Terra Incognita: Israel is not a Western country, and never has been

The majority of Israelis today don’t care about being welcomed in Europe and don’t seek European approval.

Star of david overlooking Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Star of david overlooking Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Only when Israelis begin to feel that they are no longer welcomed in Europe as equals because of the occupation will it become the main election issue,” wrote an Israeli professor recently. Another commentator at an Israeli newspaper recently claimed that “no other Western democracy holds millions of foreigners under military rule, no other enlightened nation....”
This idea that Israel is a “Western” country whose people want to be “welcomed” in Europe is a sub-culture in Israeli society, that was once more dominant in the leadership of the country and imagines that it is the majority today. Uri Avnery, famous Israeli activist whose life has spanned that of the state, wrote in 2015 that “growing numbers of well-educated, talented Israelis will emigrate to the US and Germany, leaving behind the less educated, more primitive, less productive population.” He noted that “almost all my friends have sons and daughters living abroad.”
The demographic in Israel that sees the country as closely linked to Europe and frets over it becoming less “Western” and less European tend to be the same demographic that speaks of “returning” to Europe. What they have never internalized, and what many commentators on Israel abroad have never understood, is that Israel is not a Western country. It is not a European country.
Many of Israel’s founders were born in central and Eastern Europe. Many spent formative educational years in Europe, much as other nation builders such as Ho Chi Minh, Gandhi and Kwame Nkrumah had. The Zionist project always struggled between its European nationalist identity and its desire to return the Jewish People to their eastern homeland. When Chaim Weizmann was asked, “why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in?” he famously responded “that is like my asking you why you drove 20 miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street.”
The struggle in Israel between the desire to return to Jewish roots and the need to balance with Western influences found its way into early debates in the state, from the decision to place marriage in the hands of the rabbis, to the shabbat laws and the language of the Declaration of Independence. Since the founding era the country has increasingly moved away from any fanciful notion that it would be a miniature version of a Western country such as Germany, Denmark or the United States, or a copy of a Soviet-style Eastern European polity. It was something else, the way India, Ghana or Argentina blend Western influences with other cultures.
But this drift away from the West as Israel spreads its wings and leaves the European nest has not been without its tearful goodbyes. Avirama Golan wrote in Haaretz in 2014 that “we, your parents, were born to a generation that voluntarily or out of necessity established this state.” She claimed that her generation sought to “imbue you with the universal humanitarian values imprinted on us by our own parents.” And then something happened. “Many among you have already managed to find yourselves a foreign passport.” They went abroad. Those raised with a feeling of being rooted in Europe and “Western values” and anger over the country’s supposed turn to brutal occupation and right-wing politics.
This is also borne out in surveys. Twenty- three percent of Israelis in 2009 said they would consider leaving the country if Iran obtained a nuclear bomb, in a survey by the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. Two years later only 11% said they would consider leaving. Self-defined left-wing Israelis were more concerned. Most Israelis said they thought Iran would get a bomb and most of them would stay.
What the survey tells us is there is a minority of Israelis who are prepared to leave the country; many already have children who live abroad. These Israelis tend to be more left-leaning, self-identify as having “Western values” and are concerned about the country becoming less Western. They are wealthier and their European origins give them access to a foreign passport. This last issue is important when it comes to identity.
Almost three quarters of Israelis have their origins either in pre-state Palestine or in the Middle East and Africa. This includes the quarter of Israelis who are Arab. A minority of Israelis have origins in Europe. Yet the European minority still feels like a cultural majority. During this year’s Independence Day torch lighting ceremony, an Israeli journalist complained that there was too much “Mizrahi” (eastern) music and that the ceremony had “established the State of Morocco” in Israel.
Why did he think there should be no Moroccan culture in a country with so many Moroccans?
