Israel and Its Mediterranean Identity

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1 Israel and Its Mediterranean Identity

2 Israel and Its Mediterranean Identity David Ohana

3 israel and its mediterranean identity Copyright David Ohana, 2011 Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition All rights reserved. First published in 2011 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN in the United States a division of St. Martin s Press LLC, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY Where this book is distributed in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, this is by Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, registered in England, company number , of Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS. Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies and has companies and representatives throughout the world. Palgrave and Macmillan are registered trademarks in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries. ISBN ISBN (ebook) DOI / Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available from the Library of Congress. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Ohana, David. Israel and its Mediterranean identity / David Ohana. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. National characteristics, Israeli. 2. Mediterranean Region Relations Israel. 3.Israel Relations Mediterranean Region 4. Selfperception Israel. 5. Political culture Israel. I. Title. DS113.3.O dc A catalogue record of the book is available from the British Library. Design by Scribe Inc. First edition: October 2011

4 Contents Preface vii Part I Identity 1 A Bridge over Troubled Water 3 2 Multiculturalism or Dialogue? 31 Part II Region 3 Mediterranean Humanism 49 4 Levantinism as a Cultural Theory 77 Part III Culture 5 A Man in the Sun Camus and the Israelis 135 Part IV Politics 7 The Politics of Political Despair Where East Meets West 171 Part V Memory 9 A la Recherche du Temps Marocain Perdu 189 Bibliography 201 Index 211

5 Preface Between the western coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where I was born, and its eastern bay, by which I now live, stood ideology, historical circumstance, and the destiny of the Jewish people. My whole store of associations about the Mediterranean Sea, it sometimes seems to me, is drawn from the collective memory I learned to use during the few years I spent in my birthplace, Oujda, Morocco. Before that, I have my personal memory to guide me back through a narrow channel of unforgotten anecdotes and images: a creamcolored ice- cream cart, of a sort I have never seen again, gives me its flavor, my taste of the Madeleine; a city park, near a neoclassical post office building, where I would sit with Tata Titin, my grandmother s sister, the two of them immigrants from nearby Algeria; the Muslim milkman, a lunatic, who every morning as he left the milk bottles by the door of our house at Casablanca 14, would mutter to himself dada, dada, a deliberate or habitual modification of Dehdeh, my nickname. I remember the Moroccan king s return from his exile in Madagascar. Oujda dressed itself in holiday pomp, and the masses, among them a large portion of the Jewish population, gathered in the streets to celebrate their king s homecoming, returned by the colonialist courtesy of the French authorities, and to declare by this their unanimity in the cause of Moroccan independence. Perched on my father s shoulders, I saluted Yihyeh al Malik! Long live the king! Oujda s pluralistic atmosphere fit in with its Mediterranean geography: Algeria was its neighbor on the eastern border, and to the north were the coastal cities of Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish colony. Our nearness to the French and Spanish communities lent a cosmopolitan air to the city and especially to the Jewish community. For the Jews, many of whom had come, like my mother, from Algeria, French was the lingua franca. My father worked as a waiter at his brother s café, a place of bohemian happening that inspired many of my future dreams. With Jewish merchants, Muslim natives and Algerian neighbors, Spanish tourists and American soldiers (from the Second World War) populating the tables, my father, Maxim, meanders between them with nonchalance and an incorrigible smile. So it lives perpetually in my memory, a multinational and multicultural microcosm, free of change and innocent of the causes that bring change about.

