Saturday, March 22, 2008

I found this essay on

March 22, 2008 at 9:19 am (Guest Post, Israel, Palestine, Peace)

The following essay was written by a very dear friend…

The renegade lexicographer
By Deb Reich

People continue to refer to Israel as Israel, no matter onto whose land it expands or how far, as if Palestine could be made to disappear by neglecting to mention it, ever again. In fact, at this writing (March 2008), Palestine is alive and well, if excruciatingly battered and beleaguered, just beneath the surface of Israel, and is rising up all over the place, through the cracks in the sidewalk, in the most unstoppable manner imaginable. Palestine will not be suppressed. Whether we stand for it or against it, Palestine is unsuppressable. However new or not new the Palestinian identity may be, however indigenous or imported the name itself, Palestine is a fact, and Palestinians likewise. We Jews are not the only ones here. However long we have been here, in numbers large or small, we have never been alone here! Get used to it! I deal with this problem by referring to the country as Israel/Palestine, for now. Sometimes (for parity) I call it Palestine/Israel. Not a perfect solution, but not bad.

Aliya / Yerida
Incredibly, Jews around the world still sometimes decide to “make aliya to Israel.” An “aliya” is literally an ascent; the same word is used when a Jew is honored with the chance to read aloud, to the assembled congregation in a synagogue, a text from the Torah. For a believing Jew, immigrating to Israel is also deemed an ascent in spiritual terms. Meanwhile, the actual Israeli land mass is gradually sinking under the weight of its own grotesque moral dilemmas, combined with all that heavy ordnance, the giant home-razing bulldozers, the grim forty-foot Separation Barrier slabs of solid concrete, and the despair in Gaza, a burden too heavy for even geology to bear. To come here these days from Boston or Cincinnati or Buenos Aires must certainly involve descending, not ascending. “Yerida” (descending), which in Israel hitherto meant “emigration from Israel,” is what we should be calling immigration to Israel nowadays; and “making aliya” (heading for higher ground) should refer not to the new arrivals in Israel but to the tens of thousands of Israelis who decamp every year for saner havens abroad. If we don’t get our act together soon, the whole country will finally sink below sea level like the Jordan Rift Valley, and we’ll have to import Dutch experts to help us build dikes along the entire Mediterranean shore. (Won’t the guild of foreign labor import contractors have a field day with that one!)

Devout Jews will doubtless insist that immigrating to Israel is still an ascension in the spiritual sense, but - to put it as courteously as possible - they are utterly, absolutely wrong. Basic Jewish values are under severe and continuing assault here by the dark powers, and as of this writing, the dark powers are way ahead. You have to hunt heroically to find a public figure not accused of, or under indictment for, or about to be indicted for, some gross and sleazy act of corruption or moral turpitude (attention, younger readers: that means, like, you were caught stealing the taxpayers’ money or raping your secretary, or maybe starting a cruel and futile war with the neighbors, while holding a high public office). The military’s mismanagement of its outrageous power in this land has lately given rise to an organization called “Combatants for Peace,” a group of Israeli (and Palestinian) former soldiers and commandos who understand that force is never a permanent solution. They know that two peoples are going to have to live together here and that shedding more blood is not going to teach them how to do it. I wouldn’t be surprised to read one fine day that the saner generals and admirals in the USA who are appalled at the Bush cabal’s Dr. Strangelove-like scenarios for Iran, etc., have invited Combatants for Peace to teach them how to rebel against their own gang of power-crazed politicians drunk on the fantasy of imperial dominion via military adventurism.

A Jew / an Israeli
When I first came to Israel in 1966 as an American Jewish teenager in search of her ethnic roots, I noticed one peculiar thing about the language here, right off the bat. Israeli Jews, speaking Hebrew, often used the words “Israeli” and “Jew” interchangeably. I could not help but wonder about that. I knew, in a vague sort of way, that some Israelis were not Jewish, although I had not yet learned about the large population of Arab citizens of Israel who had been subject to a military administration in their own communities within the State of Israel until well into the 1960s; this community today numbers about 1.1 million. Meanwhile, there I was, definitely Jewish but not Israeli (I acquired Israeli citizenship much later: in 1984). As green as I was at the time, as lacking in context, still I could see that this basic conflation of identity labels probably boded no good, and indeed nothing good has been boded thereby in the forty-plus years that have since elapsed.

