Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Question of Identity

Gadi Taub concerned by Israeli elite’s shift from solidarity-based identity to individualism

Gadi Taub
Ynet/Israel Opinion

A people that has realized its right for self-determination and that lives in a state that gives expression to its identity sometimes forgets how life looks without realizing this right. Such people finds it difficult to remember how relevant this right – which is collective in essence – is for one’s personal life.

Here’s a reminder taken from a biographical tale of a woman I never met. I saw her recorded testimonial at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv. She described the feeling she experienced when she boarded an illegal immigration ship before Israel’s establishment, and spotted a sign reading “Entrance” above the door.

An Israel-born individual may find it difficult to guess what is so touching here. Something symbolic perhaps? An entrance into a new world? A different future? An entrance into one’s home? No, none of the above.

What amazed this woman and truly left her breathless, she said, was the public, functional usage of Hebrew. She never saw Hebrew letters of this size, that is, part of the public sphere. Up until that moment, Hebrew for her was a language written in small, private letters; an embarrassing text that must be hidden.

This simple experience comprises a deep Zionist insight: There is no such thing as private self-determination. Privatizing identity undermines the individual, rather than liberate him. This is why the dreams of emancipation failed - because there is no such thing as being Jewish at your own home, and just a “regular person” in the outside world. If you cannot be Jewish upon leaving your home, it means you are not a free man.

Old slavery
Part of the shift undergone by Israel’s elite from a world premised on values of solidarity to a world of individualist values manifests itself through the rejection of this deep insight. The new liberal elite offers us a different, privatized perception of identity. In its view, identity will not be shared by the collective, but rather, the opposite is true; a unique mixture each one of us will be formulating for ourselves. It will be a sort of colorful puzzle that each one of us creates privately.

Each one of us will travel through the great supermarket of various identity components (professional, gender-based, ethnic, religious, and folkloristic) while being free to build our own unique and one-time identity; an identity that would only belong to us. This is the only way, they tell us, to safeguard the private realm against public coercion. This is the only way to complement political freedom (protected by civil rights) by cultural freedom (which is the possibility to choose one’s identity.)

Yet this is no new freedom, but rather, old slavery. This is not a case of protecting the individual against collective tyranny, but rather, it is the ancient ban on Jews to step out from their homes as Jews. This is a case of going back to the emancipation that offered “Jews as individuals” everything while offering “Jews as a collective” nothing.

Emancipation did not fail coincidently. It failed because it privatized what is in essence public; because it deprived people of what it seemingly gave them. It granted Jews partnership in the right for self-determination, as long as they don’t define themselves as they see fit.

This entire mess can be undone via a small sign that reads “Entrance” in Hebrew. And not because of the metaphorical meaning seen by an Israeli-born person such as myself, but rather, because of the absence of such meaning; because for all of us it’s simple, functional, natural, and taken for granted that our public sphere needs to be managed in Hebrew.

Gadi Taub is an Israeli author, historian, and op-ed columnist.

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