Sasson Somekh

Like All other People, Hopefully

 Sasson Somekh

Published in Haaretz 16/9/2011

A State of Mind [Eretz, Brith]; Why Israel should become Secular and Democratic. By Ofra Yeshua-Lyth, Maariv Publishers, 328 pages

In the last paragraph of her book “A State of Mind” Ofra Yeshua-Lyth writes:

The establishment of the modern state of Israel was accompanied with several basic mistakes, and for three generations we have been paying a high toll for these errors. The painful, ongoing inner crumbling process of our political structure is happening along the cracks in its foundations. But new, solid foundations might slowly emerge from around the debris. Those of us who wish to preserve a Hebrew speaking habitat that should carry our venerable cultural heritage in this land must smartly work on some creative methods of promoting this idea into the future. Learning Arabic is one possible track. The two languages are very close.

 Perhaps the reason I was attracted to this paragraph is its conclusion, touching on what for me is a burning topic: our neglect of the need to instruct all our children with the knowledge of Arabic. It is a conclusion that stands alone in the present discussion, but never superfluous.

Ofra Yeshua-Lyth is an experienced journalist, previously the foreign correspondent for Maariv in Washington, in Bonn and in other capitals. But the book discussed here is not a collection of articles and stories concerning this wide world. It is a book built of 26 condensed, uncompromisingly critical essays, on different aspects of our life and our dealing with this country: how and why the secular majority of Israel had given up the aspiration to build a modern state, which does not take after the rules that dictated life in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe? Is it merely the sophisticated manipulation by religious and ultra religious apparatchiks? What made for the evaporation of the dream to build a state where Jews and non-Jews should have lived with no discrimination and no divisions?

But it should be made clear from the outset that this is no scholarly book heavy with “Byzantine” polemic, holding down the readers by the throat to keep them from the main argumentation. This writer embedded personal, semi-autobiographical elements, in most chapters. She reminds me of the wonderful essays by Jacklin Cahanov, who back in the seventies of the last century powerfully serenaded the merits of Levantine living.  Like her, Ofra Yeshua-Lyth brings up flashes from her Tel Aviv youth and childhood or from her journalistic encounters, using them in a surprising elegance as a launching pad to her major topics of discussion. This is how one of the essays in the book starts, in a chapter titled “The Bicycle Revenge”:

Our neighborhood’s gang consisted of five or six little girls. We did not go to the same schools but spent most our afternoons and weekends in the quiet streets of our block between Dizengoff Street and Ben Yehuda Street, next to the avenue that was once named after the Jewish National Fund and is now Ben Gurion Avenue. We played Class and Five Stones in the then empty plots of Weiss and Ranak streets, and lagged for idle chats on the wide steps leading to Shalva high school. The other kids were a year or two older, but I was by no means the easiest to bully.

 

It is such openings that bestow a lively vitality to the different essays, even when their link to the main body of the polemic is not too directly forced.

 The discussion in matters of State and Religion may probably seem outrageous to quite a few readers, religious as well as secular. In favor of Yeshua-Lyth it should be said that she is not at all troubled by adherence to faith as long as it is not mixed with politics. In a chapter titled “Monsey, New York” she lovingly, even admiringly, the figure of an ultra-orthodox “Lithuanian” rabbi that she met in this mostly Jewish town. Rabbi Weinfeld believed that religious Jews in Israel should strictly refrain from forcing their lifestyle and communal habits on the secular majority. Strict separation was a key word for this New York religious leader and this facilitated a common ground and even mutual sympathy between himself and the Israeli secular journalist.

And last but not least, the Arab question, which for this writer is the most important issue: How should we make any progress in relation to our neighbors, the Israeli Palestinians, those in the Palestinian areas and the whole Arab world? In two chapters under the common title “A night in the Opera, Morning in Ramalla”, these questions are presented with great severity, and the issue of “settlements” is powerfully dealt with:

 

The state continues to give maximum support to the residents of the Jewish enclaves within the Palestinian territories, and to make sure these people would have no real reason to wish they were anywhere else.

A fanatic nationalistic group is in charge of the settlements movement. For this group settlements in the occupied territories are a supreme existential goal. Its leaders have a perfect understanding of the shaky all-Israeli self confidence, and they have smartly and efficiently built their own empire and illustrious careers all over its debris.

The interests of these apparatchiks are fully compatible with the needs of the giant professional army. Peace initiatives directly jeopardize the army’s continued inflated growth, its hyper-inflated budget allocations and the impressive careers of its many generals. It is not a coincidence that the army is gradually becoming dense with religious nationalists… Routine military rhetoric deals with the “Eternity” of the Children of Israel, forecasting “another hundred years of War” as though there was nothing pathologically wrong with this promise.

 

The author is not too keen on the Israeli left either, as for her its leaders (feebly protesting) too closely follow the crowds, themselves prey to the national-religious influence. This is how she puts it:

There will be no Peace Now and there will be no Peace later either, as long as the narrative is not cleaned from the idea that the good of this land “belongs” exclusively to Jewish people. If you wish to save Israel, you might as well just declare it a normal state, and turn the Israeli people into a regular group or citizens living in one territory. It is not such an impossible mission. The world is full of such states and of such peoples.

One may hope so.


Professor Sasson Somekh is Israel Prize laureate for Middle Eastern Studies

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