6 viii PREFACE Then comes The State of Israel is declared, and three weeks later blood riots break out in Oujda and nearby Jirada. Muslim fundamentalists, encouraged by the silence and powerlessness of the French authorities, assault, loot, and kill Jews in the two cities. The thugs break into our house as well, a wing of four connected houses sharing a yard. But all this was four years before my birth. In my infancy I was nursed by Zalo, our neighbor from across the way, being that my mother was ill. The four Jewish families made up one large family. Back then the rioters killed Zalo s father- in- law, who also lived in the complex, and raided our house. My brother was at home alone and hid under the bed; his resourcefulness saved his life. At the end of the day the body count came to 44 Jews. Thus in my childhood became apparent to me the two sides of Mediterraneanism: multicultured openness on the one hand and tribal nationalism on the other. When we emigrated to Israel, I having completed my fourth year, we were welcomed there by this same Janus- face of the Mediterranean Sea, which we had known before and continued to characterize the place we left on her eastern side. The ship Kabu Daurnus led us away to different shores, to a new land, the fresh nation- state of the Jews. Now nationhood, religion, and culture life s new landscape kept out of view the sunlight and soil that had bred us there in our native Morocco from our new homeland, which had been built up by European expatriates. Zionist socialization, but also my sobering up, maturing mind- set, made me an Israeli patriot who loves his land and fights her wars but who is yet concerned about her well- being and the way in which she pursues her continued existence. In these days of worry about my homeland s future, I reflect a lot about the Mediterranean option, which has been sought as a remedial for our gory wound, Israel s conflict with the Palestinians. On top of the many other rational reasons that suggest the Mediterranean option to our consideration there has always been a shared, supranational tradition between the nations now conflicted; there are now political and economic bridges between Israel and its neighbors as well as many others in the region; there has been a broadening of the social group from bilateral contention to regional partnership; there is a strong common denominator between the various Israeli communities, a common identity I feel in the most immediate way that my own identity can be very well summed up as Mediterranean. This I feel is equally true of many others in Israel, who seem in terms of personality, rationale, and mental structure, both in the private and the collective spheres, typically Mediterranean. Israel and Its Mediterranean Identity attempts to depict the lights and shades of this identity. It is too easy to slip into an oblivious nostalgia, forgetting to rigorously examine the geocultural questions, or to be swept up in a romanticizing fervor, swiping away the complex reality in favor

7 PREFACE ix of an imagined, desirable one. No doubt, as a person I do fall into these pleasant traps once in a while. Nonetheless, as a historian I see Mediterraneanism in a philosophical way and not as an ideology. Whereas ideologies have their ready solutions for every situation, philosophy asks questions and discovers problems. At the same time, my discourse does not begin a priori but comes upon Israel s Mediterranean identity from its particular vantage point and from there embarks on its analysis. The Mediterranean s thematic contexts of history and identity strike me as axiomatic, and my discussion takes place within their framework. This is not an abstract picture drawn on a blank slate. The Mediterranean option stands before us as a model, a proposal, a challenge now let us begin to discuss it. My inspiration for the Mediterranean option was sparked by Albert Camus and Jaqueline Kahanoff. I find myself easily acclimating to the landscapes of Camus s youth, the poverty from which he emerged, which wasn t signified by embarrassment but by a joy of life, and I identify naturally with his immigration to a new country, which was yet old, where he was an outsider among the bourgeois intellectual elite, the offices of its thought and literature. It is no wonder to me that he revealed a lifelong empathy with the Jewish destiny and a concern for the survival of Israel. It is no wonder that he has been adopted in Israel as the most popular foreign writer. Kahanoff supplies me with the model she proposed to Israel in her early years, where she challenged the western hegemony by means of a dialogue between east and west, putting forward her example of feminism before its time had come and pointing out the cultural wealth of Israel s various immigrant communities in a time of nationalist and provincial isolationism. Camus and Kahanoff, writers who saw their assumed societies from within and without, document their unique viewpoints without resentments or disaffection, and they are both Mediterranean humanists who passed away before their time. My youth in Israel was spent in a small town, Kiryat Gat, which was populated largely by immigrants from North Africa and survivors of the Nazi persecution in Europe. I saw a spectacular human laboratory of Eastern and Western elements, immigrants from Christian and Muslim countries who tried, and in most cases succeeded, to build a shared future. Every weekend we would travel the distance of several minutes to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Our nearness to the waters of the Mediterranean expressed for us our version of normalness, a wistful longing for the big world that was, then in the 1960s, light years away. Then I came to the mountain. Jerusalem s people, mountain people, embody the toughness and dignity of a besieged town. At last (or currently, at any rate) I have found my place in Sede Boker, a small village in the desert. Here, far from the madding crowd s ignoble strife, one finds the quiet and content

8 x PREFACE of mind to adjust to a clean environment, untouched by history s remains and unaffected by the fever of the times. So I have lived all my life up until now near the Mediterranean, in the mountains and in the desert, seeing the various faces of my country and discerning the different colors of Israeli identity. This book doesn t wish to do away with Israel s other dimensions but will try to call attention to the possibilities for development open to Israel s Mediterranean identity.

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