A Zionist guide for the Euro-visitor to Eurovision

Please tell everyone that we aren’t just alive: but, having returned to our natural habitat, our homeland, ever improving and stretching, still being self-critical – we’ve figured out how to thrive.

May 14, 2019 21:22
Kralj & Santl of Slovenia perform at a rehearsal ahead of the first semi-final of 2019 Eurovision

Kralj & Santl of Slovenia perform at a rehearsal ahead of the first semi-final of 2019 Eurovision in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Dear Euro-visitor,

We know worried friends suggested skipping the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, following the Palestinians’ 698-rocket barrage. We know fanatics bullied you to boycott this apolitical celebration of international unity. So, thanks for coming.

Welcome to the Great Israel Disconnect.

In this small Albania-sized country, Israelis party in Tel Aviv clubs as friends scramble into shelters. This insouciance is not callousness or obliviousness; it’s defiance. Our coolest cats cry like babies on Remembrance Day, and exchange their hipster threads for military khaki when called to serve. But after millennia of being persecuted – often, ahem, by your ancestors – we won’t be pushed around anymore. We laugh, love, dance and party whenever we can – while ducking, crying, empathizing and fighting when we must.

Besides, what’s real? Everyone underestimates us. Everyone overestimates our problems. Yet, look around. We have failures and blind spots – what country doesn’t? But watch the trend lines. Israel today is stronger, richer, more sophisticated than ever. And it’s kinder, gentler, more tolerant, more pluralistic, too.

Even with a right-wing government, Israel has a liberal-democratic soul. Israeli Arabs, gays, women, religious people – actually, most citizens – are better off personally, economically, democratically, existentially than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago.

You can’t fake Israel’s freedom, openness, creativity; it pulses through our Eurovision hits. Dana International’s 1998 winner captured our roller-coaster emotions, singing of “pain and hurt” – glorifying a “Diva” who cries like “an angel” yet laughs like “a devil.” Netta Barzilai’s 2018 winner celebrated independence, defiance, openness and Wonder Womanness: “I’m not your toy... You stupid boy!”

BUT TO understand Israel, think historically. Appreciate what Judaism is, what Zionism is and where Palestinians fit into the bigger story.

I’m not sugar-coating: Israelis clash over deep divisions, amid deeper wells of intolerance and insensitivity – like all countries. When Dana International became a transsexual star, some rabbis objected. “I am what I am, and this does not mean I don’t believe in God,” she proclaimed, “and I am part of the Jewish nation.”

Hmm... How can an Israeli drag queen condemned by rabbis be a believer – and what’s this “Jewish nation” – isn’t Judaism just a religion?
Welcome to that complex multidimensional civilization called Judaism. Just as two cookies connected by crème make an Oreo, Judaism combines nationhood and religion. The Jewish people follows the Jewish religion but can create a Jewish state that isn’t a theocracy, because even the religiously mandated Sabbath has national and cultural dimensions. Tel Aviv’s charming Saturday sleepiness reflects collective desire – and memory – not religious coercion. And before condemning democracies wielding religious symbols, check whether your country flies one of Europe’s 27 cross-bearing flags.

Zionism is the Jewish national liberation movement. As a people, we have rights – like the 41 other Eurovision countries – to establish a nation-state in our homeland.

Zionism courts trouble by rejecting John Lennon’s postmodernist “Imagined” world without borders, without countries. But neither Palestinians nor Brits nor Americans nor most proud peoples accept that. As a model of liberal nationalism, Zionism proves that the better term is “nationaliberalism” – that’s how integrated liberal-democratic ideas are into Zionism and into most healthy forms of nationalism.

Zionists imagine the world as a honeycomb. Bonding tribally, nationally, can generate sweet ideas and great achievements, not just xenophobic poison. Rooted in our ancient past and traditions, Israel is what Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl called Altneuland: old-new land. Gali Atari won the Eurovision in 1978 with “Milk & Honey,” singing an old, particularist call with an expansive vision, delighting in “Hallelujah, sounds of love, Hallelujah, the sunshine above.”

HAVING ESTABLISHED Israel, Zionism now seeks to perfect it. While telling outsiders challenging our legitimacy: “Judge us like any normal country,” as insiders debating our future we strive to be exceptional. These aspirations aren’t about being better than others – just trying to better ourselves, then others.

The boycotters single out Zionism as somehow illegitimate – despite our 3,500-year history here. They often try negating nationalism itself – while somehow supporting Palestinian nationalism and feminist, racial and LGBTQ particularisms. And, characterizing the conflict in black-and-white terms, they cast Israel as “the oppressor” with the Palestinians as “the victims.”

Just as European history is more than all of you squabbling with one another, Israel is much more than the Palestinian conflict. And while we’re not perfect, we’ve repeatedly taken risks for peace. Consider this: Israel withdraws from Gaza in 2005 completely, yet Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and others still claim Gaza’s “occupied.” Then, Hamas unleashes 698 rockets – and Israel is supposed to tolerate these war crimes peacefully, while apologizing for existing.

Unfortunately for the haters, we’re not going away. Remember Ofra Haza’s 1983 second-place entry “Chai” – Alive – a timely reminder to contestants that winning songs sometimes lose Eurovision. “Many are my thorns, but also my flowers,” she sang: patriotically, maturely, acknowledging complexity.

Capturing Israel’s altneu old-new nature, dancing between the universal and particular, emphasizing Jews’ miraculous continuity and never-ending hopes despite oppression, she sang delightedly, not just defiantly: “I’m still alive... The Jewish people live/ This is the song Grandpa sang yesterday to Papa/ And today it’s me.”

But not just “me.” While affirming Jewish vitality, she vowed: “I’ll reach out my hands... To my friends from across the seas.”

So welcome from across the seas – enjoy. If you choose to correct the record back home, please tell everyone that we aren’t just alive: but, having returned to our natural habitat, our homeland, ever improving and stretching, still being self-critical – we’ve figured out how to thrive.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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