The Margins of Europe: How far can they go

Paper presented for the
International Society for the Study of European Ideas

Bergen, Norway


Dr. Ariella Atzmon

August, 2000

Copyright © Ariella Atzmon, 2000
All rights Reserved

Back to publication list

The Margins of Europe: How far can they go?

This paper deals with attempts made by Israel to become a partial member of the European community. In referring entirely to cultural and political aspects, we pose the question: how far can Europe go to absorb countries not geographically contiguous to it by blurring its physical margins?
We will examine: how it came about that while the state of Israel considers itself a component of the European community, the people of Israel find themselves more deeply integrated both culturally and mentally outside Europe?
Israeli democracy, inspired by the common values of the free western world, advocates freedom and equality. Most Israelis are convinced that they are part of the enlightened European identity.
To explain Israeli democracy and its complicated conditions, I shall use a diagram which will serve to elaborate the subject. The Israeli socio-political arena is likened to a battlefield where three focal elements are linked in a continuous endless confrontation with no chance for resolution. This is illustrated as a triangle (figure 1) with each apex representing one of three elements termed: 'The State', 'Democracy' and 'Judaism'. The narrative of Zionism is determined by the necessary coexistence of these three interrelated key elements.
'The State'


'Democracy' 'Judaism'
Figure 1 (the three elements which determine the Israeli public sphere)
Israeli democracy's uniqueness is linked to the most essential characteristics of Judaism, defined as both a national group and a religion at the same time. Since the State of Israel was established as a 'national shelter' for the Jewish people the world over, Israeli democracy is singularly loaded with irreconcilable contradictions. By adding Zionist terminology, we shall find that Israeli political-cultural sphere represents a cleavage between progressive western democracy and the chaotic constraints dictated by sacred commands.
Jewish peoplehood presents an unshakable link between the state of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. This is the foundation of the complicated issue of what is meant by Israeli identity. Being a national home for the Jews all over the world is the only justification for the existence of the state of Israel. This existential element imprinted mainly in the educational system, marks all other Ideological State Apparatuses in Israel.
The aporetic controversy between the two apexes: democracy versus Judaism originates in two distinguished philosophical perspectives regarding the nature of human subjectivity. The first - typical of most western democracies, conceives human beings as sovereign autonomous individuals. The other perspective which characterizes theocratic regimes, describes human beings as subjects lacking any sense of authenticity and freedom.
According to the spirit of enlightenment rooted in Cartesian thought, the term 'Individual' refers to something quite different from the term referring to the human being as a 'subject'. The term 'Individual' presupposes the human being as a free thinker, searching for a transcendental order which lies beyond him. On the other hand, the term 'Subject' (in the Heideggerian notion), conceives human beings to be products of a discursive signifying chain. The category of the 'Subject' questions the notion of self as synonymous with consciousness.
In the light of Judaism, the human being is totally subjected to the authority of holy texts, spoken through devout, religious scholars. The human subject is not gifted with the ability for reasonable and objective judgment of the actual concrete reality. This notion of human beings perceiving themselves as subjects, admits the impossibility of authenticity. It is quite obvious that conceptualization of human beings as spoken subjects concurs with orthodox Jewish assumptions.
Since the Jewish view conceives of human beings as submitting to an implicit language hidden within the canonic texts, I may argue that the origins of Judaism are in agreement with the Heideggerian notion of subjectivity. But the notion of the subject according to Judaism differs from Poststructuralist ideas in the fact that the later admit that the routes to the sources of meanings are blocked, and there is no place for mighty 'pundits' empowered with the capability of matching the suitable interpretation of the holy texts to the ordinary people. The breakdown of Judaism emerged at the point where people lost the sense of multiplicity entailed within the hermeneutic process. It happened at the moment when subjection to the divine texts became associated with a total self-disparagement in the presence of celebrated scholars who mediated between God and his chosen people.
Societies which assume human beings as subjected to divine texts, view words as appropriate to their source of meaning through celebrated scholars. One of Israel's major peculiarities, symptomatic of the irreconcilable combination of Democracy, State and Judaism, is the involvement of Tora scholars in the juridical process. The phenomenon of a religious leader setting guidelines for his followers on political topics has become a daily event. Israelis have become used to hearing that "the genius of the generation" or "the council of sages" have rendered a political judgment that derives its strength from their religious standing, based upon a preferential status for the interpretation of reality.
