Avnery, What the Hell?

Uri Avnery. Photo from a Gush Shalom video.

What the Hell?

by Uri Avnery – Gush Shalom

What the Hell am I?

An Israeli? A Jew? A peace activist? A journalist? An author? An ex-combat soldier in the Israeli army? An ex-terrorist? A…?

All of these and more.

OK. OK. But in what order? Which is the most important component?

First of all, of course, I am a human being, with all the rights and duties of a human being. That part is easy. At least in theory.

Then I am an Israeli. Then I am a Jew. And so on.

An Australian man of English extraction would have no trouble answering such a question. He is first and foremost an Australian, and then an Anglo-Saxon. In two world wars he rushed to the aid of Britain, for no practical reason. But in the second war, when his own homeland was suddenly in danger, he rushed back home.

That was quite natural. True, Australia was created mainly by British people (including deported convicts), but the Australian’s mental world was formed by the geographical, political and physical environment of Australia. In the course of time, even his (and her) physical appearance changed.

Once I had a discussion about this with Ariel Sharon.

I told him that I consider myself an Israeli first, and a Jew only second.

Sharon, who was born in pre-Israel Palestine, retorted heatedly: “I am first of all a Jew, and only then an Israeli!”

This seems an idle discussion. But it has a very practical relevance for our daily life.
For example, is this a “Jewish” state, how can it exist without the dominance of the Jewish religion?

Israel was founded by very secular idealists. Most of them looked upon religion as a relic of the past, a handful of ridiculous superstitions that must be discarded in order to clear the way for a healthy, modern nationalism.

The founding father, Theodor Herzl, whose picture hangs in every Israeli schoolroom, was completely non-religious, not to say anti-religious. In his ground-breaking book, “Der Judenstaat” (The Jewish State), he declared that in the future Zionist state, the rabbis would be kept in the synagogues, without any influence on public affairs.

The rabbis answered in no uncertain terms. They cursed him outright, using the most extreme language. They believed that God Almighty had sent the Jews into exile as a punishment for their sins, and only God Almighty had the right to bring them back by sending the Messiah.

Even the German reform rabbis, a small minority at the time, condemned him. Only a handful of rabbis joined the Zionist movement in the early days.

In Jerusalem, an important group of Orthodox rabbis, who called themselves Neturei Karta (“Guardians of the City”), were openly anti-Zionist. Much later, I often met them in Arafat’s office. Other Orthodox rabbis, a bit less radical, insisted on being non-Zionist while still accepting Zionist money. They are now members of the governing coalition.

David Ben-Gurion, the leading Zionist when the State of Israel came into being, despised the religious. He believed that they would disappear by themselves in time. Therefore (and in order to gain the support and money of orthodox Jews abroad) he made all kinds of concessions to them, which allowed the religious community to grow out of all proportion. Now they endanger the very existence of our secular state.

Although representing only about a fifth of Israel’s population, the Orthodox of various shades now constitute a powerful force in Israeli politics. From being a moderate force for peace they have turned to a radical nationalism, often a religious fascism. Their influence on daily life is becoming more and more pervasive.

Lately they succeeded in passing a law that forbids the opening of supermarkets on Saturday (Shabbat). The extreme Orthodox wing forbids its sons to serve in the army, demanding that all female soldiers be removed altogether, or at least be prevented from having any contact at all with their male comrades.

Since most Israelis see the army as (perhaps) the only unifying force left in Israel, this results in a perpetual crisis. Other Orthodox wings take the contrary view: they see the army as God’s instrument for cleansing all of the Holy Land of non-Jews.

Arab citizens of Israel — more than 20% of the population — do not serve in the army, with some exceptions. How could they be counted on to fulfill the designs of the God of Israel?

If Ben-Gurion and all the dead soldiers of my generation could hear about this situation, they would turn in their graves.

THIS IS only one of the manifestations of the Jewish-first ideology. Another is the question of Israel’s place on the region. Jewish-first dictates a quite different outlook than Israeli-first.

I was just 10 years old when my family fled from Nazi Germany to Palestine. On the ship from Marseille to Jaffa I cut myself off completely from the European continent and connected with the Asian one.

I loved it. The sounds, the smells, the environment. I wanted to embrace it all. When at the age of 15 I joined the underground liberation struggle against the British overlords of Palestine, I felt that we were a part of the general struggle of a new world against Western domination.

At the time, a linguistic usage was accepted by all of us, even without noticing. We all started to distinguish between “Jewish,” by which we meant the Jews of the Diaspora (“exile Jews” in Zionist terms), and “Hebrew,” by which we meant everything local, home-grown.

“Jewish” were the religion, the Ghettos, the Yiddish language, everything over there. Hebrew were we, the renewed language, the new community in our country, the Kibbutzim, everything local. In time, a small group of young intellectuals, nicknamed “Canaanites,” went much further and asserted that we Hebrews had nothing in common with the Jews, that we were a new nation altogether, a direct continuation of the Hebrew nation which was dispersed by the Romans some 2000 years ago.

(This picture, by the way, is denied by many non-Jewish historians, who assert that the Romans exiled only the intelligentsia, and that the simple people remained, adopted Islam and are now the Palestinians.)

When the truth about the Holocaust came out, a wave of remorse swept the Hebrew community here. Jewish became the dominant self-definition. Since than, a steady process of re-Judaization of Israel has been in progress.

When the State of Israel was founded, the term “Israeli” replaced the term “Hebrew.” The question is now: “Jewish” first or “Israeli” first? It has a direct bearing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Herzl had no problem. He was a convinced Westerner. In his book he wrote the fateful words: “For Europe we would constitute (in Palestine) a part of the wall against Asia, we would become an outpost of culture against barbarism.” (My translation.)

In other words, the founder of Zionism conceived the future Jewish state as a bastion of European imperialism against the native peoples. More than 120 years ago, the present situation was already envisioned. Zionism has followed this line consistently.

Could it have been different? Could we have re-integrated ourselves in the region? I don’t know. When I was young, I believed so. I was 22 years old when I founded a group called “Young Eretz-Israel” (and in Arabic and English “Young Palestine”) which was generally known — and detested — as the “Struggle-Group,” because we published an irregular paper by that name. When Jawaharlal Nehru convened an Asian-African congress in New Delhi, we sent him a congratulatory telegram.

After the 1948 war, I founded a group called “Semitic Action,” devoted to the idea of Israel’s integration in the “Semitic Region.” I chose the term “Semitic” because it included all Arabs and Israelis, by descent and language.

In 1959 I met Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris. He had hesitations about the term, because it sounded racist to him. But I succeeded in convincing him and he published an article I wrote on this subject in his Temps Modernes.

The more “Jewish” Israel becomes, the wider the abyss between it and the Muslim world. The more “Israeli,” the higher the chance of an eventual integration in the region, an ideal much more profound than just peace.

Therefore I repeat: I am Israeli first, Jewish second.


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