In 1946 there were only 543,000 Jews in Palestine. Between 1954 and 1964, according to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, around 250,000 Jews came to Israel from Morocco. You’d think the musical impact of that community, almost a third of the country’s population at the time, would be immediate and that by 2017 European-origin Israelis would no longer be whining about it. But they still are whining, because for some of them Israel cannot have diversity, it cannot have Ethiopian culture, or Russian culture, or Moroccan or Iranian or even Arabic culture. These Israelis have waged a jihad against everything non-Western since 1948, and they have lost.
To those Israelis who dreamed of Israel being a “villa in the jungle,” a kind of Denmark in the Middle East, or a kind of Rhodesia, everything that was non-European was “primitive.” Journalist Ari Shavit asked fellow writer Amos Elon if Israel had this “primitiveness” in a 2004 interview and Elon agreed; the “primitiveness” comes from the Arab countries, he said. What he meant was Jews from those countries.
This colonial mentality of a subset of Israeli society cannot accept that Israel is not a Western country, that it has major influences from non-European peoples and cultures. It is a hybrid civilization, with Western currents in it but a foundation that is rooted in the Middle East. Jewish civilization has always had that hybridity. Since the time of the Hasmoneans fighting the Greeks and the war with Rome, or the expulsion from Spain at the hands of Catholic Europeans, Jewish history has been East struggling with the West.
Some Jewish thinkers cannot accept this. Richard Cohen in his 2014 book Israel: Is it Good for the Jews predicted what would happen when Israel’s “fighting intellectual, rifle in one hand and a volume of Kierkegaard in the other,” became a minority and “Jews from Islamic lands” became the majority. Cohen didn’t realize Israel was never a country of “Jews holding Kierkegaard in one hand.” This was a myth invented among American Jews about Israel, in order to convince themselves Israel was like a miniature version of the Upper West Side in New York, only with tanks and a flag.
Why the fear of “Jews from Islamic lands,” who are presented as barbarians by Israel’s European-rooted writers and their fellow travelers abroad? The same “Western values” that welcome Syrian refugees in Europe despise Syrian Jews in Israel? The same people who value the diversity Moroccan immigrants bring to Paris despise Moroccan Jews in Israel.
Because Israel’s Europhile cultural minority is rooted in a different time, the era of Rhodesia and the Old South, when non-Europeans were still openly called primitives. They cannot accept that Israel is not a Western state and that the revolution of Zionism has overthrown Europeanism in “their” Levant. They cannot accept the hybrid culture of Israel. This is why they imagine that only when Israelis are not “welcomed” in Europe will Israelis end the occupation of the West Bank.
But the majority of Israelis today don’t care about being welcomed in Europe and don’t seek European approval. They don’t see themselves as primitives begging for acceptance in the halls of Paris or Berlin. They are proud of their society, and they don’t think that they need to beg acceptance from the grandchildren of Nazis.
At the same time this Israeli rejection of Europe does not end the judgment that Israel is held to “higher standards” because it is seen as a Western democracy. Israel cannot change its clothes and become Tunisia or Lebanon and be judged by different standards as a non-Western, imperfect democracy. So Israel is in the unenviable position of being non-Western but being asked to be like Denmark.
Some see in Israel’s less Western culture a disconnect from the West in general. As if Israeli relations with Russia, China or other countries will harm its connections and trade with the West that it relies on for technology, and other agreements. But that’s an incorrect reading of international relations. The Gulf States are non-Western but enjoy good relations with the West. So does Saudi Arabia, a country with the most diametrically opposite values to the West. The trouble Israel faces is that some of its supporters abroad, particularly Jewish supporters, demand that it represent not only Western values, but particularized Jewish Western values, in order to receive support.
For Israel that will always be a difficult row to hoe. It has to ape being Western and pretend it has some connection to the values of Diaspora Jews, while knowing secretly that it has more in common with the values of Turkey or Eastern European states. Israelis also find it difficult to articulate this Jewish civilizational discussion, because some of them fear that in the mirror what they will find is the Hasmoneans and not Herzl.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.