Saturday, April 06, 2002

Are we expecting too much of Israel

I don't know what it is, but when I read any account of the Israeli occupation, or see it on TV I tend to get very disturbed by it all. Until recently I couldn't put my finger on it. I'm pro-Israeli, I said to myself. OK, I don't believe that my country should do anything about it but I am pro-Israeli simply because they speak better English, I can understand their politics and I have plenty of Jewish friends. So until recently I've always rooted for Israel. So why do I get so upset when they flood the airwaves with porn?

Well perhaps because I see them as being Westernised. The same reason that I support them is the same reason I expect such high standards. How else would you expect such a reaction from the BBC? It's not ethnic antagonism.

So it brings the next question, have things changed since I first formed my opinion of Israel? In other words, am I expecting too much from Israel?

The original Zionists were Ashkenasi Jews, that is Jews from Eastern Europe. Not only were they from Eastern Europe but they had been westernised, either by linving in Western Europe for a long time or by contact with an urban middle-class lifestyle and western ideologies (nationalism and socialism were the cornerstones of Zionism).

So when the kibbutzim were being founded in the 1920s and 1930s it was Western Europeans who were over there, and who also formed the nucleus for the elite that was to govern Israel. The waves of immigrants in the late 1940s were not as Westernised, although the Ashkenasi element was strong.

Now three things have happened since then. Firstly, and least importantly, there has been an explosive growth rate in the ultra-Orthodox. Now this is not "de-westernising" Israel because they are overwhelmingly Ashkenasi - and the Zionists' parents were often as religious as the ultra-orthodox. Besides they largely wall themselves off from mainstream Israeli society and so their influence is low.

Then there are the Russian immigrants. Although as Ashkenasi as the founding generation, they have been in that least European of European countries. As well as that they have also been walled up behind communism for seventy years. It is no surprise that they seem to be leaning towards Likud, as the Russian Jews from Russia are less westernised than the Russian Jews from America or France. Now when this lot have largely come since Glasnost, you can see that this is a rapidly growing part of the population. Add to this that you will live better and more safely in Israel as compared to Russia, this group will keep on growing as long as free immigration is allowed.

Lastly there is that non-ashkenasi part - not the Palestinians, the Sephardic Jews. Most of them came from Arab countries. Now this makes a big, big difference. They came later, came less well educated and have a higher birth rate. So the rise of Sephardic Jewry vis-a-vis their Ashkenasi cousins is just a natural catching up. So what are the cultural implications of this? Well it is orientalising Israel. Whereas the predominantly Ashkenasi Zionist movement was heavily influenced by the ideas sweeping around Western Europe because of the years spent in or near Western Europe - what is the likely outcome of a longer immersion in Arab culture for the Sephardic Jews?

So is this hand wringing all misplaced. Is Israel simply orientalising, or to be more accurate Arabising? As anyone who followed the Lebanese civil war - and the behaviour of the Phalangists - knows, it is not enough to look to the West to act Western. It is also not enough to not be Muslim, being in a Muslim culture for a few generations is enough to orientalise.

Maybe what we are seeing is that Israel is becoming a foreign country to us. So our high standards should not be applied to Israel so rigorously. Does this say anything for our emotional support?


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