I have been reading Tuvia Tenenbom’s book, Catch the Jew! As I have been meaning to write, this book finally got me to the point of no return – my move back to Australia has settled and I ponder this crazy little thing called community. Tuvia illustrates the complexity within it, but also what it means to be without it.
Community. Some of us know what it is. Some of us think we know what it is. And some of us spend our lives looking for one in which to belong. Even in the world of global politics the European Union tries to achieve this ideal of community, but the migrant crisis, the failure of multiculturalism and Brexit, the ideal community is still just that – an ideal. An aspiration. Communities are notoriously divided. Tuvia’s book illustrates this as I read about the differences inherent in Israeli perspectives. The Israeli elections attest to this. As a Jew living back in Australia after three years of living in Israel, I have been missing a part of me once again. Israel was my ideal destination. Australia was my home for many years. There is a conflict.
My wife and I moved back to Australia for the purpose of having children and stabilising our future which we felt was easier done here. As much as we both love Israel, gay marriage is not yet legal and having children for us would have been a tad more complicated. In saying that, Israel recognises committed gay couples as de-facto, similar to a civil union, and for tax purposes we are basically considered married in Israel. When it comes to children however, the process is complex, especially when navigating donors and the fertility process. But it is not impossible. Regardless, we made the decision to move to Australia, got married here, and so on. There is no ill will on my part towards Israel nor should there be. The law on marriage which is essentially a religious law forms the basis of societal relationships. Israel is a secular state with a significant religious foundation and history. At times, religion and secularism collide. However, I respect the religious history and its societal value as it has meaning for my own identity. Identity is multi-faceted and for me to disagree with religious law erodes some of the Jewish identity I hold. This is where I see a similarity between Tuvia and I. We have multiple parts to our identity and often they can conflict.
Tuvia was born in Israel to ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents. The son of Holocaust survivors he was in line to be a rabbi. He had other plans in mind and he decided to pursue a career in the arts and sciences which was previously forbidden to him. He is sometimes a Jew, sometimes a German, and with his excellent skills in Arabic he is sometimes a Muslim. But I have found not once a disrespectful or self-hating attitude toward any of his identities. In fact, his book demonstrates how he embraces all of them. There is a balance in his personality and opinions. This balance is hard to acquire. In reading his interviews with fellow Jewish Israelis, there is a conflict that arises within Jewish Israeli identity when trying to consolidate feelings about the Palestinian people. So much so, that some of his interviewees are claiming they are “ex-Jews” and take action against the State of Israel. In comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, or Israel to South African Apartheid, they equate the plight of the Palestinians to the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. And all this whilst standing in the heart of Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Memorial Museum. I question how such anger and disdain for one’s own identity and hence community can be helpful. For as much as I want the ideal of peace, I know communities depend on balance to achieving a fair outcome for all.
As I mentioned in my last blog post some time ago, to be Jewish is to question, it is to reflect. We can take the teachings of the past as given to us in the ten commandments at Mt Sinai and invoke our own individual, spiritual freedom and evolution. It is every Jew’s right to interpret what was given to us into the future worldly context. Importantly, we need to recognise the difference between this process of spiritual liberation from a complete dismissal of our connection to the land of Israel and our heritage. This is where I see the biggest divide. As I have stated, I am a Jew and I am gay. I do not hate my Jewishness and I do not hate my sexuality. They are mutual. This impacts me as I am neither part of a religious orthodox Jewish community nor part of a radical LGBT community, to reference the two extremes. I meet in the middle. Israel does not force religion on to its citizens and all ceremonial practices are voluntary. As the majority of Jews are secular, I found this “middle” community in Israel. This is why it is hard to understand the self-hatred of the Jew who feels so much anger towards their own identity. Fundamentally, it means a hatred of the Israeli community that is in fact – balanced. Even Tuvia explains that he prefers the company of the proud and nationalistic Palestinians over the self-hating Jewish Israelis. The Palestinians have a united front that exists within their own identity. The Jewish and Israeli community is divided to the extremes. However, it is of historical significance that Israel achieves balance through a secular state with religious underpinnings. To try and extricate oneself from both religious origins and the existence of the secular State of Israel can only leave an identity vacuum, resulting in more damage than good. To claim one is an “ex-Jew” is doing just this.