I would like to note that the resemblance between Jewish Halacha and post-structural thought comes into view where Judaism dictates a legal system which entirely negates the concept of 'juridical individualism;' 'pure reason;' or 'free choice.' Jewish Halachic tradition created the notion of 'Seventy faces to the Torah'. The official Israeli legal system is founded upon the basis of secular, liberal, western law and has to live in an eternal aporia. The rule of the law as embedded in Western legal and political thought is fixed in the basic metaphysical belief in concepts of justice and legal obligations. So, while these concepts originate in universal essences which are contemplated by rational individuals, Jewish law as 'The Torah of Life' rejects the notion of the 'individual.' The conclusion is that since these characteristics which are an indisputably common convention within Islamic countries, have become a daily recognized feature of the Israeli cultural and political atmosphere, it stakes Israel even more firmly in the middle east..
To sum up this argument we may say that the difference between these two types of societies in Israel manifest a split between two opposing views concerning the nature of reason, knowledge, choice and judgment. The first presupposes universal values of justice and human rights, while the other takes the attitude of choseness according the various myths of piety and devotion to the collective or to ethnic traditions. This aporia is not recognized in the Christian world, because Christianity is able to conceive of human beings as individuals (in keeping with conservative trends in Judaism). For Christianity, secular law prreligious law. The main Jewish orthodox idea concerning the link between religion and state attempts to produce a total fusion between the two, (there are however some suggestions for devising both legal separation and institutional duality). However in Islam and in Judaism secular and religious law are united under the command of a divine authority.
The most crucial dissonance embodied in the tryad democracy, Judaism and the state is related to the concepts of Identity/Identification, and to the question: what does 'Israeli identity' mean within the framework of Israeli democracy? Does 'Identification' mean to be constituted by means of community, state, ethnicity, or gender? In that case the expression 'Israeli identity' as the legal content given to Israeli citizenship, can be understood as a call for identification. A call which strives to direct Jewish citizens into discourses reflecting a denial of the other. The question: what is an Israeli identity? is related to the confusion of whether Israel is a Jewish democratic state, or a civic democracy for all its citizens?
Considering the uniqueness of Judaism defined as both a religion and a nation, it presents a case in which the significance of the terms citizenship, nationality or religious belonging are thus redefined. The fact that Israel was established as a Jewish state, denotes the way in which the terms 'resident', 'migrant', and 'foreigner' are interpreted and signified. Israel is the 'homeland' not merely for the citizens of Israel, but promises a substantive strength to those who prefer to live at the Diaspora.
Israeli Jews are torn between being Jewish or being Israeli. The principle of democracy as majority rule clearly defines the group which identifies with this principle. In the case of Israel, instead of a commitment to the state as a defined territory, the concept of 'identity' is mistakenly confused with national 'identification'. On the one hand there is a democratic body of laws and on the other commitment to a national, religious, ethnic group. The second choice immediately excludes all citizens who are not Jewish, consigning them to a lower status. "The "Israeli judicial system gives rise to a series of binary oppositions between "us" (progressive westerners) and "them" (Oriental, backward, and undemocratic). The Israeli Jew has to make a choice between the Zionist, revolutionary promise of a new Jewish identity, or maintain a nostalgic attachment to the pre-revolutionary stage. The verse 'one nation and one heart', signifies the hegemonic power of Jewish brotherhood while negating the creation of a new identity and annulling 'otherness.' The logic of equivalence which prevails in Jewish society reduces any possibility for genuine implementation of western international law. If we try to deal with the question: 'What is Israeli identity?" we find ourselves involved with the disturbing questions: 'what is considered Jewish in the context of the 'law of return?' In the case of Israel, the question is whether identity should refer to the concept of citizenship, or to religious affiliation? This intricate situation leads to a permanent preoccupation with the question: Who is a Jew? If citizenship is conditioned upon a sense of religious belonging, then the legitimacy of conversion becomes an acute problem. In the light of another verse: "converts are as difficult for Israel as psoriasis," all political and judicial crises concerning the procedures of conversion to Judaism become clear. Whenever personal identity is confused with identification, we trace a sharp trend towards modes of judicial mishaps directed at those who do not belong. Israeli society manifests an intense need to maintain the spirit of Judaism, based upon common destiny and a deep belief in God's promise to his chosen people. This spirit is revealed in the verse "For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him" (Numbers). In the light of this verse we can detect a repulsion of missionary activity, manifested by the creation of obstacles discouraging conversion to Judaism. This deep seated consciousness illustrates a lack of empathy for whoever is not Jewish. The state of Israel portrays a new society which proclaims brotherhood within the so called 'melting pot' designed for those who are defined as Jewish. Other minorities who are called 'cousins' at best, or strangers at worst, become invisible in the eyes of the law.
