A Polish State in the Land of Israel

A Polish State in the Land of Israel
Yuval Kremintzar

“There are two ways of get­ting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk around the world till we come back to the same place”.
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.