Zionism / Zayyinism
The packaged fantasy about this country that is sold to Jews abroad still features “Zionism” as something especially positive and inspirational. Jews outside Israel either don’t know, or don’t care, that for over a million citizens of the State of Israel, a sixth of the population, Zionism is about as positive and inspirational as Columbus Day is for native American (“Indian”) nations. The yin of Zionism is “hooray for us Jews!” but the yang of Zionism is “can’t all those [native-born] Arabs find some other place to live?” Purely on a logical basis, there is no special reason why Zionists or Zionism should be popular with the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, many of whose great-grandparents, even if they did not call themselves Palestinian, were already here when the Zionists began arriving. Immigrants are never all that popular, no matter where on earth they appear; the more immigrants who appear all at once, the less popular they tend to be with the pre-existing population; and newcomers who arrive with the declared intention of asserting sovereign rights in place of the existing local authorities are certainly never going to win any popularity contests. When Zionism said, in effect, “Move over, Rover; we’re coming, and we’re taking charge,” its cool reception by the locals was foreordained.

When I learned Hebrew, I was amused to discover that the sacred word “Zionism” is pronounced entirely differently in Hebrew: tsee-yo-NOOT. The closest Hebrew phonetic match to the English name “Zion” (which denotes biblical Israel, birthplace of Judaism, etc.) is the Hebrew word “zayyin” which means two things: (a) the letter “z” in Hebrew; and (b) a weapon; but in colloquial usage: a slang term for penis.

Yes, indeed. In popular parlance, “zayyin” means “dick.” Ergo, “zayyinism” can be fairly construed as “dickism” – in other words, aggressive male domination: leading with one’s dick; screwing people over; coercion as the preferred style of interaction; brutality as default mode. Sad to say, “zayyinism” in that sense is a reasonably accurate description of the Israeli Jewish zeitgeist circa 2008. You see it in the nasty way people elbow each other aside in a checkout line at the supermarket; you see it in the arrogant way so many drivers routinely endanger other drivers on the highways; you see it in the abusive way so many off-duty Israeli soldiers talk to their families; and you see it in the brutal way too many on-duty Israeli soldiers relate to Palestinians young and old, lame, sick, pregnant, bleeding, whatever. Today’s Israeli Zayyinist in uniform points his (or even sadder, her) phallic-looking weapon at helpless civilians and gives orders. Aggressively.

Yes, Zayyinism lives. But Zionism? As originally envisioned, as a noble movement of national renaissance, Zionism is effectively dead. Depending on your background, you may find this statement very hard to accept - honestly, I sometimes find it hard to accept, myself - but denying the reality is not going to change it. At best we could say that Zionism in 2008 is a dream fulfilled, or anyhow a dream whose time has come and gone. At worst, from the other side of the wall, it’s a continuing nightmare, a golem, a grotesque caricature of itself. That is terribly sad; no question about it.

A new dream in search of a name

A dream shared by millions of people over multiple generations makes very significant waves when it dies. The Kubler-Ross model is apt: First there is denial (“Zionism lives!”); then anger (“How dare you, you self-hating Jew!”); then bargaining (“If those other countries will ignore our little human rights quagmire here, we’ll ignore theirs”); then depression (“They all hate us anyway, what’s the point of even trying”); and finally - acceptance.

Nothing good can grow on a grave until the body is buried. When Zionism morphed into Zayyinism, the noble movement for Jewish national renaissance in the land of our ancestors effectively died. When we accept the fact of its demise and bury it, a supremely worthwhile new dream can grow on the grave of the old one.

Here is what the new dream is about: It is about fashioning a new, inclusive, imaginative, shared civil society in this land where every single human being, and all their myriad individual and group identities - religious, national, ethnic, linguistic, and otherwise - can flourish. (No more war! Onward with synergy and pluralism!) If we can just once glimpse, all of us, however dimly, a shared dream in those terms, we can begin the real work of co-creating a shared homeland of which we can all be proud.

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