Review of the book Israel has moved by Diana Pinto

published in the israel journal of foreign affairs - 2013

Reading Diane Pinto's book "Israel has moved" one discovers a new, different reality of a country we thought we knew.

Through the astonishing  metaphors she uses , through symbolic and psychological terms  and borrowed references from other disciplines  – Pinto takes us on a challenging trip into a present  that many  are unaware of, into the deep transformations that the country and the society have undergone almost unnoticed, and leads us on a path to unexpected new horizons  This is not a physical journey, even though she travels around the country and meets its people, it is  rather a conceptual one, taking us deeply into the soul of a people and trying to understand the motives and reasons behind these transformations.

It takes a sharp eye, a keen sense of observation, analytical skills, courage and originality to detect trends and undercurrents so different from the realities we have been familiar with, and which are so far removed from the traditional images of Israel we have lived with for generations. Pinto's vivid descriptions, her eye for the telling detail, help us understand the complexities, the contradictions and the nuances of this new reality.

Israel is undergoing a conceptual change in the way its citizens perceive themselves  and their existence, in the mode they grasp the geostrategic situation of their country, in the way they define  their identity, their ties to the land,  and their future political horizons and orientations. Even though physically  in the Middle East, Israel has  politically and psychologically abandoned its Arab neighborhood . It lives, as Pinto puts it "in its own cyberspace, in the heart of a globalized world with increasingly Asian connotations".   Through innovation, the internet, and the global environment, Israel manages to escape the narrow confines of its disputed borders. The country is pulled between two seemingly contradictory trends: one  that draws it into its distant past, and is increasingly rooted in the biblical and Talmudic traditions ,turning to old religious concepts for guidance ; the other that is existential and futuristic, as Israel believes that it can base its future on scientific progress innovation. From the first , Israel draws its legitimacy; from the second – its hope.

In this transformation, what got lost is the old humanistic, social and cultural definition of human progress which was the Jewish contribution to Europe after  the emancipation. The ancient values replaced the secular, socialist Zionism of a more recent past .

The bubble, the tent and the aquarium ( evoking, the precarious conditions in air, space and water),are a triptych of metaphors Pinto  uses to describe the many paradoxes in the self-perceptions of Israel.

"Living in a bubble" a term often used by Israelis to single out life in Tel-Aviv as opposed to that in the rest of the country , becomes for her a metaphor extended to  the whole of Israel – because it seems to live outside of the realities surrounding it. With towers and skyscrapers shooting up everywhere, with businesses growing at a  fast pace, Israel trades more high-tech companies on Nasdaq than all of Europe.  The population is hardly reminiscent of its pioneer founders and has moved beyond its old icons and old anchors. Hope has shifted beyond the idea of social justice for all, including its Palestinian neighbors – to progress in business and science.  The social protest movement which took hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets two years ago did not pierce the bubble: it merely promoted the idea of better life for those within its bounds. Peace with the Palestinians was not part of the public discourse of the leaders or the participants in the rallies : the peace process and the two-state solution have become irrelevant to those who live in this "bubble-land", given the absence of political will, the general feeling that it is unrealistic – or perhaps because their country is doing so well.

The aquarium metaphor is used to describe a difficult yet ever-present co-existence, mainly in Jerusalem, between Jews and Arabs, orthodox and secular Jews, men and women of all faiths and walks of life ,who live next to each other, but do not really interact. Like fish in a silent, closed aquarium, they swim, each one in his or her own direction, his or her itinerary , turning away rapidly to avoid the other. They know or care very little about the other.  Thus, in Jerusalem,often described as a coat of many colors – multiculturalism does not really exist . Nor does it exist in other mixed cities like Jaffa,  Haifa or Acre. Each community lives a free, honorable life, and these are parallel existences which seldom meet.

And yet – that aquarium is water-tight, and many, especially the youngsters, would like to swim in the open sea. This is one of the reasons why so many young Israelis prefer to take a backpack and travel, for one year or more, to distant, exotic places.

The tent is by far the most complex and compelling metaphor for it symbolizes a sense of belonging and of identity.

Referring to Israel's relations with world Jewry, the tent has become all-inclusive. The past rift between the "good" Zionists who chose to live in Israel and share its fate, and the "Diaspora", a derogatory term, is no longer relevant. And so is the term "yordim"  (used for those who left Israel)  - this for the very reason that so many have become successful citizens of the world; and also because so many of  world Jewry closely identify with and actively support Israel. Internet has freed a federated people:thus it can think of itself as a people beyond borders.

There is also a political tent – the term applying to the extent and legitimacy of the criticism waged at Israel's policies: those whose criticism is excessive –are considered "outside" the conventional tent.

But then, the tent is also one of religious identity, a vital issue for Israel and for its future. Not only does it define in the present "who is a Jew" in, through old or new references, it will also determine how and by which laws Israel will be ruled in the future.

Navigating through the many paradoxes and weaknesses of our existence and making sense of them is, by no means, an easy task. And yet Pinto manages to  capture our contradictions  : an identity invisibly defined by our immediate past, but breaking away from it, moving away from memory to "memory chip"(technology) Using the same metaphor, Jewish history now belongs to the Diaspora Jews – they  are now the hard disk. An identity based on a contradiction between Israel's wish to stop being an "object" of history and shape its own destiny on the one hand, and its continued tendency to regard itself as a victim, describing its present actions in " passive terms" –reacting to events or aggression rather than acting.

All in all - Israel is closing itself in, moving away from its old western values. In today's post- modern age it can do that : it can turn inward while solidly keeping a foot – through innovation – in the wider world.  In psychological terms : Israel has become autistic, denying some of  the realities around it, distorting others. Perhaps this is a result of its long history of oppression in Europe, where very few if any chose to show the Jews sympathy or to help ; or perhaps because Israelis are tired of  the world's constant criticism of the country's policies , they choose to go forward alone, to isolate themselves in their own specificity, in their own bubble, to live as a "people apart", surviving in a hostile world.  And the irony of it all is, as Diane Pinto points out, that all of this is happening in times when European nations have come to appreciate the Jewish values and culture and embrace them.

Some of the new giants in Asia too ,oscilate between ancient readings of their past and pragmatic technological progress. They take Israel as it is – totally indifferent to its political inclinations or behavior. This may be one of the reasons why Israel is gradually turning its back to Europe and even to America and is realigning itself with these emerging new powers

Where does all of this lead Israel , what lies ahead ? This is a question on which one can only speculate. History and people are always on the move. And even though Pinto has not devoted much space in her book to the Palestinian –Israeli issue, her answer on that score is categorical : the present status quo cannot last forever. As she puts it : "Today's Israel, dashing towards the future with an incredible energy but also with a self-satisfaction bordering on hubris will not be able to endure its present setting".

One may not agree with all of Pinto's analysis. One may even find quite a few inaccuracies – For example, she affirms that local tensions or rifts are no longer relevant. Whoever lives in Israel knows how far this is from present realities. On the role of the Holocaust she writes :"it is not a memory chip in the mental geography of the new generations". Quite the contrary – a new tradition takes most of the youngsters on trips to Auschwitz, and a vast majority of the works of young artists, whether in literature, the theatre, cinema or music are devoted to that theme.

Inaccuracies notwithstanding, the book is brilliant and written with love, empathy and concern for the country and its people. A must read.

 

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