamin Netanyahu was able to announce recently that in the long run Israel will only be able to trust in its sword, and thus must exist in a permanent reality of violence. This is nothing less than a reformulation, mutatis mutandis, of the identity of a (purportedly) peace-seeking state. In the current discourse of Israeli politics peace has become almost a swearword – in a land where ‘peace’ (shalom) is the day-to-day Hebrew word of greeting.

Similarly, more and more Israeli citizens seek an escape into religion or into what is euphemistically represented as tradition. This is not only about escapist tendencies, although they do play an appreciable role, but also about the reinforcement of the self-ascribed image as protagonists in the struggle against the Palestinians. No longer is it enough to (somehow) legitimise the occupation, as might have been the case in the early days of the occupation; now it seems necessary to subscribe to an irrational, religious justification of something that, from a secular point of view, might well have burned itself as a real, historic injustice into the (pre-)consciousness of many Israelis. At any rate, the majority of Oriental Jews, who, for the most part, hail from traditional-religious homes, see themselves confirmed in this development by the ‘enemy without’, who has been turned into a fetish over time. It is remarkable how the clientele of the Shas party, who were originally sworn to peace by their spiritual father figure, the rabbi Ovadia Yosef, today indulge quite overtly in the shift to the right in Israeli identity. Their dilemma regarding cultural identity is instructive: descended from Arab culture and still practising many of their (Jewish-informed) customs, they are at the same time among the most fervent carriers of the political enmity towards that culture. Likewise, many of the Israeli citizens hailing from the former Soviet Union are to be found on the right or extreme right of the Israeli political spectrum, and openly hostile to the Palestinians. However, in their case the alignment of their identity has to do with their resentment of anything leftwing, which they brought with them from their country of origin. Many of them even consider the social democratic/liberal Israeli Labour Party (that has recently, and not accidentally, been rebranded as the ‘Zionist Camp’) to be ‘Stalinist’.

As we have seen, a good deal of this situation of antagonistic fractions of identity could be remedied by a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether this is indeed the wish – beyond said lip-service – of the great majority of all Israelis is to be called into serious doubt for the reasons stated. What this may mean for the future of Zionist Israel is a question we shall pass over here and instead draw attention back to the works of Roland Fischer.

Can art capture such a melange of structural complexity, tangled historical development and heterogeneous mindsets? In principle art is certainly able to achieve just that through its core capacity, namely to be a specific manifestation of a symbolic order which condenses universal into particular, the timeless into a bounded time-frame and hence to represent what has been intuited.It is exactly in its ‘as-if’ that art is able to grasp the essential and convey it in a concrete manner. Fischer’s work achieves this: he succeeds in documenting by artistic means and creating art by documentary means at the same time. He preserves the uniqueness of the individual but also reveals the embeddedness of the individual in the collective, panoramically presenting a pluralistic assemblage of ideological bigotry, reflective differentiation, desperation, hope, disillusionment and longing. The heterogeneity of his portraits, both filmed and photographed, refers to a universal theme –
and yet it is a remarkable work about Israel, and about Tel Aviv: in recent years the much-reviled and much-loved city of the ‘other Israel’.

Moshe Zuckermann is an Israeli writer, philosopher and sociologist. His areas of research focus on the history and philosophy of the social and cultural sciences, aesthetic theory and sociology of art and the impact of the Holocaust on the political cultures of Israel and Germany.

Moshe Zuckermann, Fractures of Israeli Identity
in: Roland Fischer „Tel Aviv – Israeli Collective Portrait“, published by Hirmer, Munich 2016