Thursday, August 03, 2006

Reflections on Nakhba

By Alex Stein, at the aptly named blog. A very thoughtful piece...

Tisha Ba’av is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It marks the date when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. This meant the end of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for nearly two thousand years. That sovereignty was recovered in 1948, and as a result Tisha Ba’av is of little significance in the secular Israeli calendar. To religious Jews, however, it remains hugely significant. It is the Jewish Nakhba, the day to pause and remember all the catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people – every pogrom, expulsion, inquisition, and Holocaust. The rituals of the day are designed to enhance this depressed feeling, particularly through fasting and the recitation of the Book of Lamentations.

One of the least considered aspects of the rise of Zionism is its implications for halacha, Jewish law. Aside from the anti-Zionist margins, the Orthodox world has slowly come to terms with secular Jewish statehood, but this has had little impact on the axioms which influence the development of Jewish law. The Orthodox community will pimp the Israeli state for all it’s worth, and will happily issue judgements permitting this or that conquest, but it refuses to acknowledge that the State of Israel fundamentally alters the paradigms of Jewish existence.

There is one crucial exception to this. The first religious figure to systematically harmonise Orthodoxy and Zionism was Rabbi Avraham Kook. In an inversion of the traditional narrative, he argued that secular Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael would hasten the coming of the Messiah. In this particular eschatology, secular Jews are but pawns, unwittingly contributing to the onset of the Messianic age. It wasn’t long before religious Jews latched on to this idea – that Jewish settlement in the land of Israel could be a catalyst for the messiah – and it would be hard to underestimate the importance of Rav Kook’s ideas to the settler movement.

The first major blow to this vision came a year ago. The evacuation of settlers from Gaza marked the first time the Israeli government had rolled back the settlement enterprise. Whatever happens from this point on, the ‘dream’ of a fully Jewish Eretz Yisrael is irrevocably in tatters. The impact of last summer’s ‘national trauma’ was heightened tremendously by the fact that it began as soon as Tisha Ba’av finished. What could be a more powerful image than seeing Jews evict Jews from their homes straight after the day that commemorates Jewish catastrophe? These histrionics were stage-managed, of course, in order to show the world how gut-wrenching it was to evacuate settlers, who were permitted to live out their catastrophe in an entirely controlled manner. Needless to say, they were then free to milk the moment for all it was worth.

The evacuees from Gaza were out in force again on the streets of Jerusalem this week, commemorating the first anniversary of their ‘dispossession’. And like other refugees, if that term doesn’t flatter them somewhat, they were able to feed off a steady diet of nostalgia, the true opium of the people. The grass is always greener on the other side. This is one of the most internalised and least acted upon concepts in our canon. And it lies at the heart of our conceptions of catastrophe.

Enter the Palestinians. Their Nakhba was Israel’s resurrection, which marked their dispossession from the land. They commemorate this each year with marches and protests. And like Jews, they idealise the world they have lost. Where we reminisce about milk and honey, they wax lyrical about olive trees and orange groves. Life in a poverty-stricken Ottoman backwater becomes a pastoral scene of bliss and harmony, just as our downtrodden lives in the shtetls of the Pale become unsurpassed eras of community and kinship. This is all, in Proust’s phrase, a la recherché de temps perdu.

Why do we do this to ourselves? On one level, it’s obvious. For the most part, people put autonomy and freedom above material conditions. The fact that Zionism may have brought socio-economic progress to the Palestinians is irrelevant. Being a stranger in a strange land, in your own land, is the source of indescribable sorrow. The same applies to the commemoration of the Temple’s destruction. Israel today is primarily a secular state. With this in mind, Tisha Ba’av provides an opportunity to wail over a lost theocracy.

But there’s more to it than this. The merging of catastrophe and nostalgia provides a perfect opportunity to avoid constructing a vision. It is much easier to bemoan what is lost than to forge anew. This occurs across the board. It is simple to say that constructing the Palestinian nation is a simple matter of removing every last remnant of Israeli control. On its own, however, this is not enough. Every national movement worth its salt needs figures who can construct visions of the nation that are not simply dependent on defeating occupation. A good example of this is the Irish republican, James Connolly, who argued that getting rid of the British would be pointless if it did not lead to the establishment of a socialist republic.

The same criticism can be applied to Hizbollah. The Israeli withdrawal in 2000 provided an excellent opportunity to focus on the issue of what role a Shiite party could play in the development of a pluralist Lebanon. This summer’s hostilities show that it has simply reverted to type. In the absence of vision, it has taken the easy option of luring back the occupier. And it also applies to Israel. There can be no escaping the fact that the state’s existence fundamentally alters the nature of Jewish existence, particularly in the realm of security. But rather than internalising that we are more secure than ever before, the government has continued to do all it can to strengthen external threats, to leave us with a permanent state of siege, rather than confidently reaching out to our neighbours.

It is remarkable to stand at the Western Wall on Tisha Ba’av. Thousands of people sit around in little groups, reciting the Book of Lamentations. The idea is to create an atmosphere of misery and catastrophe, yearning for an irretrievable lost world. To buy in to this particular myth, however, is to exist in a state of denial. As much as one tries, and despite the ongoing conflict, there can be no feeling of despair in Modern Jerusalem. But there is a sense of tragedy. A sense of tragedy because people continue to prefer nostalgia to the future, catastrophe to vision. This is our Nakhba.

Alex Stein is the Abba Eban Scholar in International Relations (M.Phil) at Queens' College, Cambridge.


At 10:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will your next post be on the VISION?

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Phu said...

Very interesting Gert.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Pop culture seems to supersede every bit of history and even writes history. The grass was always greener too even in ancient pop culture. Let us not forget the words of Rodney King in times like these.


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