Public Comment

Oy Vay the Israel Thing

By Joanna Graham
Thursday October 23, 2008 - 10:06:00 AM

Whenever the topic of Israel arises, there’s always a lineup on both sides of what appears to be an “issue,” and people fire off at each other. But there is no “issue.” As Norman Finkelstein points out, there is at this time among historians, including those in Israel, unanimity on all but a few small points as to what the situation is and how it arose. Furthermore, there has been agreement since the early ‘seventies as to what any possible solution of the conflict would look like: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza; a shared capital in Jerusalem; international control over the sensitive religious sites; and a solution to the refugee problem, probably some mix of repatriation and reparations. This is also, by the way, what international law demands. In return for compliance, the Arab states have repeatedly offered to fully normalize relations with Israel. 

Given that there is no controversy, what always interests me is the way in which the appearance of controversy can be generated. In the current mini-crisis set off by the Blue Star PR posters, I feel as if I have been watching the slow unfolding of a carefully planned and staged participatory theater piece in which all have dutifully, whether wittingly or unwittingly, played their roles. 

Act I. Blue Star PR puts up pro-Israel posters all around UC, the only place in the entire Bay Area where, due to a strong pro-Palestinian student movement on campus, defacement is 100 percent certain. Pro-Zionist students check the posters frequently (“We were watching out for the poster”) to see if the defacement has yet happened. Yes! By 11:00 p.m. on September 17, someone has actually done that star-of-David-equals-swastika thing! 

Act II. Gabe Weiner, the participating student, rushes off to Chancellor Birgeneau to tell him how upset he feels, whereupon the chancellor, to my mind astonishingly, sends out an e-mail to the “campus community.” 

Act III. Someone, presumably Blue Star PR, packages up the entire carefully crafted incident and sends it out to the local media, most (or all) of whom choose to publish it as the story of a frightful “hate crime.” 

Act IV. Sure enough, first-amendment queen Becky O’Malley, over at the Daily Planet, publishes letters suggesting that perhaps the vandalism was not a hate crime at all, but a political act aimed at the conflict in Israel/Palestine. 

Act V. Blue Star PR sends out their e-mail blast (I love the phrase), and letters from hysterical Jews start rolling in. 

This worked because the chancellor, the local media, and Becky O’Malley all played their assigned roles. But they are bit players, useful fools. The target audience for this theater piece is American Jews, who must periodically be made to feel threatened, lest their support for the state of Israel in all its magnificent intransigence flag. How the most successful, comfortable, integrated Jews in history can so easily be pushed into a state of panic completely contradicted by their actual experience is something on which I ruminate, as do other Jews who are not taken in. One provocative suggestion, from the expat Israeli (and saxophonist) Gilad Atzmon, is that Zionism can be defined not only as support for a Jewish state but as the anti-assimilationist project in toto. 

The sad thing is that my grandparents and great-grandparents came here, just like all the rest of America’s immigrants, specifically to assimilate. It was called the American dream—and if, when the meshiach comes, they rise from their graves and see in how few generations their progeny became doctors and lawyers and college professors, I think they will be glad and proud, even if most of us did marry blue-eyed, blond-haired goyim. 

There’s a joke in Israel to the effect that the founders asked G-d to let their state be Jewish, democratic, and “from the river to the sea.” G-d said (as so often), “You can have any two, but not all three.” Similarly, American Jews can enjoy the fruits of assimilation or the solidarity of the “Jewish community.” Right now they are desperately trying to have both, but G-d will not allow it because His rules are strict. 

If you really want a “Jewish community,” you need to observe the 613 mitzvot which regulate every aspect of daily life; buy two dishwashers for your two complete sets of dishes and tableware; throw out your best skillet should you, by accident, break an egg with a blood spot into it; spend one full day a week doing nothing but reading prayers in a language you don’t understand; have (and refrain from) sexual relations with your spouse on a religious schedule; stop having lunch with your goyishe friends (it’s forbidden); let your most intimate decisions be made for you by rabbis … and so on and so on. Or, alternatively, you can get “very angry and upset” (Gabe Weiner) when some kid spray-paints a poster or Becky prints an op-ed by Marc Sapir. Dear reader, which would you choose? 


Joanna Graham is a frequent critic of the whole megillah.