I have tried to illustrate a process which describes Israel's political stage's sharp inclination towards an extremity typical of religious regimes. I would like to emphasize the fact that this trend is not a characteristic of the religious orthodox population exclusively but incorporates a major portion of Israelis who consider themselves secular, western, enlightened and rational people.
The dispute with regard to Israel being viewed as a Jewish democratic state, or as a civic democracy for all its citizens - illustrates the polarization of Israeli society. The majority of the Jewish population (including orthodox and secular, right and left) stress the first definition. The neglected minority of Jewish people who appropriate the second view are those who are ready to give up their Jewish identity and replace it with an Israeli identity.
Jewish unification imperatives are supported by rhetoric which insists upon common destiny, and the fact that Jews are permanently persecuted by anti-Semitism. This is why, the holocaust becomes the main issue in every agenda. It insists upon an Israeli identification, constructed by blurring the meaning of being Jewish and being Israeli.
Here the problematic issue of Zionism comes to the fore. Zionism is comprised of a range of ideological nuances which unfold between two poles. The continuum ranges from the idea that conceives of Israeli identity as established upon citizenship, based upon territorial grounds, to the notion that Israel is the haven for Jews from all over the world. The first strives towards a civic society perceiving Israeli identity as a new entity in the process of creation, and which insists upon complete liberation from any commitment and common destiny with the Jewish Diaspora. The second version firmly declares that 'all Jews are responsible for one another'. We realize that this second view represents the 'melting pot' type of identity which dovetails with the 'Law of Return'. This version expresses suspicion of every voice that might constitute a threat to the wholeness of the Jewish entity. By definition, all modes of Zionism manifest a demarcation between two different kinds of Israeli identities: Arab identity which is excluded by differing degrees of hostility, and Israeli Identity which up to the present is still somewhat vague. An extreme version which must no longer be called Zionist, includes the demand to be detached from any obligation to the rest of the Jewish community abroad. This radical version, is shared by some Arab Palestinians' attempts to charge the concept of Israeli identity with the spirit of citizenship in a democracy perceived as a civic society. Reshaping the understanding of Jewish Identity opens creative channels for synthesis of a new, hybrid identity engaged in a process conditioned upon pluralistic communication. But, this is not welcomed by those who conceive of themselves of having been chosen.
But, to abandon the sense of belonging and mutual commitment to the Jewish Diaspora means a negation of being identified through the traumatic events of the holocaust. It means an alternative route to a more creative definition of Israeli identification. It is a striding towards the future without any regressive movement of excavating catastrophes as existential justification for the present. It means striving to live in peace and reconcilement with other beliefs,
Some symptoms characteristic of Israeli Jewish society involve a despairing sense of self in danger of dissolution and death. These symptoms, may help to clarify the obsessive preoccupation with death and Holocaust narration in Israel.
Here I would like to refer to the origof those symptoms as related to the eternal Jewish demand for equality, constantly confused with the firm inner conviction of being chosen. To clarify this argument I would like to employ psychoanalytic terminology in order to apply the concept of narcissism as the answer to a deep sense of loss endured in being Jewish. A deep belief in a divine contract, characteristic to Judaism, is grasped as a promise to the children of Israel to be God's chosen people. The rewarded contractual reciprocity constructed a complex matter where the demand for equality has been confused with the self persuasive standpoint of being chosen.
Narcissism is defined as: "a disposition to see the world as a mirror, more particularly as a projection of one's own fears and desires." Being Jewish means to experience a desire to be validated by the other as chosen, and at the same time to proclaim the demand for equality. It is obvious how it was constituted in the Diaspora, but since Zionism took over, the deficiency in mirroring the sense of otherness became even more severe. While at the same time, in the perception of hatred, repugnance and horror, reflected from those under occupation, that wishful urge for validation is perceived as undone. At the moment the narcissistic demand for validation is confronted with the answering gaze of enmity, the desire for recognition as superior beings is rejected, and paranoia occurs.
Narcissism emerges with the wish to see others in the same way as we perceive ourselves, while at the same time to strive for a recognized victory in satisfying our desire for validation by the subjection of others. The symptoms of narcissistic pathology, involve a despairing sense of self in danger of dissolution and death. The experience of loss and unfulfilled desire can produce the two opposite movements. Creativity on the one hand, and a regressive turn, on the other. But, since the ability to attain a driving force for creativity, and a new shift of identity represents a threat to the amalgamation of the Jewish community, we can comprehend why the regressive turn takes over in Israel. The regressive turn is manifested by the production of historical myths stressing the lost golden age.
