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Commentary on Israel never ceases, and yet most of it seems to miss the point entirely. To gain an accurate understanding of any culture, one must begin with a point of reference, a so-called cultural perch, enabling the spectator a broader picture.
The Typhoon, a novel written by Joseph Conrad and published in 1902, provides that necessary and meaningful cultural metaphor when one approaches Israel. In The Typhoon, Conrad writes about a vessel (the Nan Shan) and its crew that inadvertently sails into a typhoon and is beset by all the traumas that such an ordeal implies.
Captain MacWhirr, the protagonist of the novel, successfully steers the Nan Shan to safety, but the struggle for survival is the essence of the story. The Jewish experience of the past two centuries has been one of continuous upheaval – from the Haskala (enlightenment) that fractured Jewish continuity to the Holocaust that destroyed European Jewry and embodied the climax of two millennia of Jewish victimhood, concluding with the re-emergence of the Jewish nation-state after 2000 years of exile.
Israel has fought six wars in the 60 years since its reestablishment, weathered two intifadas, absorbed more than 2 million people in 25 years, and is on the frontline against militant Islam – all in the context of a nascent Jewish national consciousness.
In order to survive its own typhoon, Israel must effectively resolve the traumas stemming from the intense turmoil and immense tragedy that have defined Jewish history over the past 200 years.
And make no mistake – Israel is in a typhoon, an intense struggle for its existence, and the country is thus in a state of high confusion reminiscent of those who experienced the great typhoon depicted by Conrad.
Conrad asserts that when confronted with mortal danger, most, if not all, of us suffer a paralysis of spirit. Thus, the Jewish people are in a posture of mass disorientation; specifically, they struggle with what their individual purpose and historical role should be.
This brings one to the perch of Jewish culture mentioned above – an immature Israel led by dilettantes consistently seeking the foolish and illusory path of least resistance. Therefore, the most crucial battle Israel will wage in the current generations is one of an internal nature.
Steadiness of spirit must be a point of departure for any advancing culture. Without the attainment of this fundamental feature, Jewish culture will be impotent in equipping itself with the tools required to overcome its existential struggles.
The first front in this typhoon metaphor was and still is the onset of the Haskala movement, which essentially stripped Judaism and its European adherents of the ideological stability they had enjoyed since the Roman exile. The decline in the centrality of Jewish law within Jewish society has devastated the strong familial bonds essential to Jewish continuity.
Assimilation has always plagued the Jewish people, but with the Haskala there came something different – an actual reformation movement, founded on “rational” precepts, that sought to replace Talmudic tradition with progressive trends and to radically implant European enlightenment philosophy into the very fabric of Jewish law. This internal theological schism is far from resolved and has instead furthered disunity within the Jewish state and generated catastrophic assimilation rates in the Diaspora.
Jewish law successfully preserved Jewish identity for thousands of years and the diminution of its importance in Jewish society has left Jewish identity with meager means of self-preservation. The looming question that must be resolved by Jewish individuals and their respective communities: What, precisely, are their obligations as Jews?
The second front is the trauma of being the ultimate nemesis of Nazi Germany, and thus the ultimate victim of its rage. The Holocaust represents but the end of a long process of hate and intolerance toward Jews that engulfed the European continent for nearly two thousand years.
Victimhood has wisdom to bear; as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, “We have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of those who are excluded, in short those who suffer.” Bonhoeffer described this as “an experience of incomparable value.”
This perspective has yielded many lessons, two of which have seared themselves into Jewish consciousness: the need for power, and, conversely, an innate abhorrence of power. This is most apparent when observing the indecision of Israel’s leadership in handling national security issues. Strength is necessary, but at the same time strength reminds Jews of the injustices inherent in a weak/strong relationship – the very kind they have had to endure throughout their tortured history.
Today, only 60 years after the Holocaust, with anti-Semitism flooding the Middle East and reappearing in Europe, these anxieties of victimhood are far from resolved within the Jewish psyche and Jewish culture at large. This state of victimhood brings with it a questioning within the victim of his purpose or, better yet, his existence. One might say the victim perversely attempts to empathize with his persecutor in an attempt to understand the reason for his persecution.
The struggle for survival necessitates a fundamental questioning on the part of those doing the struggling – specifically, why persevere, and for what purpose? These are the questions Jewish culture must contend with and wisely answer for that struggle to be overcome. In order for the Jewish state to fight with confidence and vigor it must first know why it fights. The Jewish people must know what its purpose is other then mere survival.
The last front, which encapsulates the other two, thereby creating the veritable eye of the storm, is the rebirth of the Jewish nation-state. The state of Israel is a historical anomaly – a people exiled for thousands of years returning to its ancestral land and reestablishing political independence has no precedent. This has quite naturally caused serious reverberations. The Jewish people returned to Israel under the shadow of genocide and smack into the whirlwind of Arab resistance, a state of affairs that created a desperate need for strong leadership and a dynamic national culture.
While most national narratives develop a national culture under natural conditions of long and uninterrupted habitation in a specific location, the Jewish people had no such luxury. A cogent Jewish national consciousness is still in its adolescence (1,900 years out of practice) – and, given the wars and the mass absorption, it will take some more time for such maturity to occur.
This cultural maturation depends wholly on surmounting the aforementioned historical and individual identity fronts. A nation must first know what it is and why it should exist before it can conceive of where it must go.
Conrad leaves us with the relevant lesson that in a dangerous situation, people will put their faith in someone showing certainty even if the source of the certainty is questionable. Thus it is not enough to act strong; one must actually be guided by strength, defined here as being filled with wisdom and character.
Acting strong is no substitute for actually being strong, and rhetoric can only take one so far before the trials and tribulations of history. This, it must be said, is Israel’s crucible to bear – that is, until the culture can produce men and women of high caliber to lead, Israel will have to blindly navigate its course. In the short term, Israel must make the fundamental decision to be courageous in facing both its traumas and its foes.
As Capt. MacWhirr declares at the height of the typhoon, “Don’t you be put out by anything….Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That’s enough for any man. Keep a cool head.”
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