Hila Hershkoviz

“It ain’t Europe here”: Identifying as Middle Eastern

“Hey, It ain’t Europe Here                                                            Here it’s Israel – get used to it                                                    Baby, It ain’t Europe Here                                                          Here it’s a mess, the old Middle East”

(Popular Israeli song: “It ain’t Europe Here”, Margalit Tzanani lyrics: Doron Madeli.)

Israel is placed in the Middle East for a reason.  It is not here by whim or by default, but because the Children of Israel comprise an authentic Semitic people. Despite any of its adopted Western elements, Israeli culture and mentality is predominantly Middle Eastern, Jewish culture is authentically Middle Eastern and the Hebrew language is a Semitic tongue indigenous to the Levant. And although it might be true that Israel is more technologically developed or more democratic (according to Western standards of democracy) than other countries in the region, neither of these components is essential enough to redefine our people’s collective identity for over three millennia. We are clearly not a byproduct of the West, neither its branch nor its extension, but rather our own unique Semitic civilization.

In spite of this, Israel as a country has been insisting on identifying as part of the West.  While “Achi, po ze lo Europa” (“my brother, it’s not Europe here”) is a common Israeli phrase, our leadership insists on presenting Jews as a Western people. While Israelis refer to Arabs as “our cousins,” recognizing our natural connection to other peoples of the Middle East, our leadership tends to assume our natural ally to be the West.

Identifying as Western is an Obstacle to Peace

A Western country in the Middle East is perceived as a foreign entity and is essentially colonialist by definition.  As such, it gets rejected from the region almost instinctively. Even if we cannot fully fathom the deeper historical and psychological reasons for which the peoples in the Middle East fight off anything perceived as even resembling Western imperialism, we can at least understand the natural impulse of resistance. Our people, too, has experienced this impulse and has given it concrete expression more than once in our collective history.

Israel, of course, is not a Western implant in the Middle East.  It has, however, been branding itself as a Western country for several decades. Since the only way our right to this land is justified is if we’re an indigenous people, this phenomenon of presenting Israel as Western has reinforced the ant-Zionist accusations claiming Israel to be a colonial entity that belongs more in the cold forests of Europe than in the dry Judean desert. At this stage, mentioning every so often that Israel is our historic homeland is not enough to undo the damage. The notion of Jews being a Western people, but somehow also indigenous to the Middle East is a conflicting message, not to mention logically inconsistent. We cannot vacillate on who we are and expect clarity and understanding from the world. If we declare ourselves Western, we have no right to complain when others portray us as invaders. We must understand that so long as we insist on presenting Israel as a “Western liberal democracy” rather than a proud “Middle Eastern nation” per say, indigenous to the region, our neighbors will keep thinking of us at best as a Greek salad with Middle Eastern dressing, and at worst as a European implant that has no business in the Middle East, forever to be denied and rejected.

One of Zionism’s primary goals (or at least a goal of my Zionism) is attaining peace with the other peoples of our region. But truth be told, contrary to popular belief and noble intentions aside, Israel is currently not sending the message that it wants peace with our neighbors, but rather that we want to be left alone by our neighbors. The message that Israel is a Western country seeking peace with peoples in the Middle East essentially gets interpreted by our neighbors as “Israel, a colonial Western implant, wants to be left it alone so it can continue pursuing its colonialist interests” – so why should they leave us alone?  From the perspective of the other peoples of the region, the only friend Israel is genuinely interested in is America (perceived as an enemy of the Middle East), and as far as they are concerned, that’s acceptable – so long as we move Israel to the West.  And so, while we have been conditioned to think Israel “needs” to identify as Western in order to maintain American support and thus “survive” in the Middle East, the truth is that it is this very self-identification as Western that is so antagonizing to the other native peoples of our region.

A Genuine Step towards Peace

If we truly want peace with our neighbors, we need to start identifying as part of the neighborhood. The only way an “Israel wants peace” sign can be viewed as genuine by our neighbors is if we go back to defining Israel as a Middle Eastern country and Jews as a Semitic people indigenous to the region. Many Israelis understand that while our ruling class and media try to brand us as “American,” our collective mentality and national culture is really much closer to other Semitic peoples. Hence, instead of pretending to be “civilized white people” looking down at the other peoples of the region, Israeli society should be proudly embracing our authentic Middle Eastern identity and standing in solidarity with the other peoples of the region. It is time to shift focus back to the things we have in common with our neighbors, not as a “tactic” for better integration into the region but because it’s only because we ourselves have lost contact with our authentic identity that we have found ourselves in this position (not that native Semites never engage in war but those wars are conflicts between indigenous peoples and not popular uprisings against colonial powers).

Also important is the fact that aside from further alienating our neighbors and reinforcing the anti-Israel accusations of us being colonialists, the “Western country/puppet state” mentality also imprisons our leader’s judgments and actions from being truly loyal to our people’s authentic aspirations. A shift in mentality and a reclaiming of identity would not only be an expression of a genuine step towards peace but would also allow Israel to breathe again, lead and determine its own future once free of Western shackles.

A person not true to himself will not win the respect of others, and what holds true for the individual holds even truer for the collective. We need to get comfortable with who we are.  It is time to unmask and decolonize our identities, shake off any phony exilic perceptions of ourselves and let the world know that Israel is a proud Semitic nation, with the sons and daughters of Israel being its natural inhabitants.

Vote for the Alliance for New Zionist Vision in the U.S. elections to the World Zionist Congress.#NotYourMothersZionism


About the Author
Hila Hershkoviz is an alternative peace activist and lecturer on Israel advocacy, Jewish identity, indigenous rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is a writer on VISION magazine and blogger on Times of Israel. Hila ran for Knesset as third runner up in the Jewish Heart party (HaLev HaYehudi) in the 2020 elections.