There is a certain mode of Jewish response to war and tragedy in Israel. It is a natural and instinctive response, a cry of pain, a sigh of “we just want to live in peace.” We want the world to understand that we don’t want to fight, that we’ve always been willing to compromise, that we pulled out of Gaza years ago. We want the world to know just how sick the attack on October 7th was. We want sympathy.
But the truth is, the world really can’t sympathize. They can’t understand our pain or our situation here because they don’t understand who we are. And we rarely challenge or rectify their understanding, maybe because we’re having an identity crisis ourselves. We try to extend the half-life of international sympathy but we accept the general story told about us: That we are a nation-state based on post-colonial nationalism, composed of European implants, an “embattled democracy,” an arm of Western power and culture, whose existence is justified by the Holocaust and the practical demands of Jewish survival.
I saw this story reflected by prominent supporters of Israel again in recent days. One wrote about how Israel’s purpose for existing is to keep Jews alive. Another compared us to nations that rose from colonialist origins, even if his conclusions were sympathetic. Many speak often of Zionism and the Holocaust but make no reference to anything before the 19th century. We demand that the world recognize our “right to exist,” an odd phrase and a low bar, perfectly appropriate for a settler-colonialist state that can’t possibly expect any greater affirmation.
We accept the false narrative that we are a white, Western nation-state. Like many falsehoods, it has kernels of truth. Many Jews do have the light skin of Europeans. Zionism is a modern nationalistic movement drawing on the energy and ideas of Western nationalism. The impetus for the international community to assent to the creation of the Jewish state was a transient guilt in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, which powerful nations either perpetrated or allowed.
But this story leaves out so much that defines us. It leaves out things that don’t fit the narrative. Like the fact that many if not most Israelis are not from European countries and are decidedly not white-skinned. (But I suspect that many Jews like to be “white,” with the power and privilege it implies in the American context.) We turn away from the myriad things that make us so different, so marginalized, so unwhite. We make little mention of our unique indigenous culture, tied to the agricultural flow of our land. We’re not sure how to speak of the Oneness that is central to our spiritual, religious, and ethical society. We allow the narrative about our homeland to be subsumed under “Judeo-Christian” culture and conceptions of religion, allowing global powers to co-opt and sometimes even twist our core ideas and values. We seem wary of saying that we are not here living in this land simply in order to remain alive. We’re here because this is home, because this is our homeland.
Maybe we’re afraid of where we’ll end up if we speak of “homeland,” if we shatter our self-perception as a pragmatic Western state. Not only does being close to America and the West come with perceived material benefits, but many of us also identify deeply with the values of the West.
Yet the material benefits we seem to gain by being part of the American sphere may be illusory. “Aid” sent by the US must be spent on weapons made by American defense contractors, redirecting capital from the Israeli economy and defense industry. This “aid” also gives the U.S leverage over our actions. And the “Judeo-Christian” values by which we are supposedly linked to the US are adaptations, and sometimes even distortions, of moral and spiritual concepts that originate in Jewish culture. Even the positive adaptations are threatened today; the West is now facing a confusing moral relativism that makes their grip on Western and Judeo-Christian values, or any value system at all, quite tenuous.
But, most importantly, the story of Israel as a Western nation is simply not true to who we are and where we are headed. By speaking in the secular tones of security, by referring to Western conceptions of morality and governance, while denying our own powerful history and unique culture, we are losing the battle of ideas and losing ourselves as well. No one wants to have sympathy for a Western settler-colonialist state in the Middle East, even a really nice one, with great beaches and a liberal society. Perhaps deep down, everyone wants Jews to be true to themselves.
I think we need to challenge the underlying narrative at every turn, in the way we talk and in the things we do. We should infuse our positive pragmatism with idealism. Our ministers and diplomats should use the term Judea, not West Bank, and insist on the use of this term by others, not as a religious name but as a historical and indigenous name. Maybe our leaders should even wear specific ceremonial garb that represents Jewish culture, just as the leaders of so many nations wear some adaptation of their traditional garb when meeting other world leaders. We should talk about how deeply this land is reflected in our communal, spiritual, and familial life, not merely religious beliefs. We should call the global stigmatization of Jewish families in Judea and Samaria what it objectively is: A desire for forced segregation and the banning of an indigenous group from parts of their homeland, which we should oppose aggressively by allowing Jewish families to settle freely. We should use the term indigenous constantly. Though this term does not capture the entirety of who we are, it does accurately describe important features of our identity, and it is a word that the Western world understands. We should evolve our government in a way that reflects our deepest Jewish ethical values, rather than attempting to mimic the governmental models of Western powers. And we should identify and reject the world’s endless projections of their own sins and identities onto us.
In short, we should challenge the underlying narrative of Israel as the post-colonial Western nation, though it is a narrative many of us have internalized, a narrative told over even by friends, a story which links us to the West, a link that we value for valid reasons. Maybe it’s time to cut the lines and find our own way, tracing a path forward from our roots. We can be genuine friends with America and the West, and truly understand the good points in Western culture, if we know ourselves better as the Jewish people. After all, Jewish culture is the ancient forbearer of so many values that the West takes for granted as their own.