Group identification becomes conditional upon the elevation of one particular group's past at the expense of another group's historical narratives. By praising unification, Israeli Jews are torn between being Jewish or being Israeli. It is manifested by the claim for a Jewish state in which Jews may be able to maintain a Jewish life-style in keeping with Jewish tradition.
Israelis try to overcome the sense of loss in many ways, one of them - by encouraging youth to travel to the concentration camps in Europe and engaging in violent confrontations with the second generation of those considered to be involved with the manifold appearances of the holocaust. Israelis direct their inexhaustible claims not only to Austria or Germany but the Swiss banks, the Polish Catholic church and the Polish People are blamed for anti-Semitism, as well as many other European communities.
I would like to argue that there is a tight link between the idea of democracy and some ethical or moral constructs related to human rights and the way communities articulate their members' identity based on memorizing past events.
Educating young people to comprehend and then edit their group memory should be considered an ethical act. In Israel we are witness to the fact that historical consciousness manifests an infirm approach to history and memory. Paul Ricoeur points to the ethical aspect of memorizing. "This is so because remembering is a way of doing things, not only with words, but with our mindswe can talk of the use of memory, which in turn permits us to speak of the abuse of memory". Riceour mentions that some places are overloaded with too much memory, "and at other times too much forgetting". I may say that this agonizing theme lies at the core of the pathological interrelations between Israel and the European community.
Israel's blaming European groups and leaders for too much forgetting, and asking for reparation can be viewed as symptomatic of a disease characterizing Israeli democracy. This disease reflects the Israeli Jewish people's incapacity to adopt the act of repentance by asking forgiveness for the wrongs committed against those who were deprived, ruined and dispossessed by Israelis authorities. However, by ignoring the existential desire for recognition of other non-Jewish minorities, Israel becomes fertile soil for the growth of xenophobia.
Since the holocaust supplies content to the definition of an Israeli identity, the Jewish Israeli is circumscribed by an inexhaustible search for documentary proof of aggression and violence. This too is the moral reason for army service and other civil duties. I contend that representation of Israel as a direct product of the holocaust makes the Israeli wish to fit into the European community quite paradoxical.
There is a clash between attempts to be part of a group (a union) of countries, while at the same time reminding the other members of that group of crimes committed by them. There is a discrepancy in the promise of becoming a civic community enlightened by western European values, while at the same time crystallizing Israel's young peoples' identity around collective memories of horrors, crimes, and atrocities committed by the previous generation of the various European countries..
A real democracy calls for fairness to minority groups on legal grounds, addressing for example, equalization of the distribution of land for instance. If fairness is supposed to be served by the general and equal right to vote, then the issue of the upcoming referendum (concerning a future agreement entailing a significant territorial compromise in the Golan Heights) is controversial, since it promises to revoke this legal right as well. Here we may pose the question: will the Israeli Knesset accept the right wing's demand for a special majority of 60%, and how does this demand coincide with the promise for an equal right to vote?
To conclude I may say that a society that gives up on the values of human rights, equality and empathy for the misery of the others in favor of keeping the state as a national home for the survivors of holocaust can not become a part of a European union of civic communities guided by international law concerning human rights and equality.
Israel's parliamentary democracy attempts to maintain the western styles of deliberation but discovers that it is hobbled and handicapped. The introduction of direct elections for prime minister, emptied the Israeli Knesset of any real content. Israeli Parliamentary life is weakened and prey to coalition games revolving around money and authority, quite contrary to the spirit of representative democracy which should be involved in making controversial decisions, and taking responsibility with regard to questions concerning the meaning of Israeli democracy.
If Israel pretends to be a democratic state, why should the Israeli government skip the decision-making responsibility with regard to the most essential topics like the compromise on the Golan Heights, leaving it to a referendum, and then finding itself immersed in the situation of a referendum which demands a majority of 60%, ignoring the basic idea of democracy with regard to the equal right to vote. If Israeli parliamentary life is denuded by a refusal to deal with the essence of democracy, why should Europe embrace Israel as part of its community?
To conclude, we may say that creation of the Jewish national identity through glorification of pre-holocaust life, undermines the Israeli claim to become an integral part of the new European community. Israeli hegemonic. power which currently negates creativity decreases the prospects of establishing a new identity. Whenever a denial of otherness occurs, it leads to regression and the possibility of an identity shift is blocked. The Israeli democratic system is a myth that masks an unbearable case representing an impossible reality. The question pose is: how is it possible to justify a national identity through the negation of otherness, while at the same time wishing to become a part of it?