A Polish State in the Land of Israel
G. K Chesterton
For thousands of years the imagination of the Jewish people in the diaspora was captivated by a simple trajectory: the exile from the land of Israel, the punishment of exile in the diaspora, and the anticipated return to the Promised Land, upon the coming of the Messiah. Or so we are told. The Zionist project had turned that eschatological dream to a political program. Though that project was an incredible success in many ways, establishing a Jewish state in fact in the land of Israel, it has done so not only at the price of bringing a disaster upon the people already inhabiting that land, and also at the price of turning the land itself into an exile of sorts. Though that state has now been a reality for more than sixty years, in the political imagination of Israelis from all sides of the political map it is clear we have not yet arrived in the Promised Land. Some respond to this insistent longing by settling in territories beyond the recognised borders of Israel, while others have come to believe that the true home of the Jew is the diaspora itself, that Jews are somehow only at home away from home.
The political project of identifying the home of the Jewish nation in exile brings to mind a series of possible returns. To Poland, to Germany, to Spain, and, why not, perhaps the most attractive option these days, to Egypt. The Jewish diaspora has had a sometimes flourishing, often troubled relationship with many of its host surroundings. But Poland is more than yet another temporary home for exiled Jewish communities. It has a stronger, unique claim to being the home of the Jewish people, a home, however, they might never have left.
Engaging the task of imagining a Jewish state in Poland calls for an act of cultural translation. Not only because it would be impolite and imprudent to create a new community without sharing the particular imagination with which one enters this union, but also because, in imagining this community as new, one must first be familiar with the old, especially, as will shortly become clear, one can call into question the novelty of the enterprise. One could very well argue that a Jewish-Polish state already exists: the Polish state in the land of Israel, namely, the state of Israel.
Israelis approach the subject of Poland through their cultural perception of “Polishness”. The very existence of the term suggests that “Poland” is filtered through more than the usual stereotypical filter that allows us access to anything unfamiliar. But in fact it comes to stand for something that is all too familiar.
In Israel “Polishness”, a rich source of jokes and humor, is associated with the figure of the overprotective “Polish mother”, with a passive-aggressive economy of guilt, and with the figure of the neurotic and hypochondriac effeminate man. The list could go on, but by now the point should be clear: replace the word “Polish” with the word “Jewish” and you’ll have most of of the building blocks for humor and jokes that comprise the stereotypical image of the Jew outside Israel, at least in Europe and the U. S. (Most but not all — the rich theme of greed associated so often in jokes with the figure of the Jew was transposed instead onto the figure of another Eastern European, “the Romanian” ).
How and why “Polishness” came to stand, in the land of Israel, for what outside of it is known as “Jewishness”, is not the concern of this short essay, nor are many of its otherwise interesting implications, such as how the figure of the “Polish/Jewish mother”, a universal figure of a maternal super-ego, secretly enjoying its offspring’s unavoidable failure to satisfy her wishes, has become codified as particularly “Jewish”, or in the Israeli case, “Polish”, or the identification of “Jewishness” with a particular Eastern European image of the Jew, precisely the one that also captivated the gaze of the Nazis, namely, that of the Ostjude.
It is perhaps easy to see why such a stand-in figure for the Jew had to be created in the Jewish state, seeking to replace the diasporic, homeless effeminate man with a new man, strong, masculine and grounded. However, as we shall see, the creation of “the Pole” as a stand in for “the Jew” did not result in a clear-cut break with this figure, far from it. In creating the figure of “Polishness”, the exile, and the exile Jew, were not simply negated or externalised. Indeed, by creating this figure, “Jewishness” has instead been internalised and universalised.
To see the full scope of this process would require many more words, and a lot more evidence. As our focus here is political imagination, we should restrict ourselves to a few short comments as to the implications of this encapsulation of “Jewishness” within “Polishness” in the popular culture of Israel, on the politics of Israel, and its possible ramifications for the Jewish state in Poland.
In Israel, attitudes identified with “Polishness” are to be found at the very core of politics. Perhaps the finest example for this is Golda Meir’s infamous saying, according to which “we will never forgive the Palestinians for what they made us do to them”. This statement, making the victims of violence bear the guilt for their own misfortune, reads, to the Israeli eye, as “Polishness” turned state policy, as does the security policy of Levy Eshkol, Meir’s predecessor as prime minister of Israel, that he adequately named, in Yiddish, “Shimshon der nebechdiker”, “Samson the weakling”, suggesting Israel’s might lies in its weakness, and its turn to violence only a desperate last resort of self-defense. For years, Israeli violence had to be codified in passive-aggressive language. The Jewish state could not be directly aggressive, but rather had to color its own aggression as a terrible burden it unwillingly bears, for which the objects of that aggression are to be held responsible. That these days we are witnessing in Israel, for the first time publicly, a call for more direct, unapologetic aggression, should therefore not be taken lightly. It signals a profound shift in the national self image, perhaps one that is finally willing to part ways with its own “Polishness”.
“Polishness” is also understood to be an attitude preoccupied with what others might think, always anxious about possible embarrassment, of an indecent exposure, letting something that should be kept hidden slip and enter the field of vision of an outsider. In recent years, the moral debate in the media, if in fact it can be called that, with regard to the morality of Israel’s actions against the Palestinians, was predominantly based on a “What will the (Gentile) neighbors say?” rhetoric. Israel’s violent actions against the Palestinians are rarely measured by a public moral consciousness, asking, “Is this right” or “Is this who we want to be?” Rather, it is framed under the question of the external perception of those actions — “Is this how we want to be perceived” — as if in themselves these raise no moral issue, but are a cause of embarrassment, due to the external, misguided yet somehow all-important gaze of the outsider.
