The view from there

Israeli-American author Joel Schalit on why living abroad makes him more anchored to Israel.

May 7, 2010 16:04
Israel vs. Utopia

Israel vs. Utopia 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Israel vs. Utopia
By Joel Schalit
Akashic Books | 250 pages | $15.95

Not long after US Vice President Joe Biden touched down here, Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced plans to build 1,600 new homes in Jerusalem’s contentious Ramat Shlomo neighborhood. The move, publicly condemned by Biden, seemed like a slap in the face of the US administration. Biden criticized the “substance and timing of the announcement” adding, “We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them.”

But Yishai’s move, and the crisis that followed, was unsurprising to some, such as Israeli-American author Joel Schalit. “Biden’s visit offered Yishai the opportunity to act out Israel’s desire to be ‘free’ of its dependency on the Americans.”“Even though the Americans remain military allies, they have never been more diplomatically and, even more significantly, ideologically alienated from Israel,” Schalit explains. “Yet our government continues to chip away at American goodwill...”

In light of the now tense “special relationship” between Israel and the US the opening pages of Schalit’s new book, Israel vs. Utopia, read like prophecy. “Israel can’t make peace with its neighbors unless it first makes peace with the United States,” Schalit writes. Operation Cast Lead, he argues, was, in part, a “legacy of the Bush era,” an administration that will continue to reverberate through Israeli politics.

Is America the utopia that Israel is up against?

“Most importantly the title is meant to make the reader think,” Schalit responds. “Utopia means the standard by which people judge Israel against, and which conservatives tend to use as a yardstick to measure the failings of the Diaspora.”

An incisive look at the connection between the US and Israel, and their respective roles on the world stage, Israel vs. Utopia is full of such unconventional, thought-provoking statements. Combining argument with anecdote, Schalit offers an exciting conversation about politics in a genre plagued by stale dialectic. A breath of fresh air, Israel vs. Utopia is a book that could only be written by someone intimate with the ethos of both countries. Like Schalit.

The author, 43, is the youngest son of Elie Schalit. An active member of the Hagana as a teenager, Schalit served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. When he returned to the Middle East, he resumed his work with the Hagana – securing ships used to smuggle weapons and Jewish refugees to Palestine.

The Schalit family is also notable for its long history here. Arriving from Russia in 1882 in the First Aliya, the Schalits were among the founders of Rishon Lezion. Today their former home is a museum, Beit Schalit. Its 2000 opening serves as a poignant scene in Joel Schalit’s first book, Jerusalem Calling.

During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Schalit finds he has lost much of his Hebrew. While he is able to greet his haredi cousin, he can’t keep up with his father’s speech. It’s a pivotal scene, a moment of epiphany for both the reader and Schalit, that summarizes his conflicted relationship with Israel and the Diaspora – where he spent his teenage years and most of his adult life.

“By figuring out that I’d forced myself to ‘unlearn’ my Hebrew, particularly considering the language’s central role in the cultural construction of the Jewish state, as a teenager I had instinctively passed judgment on the political direction Zionism had taken,” Schalit, now a resident of Berlin, reflects.

But, as he points out, that he easily held a conversation with his cousin proved that he had “failed to fully divest” from Hebrew.

“Whatever my objections, I still lived in and thought of the world in many of the same ways that I objected to. Or, to put it another way, that I had come to realize that no matter what I did, I was not and will not ever stand apart. That’s why I don’t feel so conflicted about living abroad anymore, either.”

SCHALIT SPENT much of his early years bouncing between Israel and Europe. His father’s business was based in Italy, where the family spent vacations. And in the late 1970s, not long after his Israeli-American mother passed away, Schalit and his father moved to London, where they lived for two and a half years.

As a teenager, Schalit attended a Christian boarding school in Oregon. There, he writes in Jerusalem Calling, he fell into “an overwhelming depression” that seems, to the reader, to be part homesickness and part existential crisis.

Using humor and insight, Schalit ponders the reasons why: “Maybe it was the perpetually bad weather,” he writes. “Maybe it was because everyone I met was so terribly nice and well-mannered. But the immense silence that pervaded every mandatory Wednesday chapel service was a far cry from the shouting and frenzy of my family’s Mediterranean world.”

There were other differences that struck the young Schalit. In the US, religion exists as a distinct body that can be separated from and rebelled against. But for Israelis and Diaspora Jews, he writes, “You were Jewish whether you liked it or not. You didn’t have to go to synagogue; Judaism was inescapable because it was in your blood.”

After high school, Schalit continued to explore his relationship to Judaism, majoring in religion at Portland’s Reed College and then taking a master of arts in philosophy from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

He then plunged headlong into both the music and publishing industries – writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, among other publications, while acting as label manager of the San Francisco based Asphodel, an experimental/electronic record label. Schalit was a founding editor of Bad Subjects, one of the world’s first on-line periodicals, and went on to serve as the editor of Tikkun, a Jewish magazine, and Punk Planet. Now the on-line editor of Zeek, Schalit has also been at the helm of several anthologies, including The Anti-Capitalism Reader: Imagining a Geography of Opposition.

With such a wide variety of experiences to draw from, it’s not surprising that memoir-heavy Jerusalem Calling touches on a range of issues – from the religious Right to punk rock. Despite the seemingly disparate topics, each essay pushes Schalit toward confronting the complicated ties among blood, religion, culture and politics.

“The unifying theme in Jerusalem Calling is the sense that one could come out of the historic and ideological matrix I grew up in, in Israel, in Europe and in the United States, and still keep a coherent sense of humanity intact. I’m not talking about any sensibility either, but those of a progressive, multiculturalist ethos – not foreign but indigenous to an Israeli perspective.”

Like many Israelis who leave, Schalit’s decision to live elsewhere was difficult. “My choice to remain abroad, instead of to live in Israel, has never been an easy one. It was initially made as a protest against the first war in Lebanon and my decision not to do my army service. I felt as though the war had involuntarily morally exiled me from Israel.”

Ironically, this distance allowed Schalit to maintain a deep connection to the country of his childhood, where his father and other family members continue to live. Schalit explains, “If I was going to remain the least bit ‘Israeli,’ to more precisely remain in touch with the sense of justice that I was raised to believe is at the core of being Israeli, I was going to have to leave.”

Jerusalem Calling and Israel vs. Utopia are both, in part, an examination of the space between the author and Israel. “Both are different explorations of how to position oneself in relation to Israel, from the perspective of an Israeli-American, living primarily in the Diaspora,” Schalit says. “The first book takes its starting position at the beginning of the Aksa intifada and the war on terror. Israel vs. Utopia, in contrast, treats these positions from the vantage point of the end of the Bush era and its impact upon Israeli politics.”

Schalit says that both books are linked “by a shared sense of the importance of the personal in helping explain abstract political points... The personal and the political, to cite the old feminist axiom, are always wholly intertwined. The Middle East, of course, is no different.”

Schalit is no exception. No matter how far he goes, he is unable to extricate himself from both of his homes. “Whether the divide between Israel and the United States is augmented or diminished,” Schalit writes in Israel vs. Utopia, “I feel every change as a fluctuation in my soul.”

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