Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Tale of 3 Cities

Being a Jew in the United States, France, and Israel are distinctly different experiences and something that I have experienced.  During the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza, which is hopefully finished, I saw the status of Jews faced with a vocal anti-Israeli/Jew local population in all three countries.  I intentionally linked Jew/Israeli because in the eyes of our “enemies”, the terms are in effect synonymous.  To paraphrase J. P. Sartre, a Jew is a Jew because the world considers him so.

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, most of the population was Jewish, meaning the high school was basically empty on Yom Kippur.  That being said, this Jewishness was against an empty background because almost all non-Jews in the area do not care about it.  This lack of contrast means that most American Jews have to “exaggerate” in some way to define themselves as Jews.  Some are politically active, especially in raising money for Israel and expressing Israeli’s interest in the U.S.  Others become religious in a country where keeping the Sabbath is truly a challenge (outside New York).  Some even join the Israeli army, as the late Max Steinberg, who died in Operation Protective Edge. Some strive to install some kind of Jewish identity in their children.  Many do nothing and fully blend into the American landscape, often marrying non-Jews (it happens to the best of families).  Being Jewish in the United States is an effort.

By contrast, being Jewish in France, at least in my experience, is fate.  Being Jewish in an overwhelmingly Catholic country has never been easy since anti-Semitism has always been part of the Catholic Church culture.  If you add a Muslim element to the mix, the situation can turn nasty quickly.  The attack on the synagogue during a recent anti-Israel demonstration is a prime example.  If parents tell their children not to wear a kipppa on their way to school as a matter of safety, it shows that Jews in France feel like a threatened minority, even if the silent majority of French strongly prefer the Jews to the Arabs.  As a French Jew, you have two options, tread softly in France or immigrate to Israel.

There, Jewishness is printed on your ID card and gives you automatic membership in a tribe, whether you want it or not.  The Middle East has always been a tribal society: Jewish, Arab (Muslim or Christian), and Druze, to name the most dominant.  A Jew walking in to an Arab village or an Arab walking in a Jewish city is identified as such even if no hostility is intended or shown.  It is a matter of identification, not racism.  In its crudest term, Hamas makes no distinction between left and right or religious and secular Jews. The person’s actual believes are irrelevant.  In comparison to the United States and France, Jews in Israel identify themselves and are identified as Jews as a basic part of social life.  This does not necessarily prevent relations with the other tribes but clearly sets the scene. Being Jewish in Israel happens quite naturally and creates a feeling of strength.

You can be Jewish in Los Angeles, Paris or Tel Aviv.  Granted that it is an individual decision, I feel Israel is a much more natural (if not always easier) place to be Jewish. To paraphrase George Orwell, I would rather be down and out in Tel Aviv (or Karmiel) than Paris or London.

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