The central role this gaze plays in Israeli society can be exemplified through the joke about the (Eastern European, shtetl-dwelling, Polish) Jew riding the train from Minsk to Gdańsk. Finding himself alone in the train car, the Jew makes himself comfortable, loosening his belt, taking off his shoes, and so on. Just as the train is about to leave the station a properly dressed Polish gentleman enters the car. The Jew, embarrassed, rapidly collects himself, fastening his belt, putting on his shoes back on, and so on. After an hour of awkward silence, the Polish gentleman pulls out of his jacket a siddur, the Jewish prayer book, and starts praying. The Jew from the shtetl looks at him and says, “Why didn’t you say so?”, and immediately starts loosening his belt, taking off his shoes, etc.
The lesson of the joke is twofold: two Jews are never strangers, even when from opposite classes, and this (over)familiarity is guaranteed by the absence of a real stranger, namely, a Gentile. It is not so much the public/private divide that constitutes the space of familiarity here, but rather the presence, or the absence of the Gentile. (The history of the term pharhesia, borrowed from the Greek and coming to stand for a kind of overexposed publicity in contemporary Hebrew, leads to a similar conclusion: pharhesia is not so much in public, but in the presence of, or exposed to the gaze of, the outsider/Gentile. )
On the face of it, this is precisely the dimension of Jewish identity that was to be left behind, in exile, with the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel. Sovereign in their own land, the Jews should no longer be subject to the gaze of the Gentile. But this is precisely where we come to see that the negation of exile and the exile Jew was a dialectical negation in the Hegelian sense, preserving and raising to a higher domain as it negates.
Take the figure of the stereotypical Israeli “sabre” (tzabar) – thorns on the outside, sweet on the inside. The Israeli prototypical identity seemingly replaces the passive-aggressive with the aggressive-aggressive; worry and embarrassment in face of the other’s gaze is replaced with a straightforward and direct chutzpa, shameless and uninhibited, and the status of the eternal wandering Jew, nowhere at home, is replaced by the grounded Jew, at home in his country and (infamously) behaving everywhere as if it were his home. But this clear cut opposition is misleading. In fact, the gaze of the other as a constant threat of exposure is not merely negated, but rather sublated and universalised. Perhaps one effective way of demonstrating this is by drawing attention to everyday practices of greeting. In many cultures there is an implicit yet highly codified manner of how one is to greet a stranger, an acquaintance, and so on. A handshake, a kiss, two kisses, etc. In a sense, one is granted (initial) access to a society upon learning these implicit entrance codes, sparing oneself the awkwardness of being a complete stranger, a newcomer. Interestingly, there is no such code in Israeli culture. One should beware of reading this absence of codification as something merely lacking. Instead, this absence should be read positively, as inscribing a certain awkwardness into the moment of encounter. What seems to be an (overly) familiar code of behavior (people in Israel often address each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’), a final release from the gaze of the ‘big other’, the Gentile, is in fact the universalisation of this gaze: every encounter with the other, even one’s friend, is initiated with a brief moment of uncertainty as to the appropriate way to greet her, rendering the judgmental, external gaze ubiquitous. The same holds for the lack of social and linguistic distinctions as to how one is to address members of different social strata. No university professor is addressed as professor, but rather by their first names, and the use of ‘ma’m’ or ‘sir’ is interestingly usually a sign of hostility, rather than politeness, as if the addition of the formal, symbolic distance is a sign of the foreignness, and therefore implied animosity, of the one addressed. Finally, the Hebrew word for citizen, ‘Ezrah’, comprises the Hebrew word for brother with the word for stranger in it. This should not be taken to mean that a citizen is a stranger who is also one’s brother, but rather that every brother contains within him the stranger. In conceiving itself more and more as a community of brothers, based on kinship, and excluding the members of society that do not fit in this family tree, Israel is disavowing its sublation (internalisation and universalisation) of “Polishness”, imagining it instead as a clear-cut negation.
“They were friends like brothers, that is, having no other choice.” — Assaf Schur.
If all of these are markers of the Polish state in the land of Israel, as I suggest, what is the substance of a Jewish state in Poland? Can it be more than yet another reversed mirror-image of the same? Should it strive to be that? Can one harness the great revolutionary energies that characterized the Zionist project in its beginnings and yet avoid the tragic destiny that seems to have befallen it? As we come to realise that new beginnings do not entail a complete break with the past, what can the Jewish state in Poland learn from its older sister, the Polish state in Israel?
Though one can hardly recommend a Golda Meir-like attitude to state aggression, perhaps in the Israeli sublation or negation of “Polishness” there is something the Jewish state in Poland should adopt. Beyond the veil of phantasy, no community can be rid of the image of the stranger. Rather than imagining a community without any barriers between its members, perhaps a universalisation of that strangeness, the presence of the stranger within every brother, should be taken as a positive model for imitation. If Israeli citizenship seems to be coming apart, it is not because this attitude is untenable, but rather because it has been disavowed. Instead of affirming the universal strangeness of the fellow citizen, Israel has insisted on creating “real” strangers, to exclude from the “real” community of forced brothers. May that be a lesson for our younger sister: one’s brother is, before anything else, someone you didn’t choose to share your life with. And if that is so, perhaps it is less urgent to distinguish between one’s brothers and one’s foes.