There’s a lot to complain about in Israel. In my previous post, I wrote about the harrowing experience of getting a drivers license. But, if you spend an hour with any expat in Israel, you will quickly understand that the driver’s license is the least of our worries. We have a real estate bubble, we have cottage cheese woes, we have corruption, we have poor education, we can’t buy cars, public transport is shameful, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum.
Hearing the dirge of Israeli life sung by its immigrants, you might think that back home the customer service reps at the telecomm companies whisper sweet nothings into your ears, the civil servants of the DMV treat you with kid gloves, and that the humble, sensible, charitable people who run the banks are determined to give more than they take. How much have we forgotten.
Israel so easily becomes a catchall for all our problems. The career is neither sailing nor soaring: Israel. Politicians are dishonest: Israel. The sun is shining too brightly, the wind is blowing too cold: Israel, Israel and again Israel.
Strangely, it’s not just people living in the country who have this impulse to blame Israel for everything. When a shark attacked a man in the Red Sea the Egyptians blamed Israel. When the Americans didn’t support the “Arab uprising” the Arabs and the Europeans blamed Israel. A bomb goes off in Baghdad, Israel. Osama bin Laden ignites a war against the West, Israel again. It’s Israel at every turn of every corner.
There is in the almanac of Western metaphor only one which really accurately describes this bizarre phenomenon. It is, of course, the White Whale. In Melville’s Moby Dick, a certain Ahab, captain of the whaler called Pequod, pursues a white whale that, if you are to believe the ravings of the old man, took one of his legs from him during a whale hunt. “In his frantic morbidness,” Ahab blames Moby Dick “for all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.”
And yet Moby Dick is just a whale, like other whales. Except, the white whale is marked by his difference of color – and the nature of his pursuer. Ahab is not a separate human type, but a facet found in every human nature. He is our frustration and our anger. He is our rejection of the world, which all of us contain, even if it’s just a whisper or a silent glimmer, made wholly into a man.
But why does he blame the whale? This is our question. The whale took something precious from Ahab. And the nation of the Jews, whose country is Israel, is thought to have taken something precious from the nations. That taken thing is peace.
Israel has not fundamentally changed anything in the balance of power in the world. But the world perceives an absence of peace -- which is in reality an absent peace of mind -- and it blames Israel for that absence. In Moby Dick, the white whale got away, it did not conform to the logic of power located in Ahab’s mind that whaler kills whale. Israel – the Jews – have never conformed to the hierarchies of power conceived by the minds of other nations. It has survived when it should not have survived. This is its whiteness in the eyes of the world.
Melville called Ahab’s disease of the mind a “monomania.” So it is with all those who blame Israel unconditionally, who consider the country to be a “lynch pin” or a “key” that unlocks all the dammed up peace that’s supposedly pooled somewhere in the Middle East. (And already by the early 1950s the writer C.L.R. James recognized that Moby Dick could be described as "the biography of the last days of Adolf Hitler.")
But for those who live by choice within Israel’s borders, for them too is Israel a Moby Dick of the mind? Maybe it is, more deeply and secretly inlaid, the feeling that the harpoon of history must have inflicted a mortal wound, and that the features of daily life in the country are just spasms and jitters of something dying, something inherently wrong.
Israel has its problems, as any country does. While it’s similar in this regard it is, in many ways, fundamentally different. It is the white whale of nations. Our question is to what extent we allow ourselves to indulge in Ahab’s mania.