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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Shaltiel Abravanel and the failure of Zionism

Prompted by the reading of Amos Oz's Judas Iscariot, I have been wondering about the crossroad character he presents, Shaltiel Abravanel. In a sense, Abravanel, who thought Zionism was tolerable only if it integrates Jews into the landscape and its population gradually and in no state-oriented way, thought bringing up and cherishing a state was goyim naches (stuff for the non-Jew). He thought the Jews should go to Palestine and integrate in a stateless (perhaps a society against the state) community. In Oz's plot, centered some 8 odd years after Abravanel's death and on a young man who lost his ways while studying Judas and the Jews in Jerusalem, Abravanel is the Oriental element in the Zionist endeavor, the one that insists on looking east to heal the excessive European character of Modern Judaism. The young man is lost between the external environment and three characters of the house where he spends the winter: Abravanel, looking east, Wald, representative of the European Zionism full of irony and cynicism and Atalia, who has despaired of the Israeli move all-together and looks towards the fringes in a way that somehow bends an attitude that was somehow present in his father, Abravanel. Abravanel is perhaps inspired in forces that were present in the outskirts of Zionism, present in Ahad-Aham, or in Yehuda Magnes and that evolved into contemporary voices like Gideon Levy or Aharon Shabtai. I went to Gershon Scholem's memoirs to try and get a hint for this movement, but to no avail. Scholem, as the aftermath of his dispute with Arendt revealed, was not really engaging with variants of Ben-Gurion Zionism.

I think Oz's character is brilliant because it is time for Israel (for quite some years now) to ask what has gone so terribly wrong. Amos Gitai's Kedmah has interesting hints, as do many recent books and films. But a character like Abravanel - with the potential to create a political (anarcheological because not based on history) movement - summarizes a voice that got smashed in the process. The voice has something to do with religion even though Abravanel was no religious person - and specially with the vitrionic opposition to Zionism (in the figures of Rabbis like Margolis, Shapira or people of Naturei Karta, check out Aviezer Ravitzky's "Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism" for a good account). The idea was that the that land runs a high risk of being desecrated with no easily foreseen consequences. Zionism could provoke a curse in the land. What is interesting is that Zionism in fact engages less and less with the land as a special land - it chose a thoroughly Modern way of dealing with it. In fact, it makes sense to say that its stake was that of acceleration: "bring in the productivity of Europe and we will have an European nation on a historically ours soil". The idea to look east or to look at the way religion considers the land was to understand that it has its peculiarities, and those deserve careful negotiation about which religious texts could inform. If, as Scholem often says, it was all about renewing Judaism and bringing it back to life, turning to religious texts for a clue about the land would not necessarily be a religious move, it would rather be a renewing move. An attempt to make Judaism less Modern, more indigenous. Try and integrate with the locals finding a non-European, i.e. non-colonial, mode of co-existence. The Palestinian, of course, had a treasure of wisdom about all that - a wisdom of the land and its affordances and a wisdom of resistance against the states and a wisdom of joining forces only when needed. All that was spoiled - worse, it was turned against a new colonial state power. What went so terribly wrong? Maybe the voice of Abravanel was made silent.



  2. As Oz writes (p167)"The Jews here are actually in a single big refugee camp and so are the Arabs. And now the Arabs live day by day with the disaster of their defeat and the Jews live night by night with the dread of their vengeance."