Israel’s Three Solitudes
In light of the recent article by Peter Beinart on “The American Jewish Cocoon,” I composed this post, which may seem a bit dated, on the various “cocoons” in Israel.
I was in Israel, but I thought of Quebec. Specifically, I thought of Montreal, my hometown. In 1945, Hugh MacLennan wrote a novel called Two Solitudes. I never read it, but I know what it’s about. It’s about the deep, historic, and persistent divide between Francophones and Anglophones in Canada and especially in Quebec.
I lived in Montreal for the first nineteen years of my life, and I felt that divide. Growing up, I had no French Canadian friends. I still don’t. This is not that surprising. I went to Jewish elementary and high school for all but grades five and six, where I went to an overwhelmingly Jewish public school with a Jewish heritage supplementary program. I lived in a bubble. I had no non-Jewish friends either, except briefly an Irish kid from hockey who had a French Canadian mom but identified as Anglophone. I had a handful of somewhat Francophone Jewish friends, mostly Sephardic Jews of Moroccan origin, some of whom spoke French at home. But most Moroccan Jews attended French Jewish schools, or French public or private schools, rather than my overwhelmingly Anglophone institution.
After high school, I attended CEGEP, a sort of non-remedial junior college designed to prepare students for university (what we in Canada call college). I went to Dawson College in the Liberal Arts program, and had two of the best years of my life. I learned the whole scope of European history, extensive philosophy and literature as well. I also made non-Jewish friends. Most were wealthy WASPs or other Anglophones. I became friendly with two Francophone women. I remember this because we called them Francophone Jen and Francophone Emilie to distinguish them from their Anglophone counterparts with the same names (we did not call the others Anglophone Jen and Anglophone Emily).
Ironically, I had my first serious conversation with a French Canadian sitting next to one on the bus from Boston to Montreal. A fellow Harvard student, he came from a working class Quebecois background, was extremely bright, hard-working, and ambitious. He spoke perfect English, and we conversed the whole ride. I asked him if he felt any affinity with the Harvard Canadian Club, whose members periodically pestered fellow Canadians to attend parties and drink Canadian beer. He was quite clear in his response. No, he did not feel any affinity with them, or any other Canadian from Vancouver or Toronto. He felt like he belonged to a different group of people, and in some ways was from a different country.
I thought about these things when I rode the bus in Israel, or took the new light rail in Jerusalem. I saw all sorts of Jewish passengers, soldiers and civilians, religious and secular, Sephardi and Mizrachi and Ashkenazi and Ethiopian and Russian and everything in between. And they’d be sitting or standing next to Arabs: Muslims and Christians, secular and religious. And neither group noticed the other. It’s as if they weren’t there. Not only did they never ever talk, they barely acknowledged each other’s existence. They were taking the same mode of transportation, sometimes getting off at the same stop, but clearly going to very different places.
I felt this separation when we visited a small mosque in East Jerusalem. Our (Jewish) cab driver told us to speak only English, not Hebrew, so that the people in the mosque would think we were non-Jewish tourists. We did so, and had a very hard time communicating with the three Palestinian Arab Muslims who were in the mosque at the time. They were very friendly, doing their best to explain so of the rituals and the layout of the main rooms. We only stayed about 10 minutes, and it was very interesting. I wondered how often Jewish Israelis or Jewish tourists to Israel ever set foot in a mosque.
I felt this separation again when we visited the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. Behind the hotel lay a small museum, the Palestinian Heritage Museum. Much of it consisted of artifacts, or perhaps replicas of artifacts, from the Palestinian past, clothing and other essential items. But one room was labeled the room of “destroyed villages.” And that room had lists, and photos, and some artifacts from the villages destroyed by the nascent Israeli Defence Forces in 1948. There was a model of Deir Yassin, the Arab village that was site of the most infamous Zionist massacre of Palestinians, but which was one example among many. Both sides committed atrocities, of course, but for so long Jewish Israelis pretended that they were blameless, that Palestinians had willingly fled and abandoned their homes. It was not true, and eventually the Israeli academy, and to a lesser extent the public, began to accept that fact. But here, the Palestinians had preserved a record, a monument, to those tragedies.
What struck me, however, was the language of the museum display. It was in Arabic and it was in English. There was no Hebrew. This suggested to me that Jewish Hebrew-speaking Israelis seldom made their way to this museum. But it also suggested that the Palestinian citizens of Israel who ran the museum had very low expectations of their Jewish neighbours. Perhaps those expectations were and are justified. But I wonder (and I really wonder, as I don’t know), does Yad Vashem have signs in Arabic? How many Arabs visit Yad Vashem? And is that different because Yad Vashem chronicles German and not Palestinian crimes?
Another time I felt this separation between Jews and Arabs was when I explored the old city. Walking through the Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters, we saw barely any other Jews. We came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where hundreds of tourists poured in and out. They came from all over the world. I saw women in hijabs and the Muslim men who accompanied them. But I did not see a single yarmulke. Not one person who appeared to be an Orthodox Jew. And few appeared to be secular Israelis either . Indeed, very few of the tourists appeared to be Jewish, if any. This made me sad. How could someone live their whole life in Jerusalem without the intellectual or cultural curiosity to visit this church, one of the world’s most significant historic sites? It made no sense to me.
And yet Israel was racked with even more divisions.
You can tell a lot about a (Zionist) Jew by what city is his or her favourite in Israel. If it’s Tel Aviv, he or she is probably secular, if Jerusalem, probably religious. Jews who keep kosher rave about the food in Jerusalem, those who don’t recognize it as thoroughly average (like my father says, “nobody goes to Jerusalem for the food” by which he means nobody secular). The two worlds are so different, it’s like religious and secular Jews are visiting different Israels. To visit Israel means something very different for religious and secular Jews.
I felt this immediately on the plane I took to Israel. It was a United flight, and it left on a Friday morning, flying through shabbat into Israel. It was the first flight to Israel I had ever taken without any religious Jews on it. There were secular Israelis, some Arabs, and lots of Christian tourists. But no frum Jews.
After my stay in Jerusalem, I spent to time in Rehovot with my step-family. The story of how we’re “related” is an amazing one. My dad’s parents survived the Holocaust, and married after the war, and had my dad in Montreal. My dad’s mom died when he was in his 20s. Sometime after that, my grandfather reconnected with his childhood sweetheart from Poland. She had immigrated to Israel, married, and had a daughter. Her husband died, and so, in the 1970s, in his 70s, my grandfather moved to Israel and married his childhood sweetheart from Poland. He became like a father to her daughter, and like a grandfather to her daughter’s children, particularly her older daughter. I always felt a special connection to her daughter, because she knew my biological grandfather as her “real” grandfather, whereas I saw him only 4 times in my life, as he lived in Israel and died in 1990. We shared him in a very powerful way.
I love my step-family. But what struck me was how secular their lives were, like those of so many other Israelis. They seemed to have no religious friends, nobody who was shomer shabbat, nobody who was seriously observant in any way. In fact, my cousin’s husband liked to “celebrate” Yom Kippur every year with a giant barbecue and loud music and dancing. While that might be extreme, the secular isolation from the religious (and vice versa) seems all too common.
This divide has entered popular culture. Watch the Israeli TV show Srugim (which is totally awesome), about single Modern Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and see how the Orthodox struggle in their limited relationships with non-Orthodox (and at least thus far in my watching, Arabs are completely invisible).
I have no answers, no conclusion. Only hope for rapprochement. In Quebec today there is tension between the secular and the religious, between French and English. But in Israel and Palestine it remains much worse, much more explosive.