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September 5, 2015 | 21st Elul 5775

Riding the A Train

February 3, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

Most people I know don’t exactly love the subway in New York. And on a hot day, or when you are in a hurry and there’s a delay, or when it’s rush hour, or when it’s scary, they are right. But I can’t help romanticizing the experience. Recently I made a few trips up and down Manhattan on the A train, and was struck again by the incredible variety of people, of every race and religion and ethnic group and sexual preference and economic level and profession, getting on and off, sitting next to each other and carefully avoiding contact, moving through the city. For all the problems - of the subway, of New York, of the United States - this experience always symbolizes for me what the United States is supposed to be all about: the freedom to be anything you want to be, and the belief that an infinite variety of identities can live - and ride the train - in harmony, and even enrich each other. I realize that that is an idealization; but consider the world in relative terms: how many other places are there that even try to achieve that ideal, much less succeed in doing so?

Take Israel for example. Israel was founded in the tradition of the European ethnic nation state. When the multinational empires were disintegrating at the beginning of the 20th century, the concept of the nationalist state came to be the dominant form of political organization. That’s how we got Hungary and Romania and Latvia etc., etc. - and the First World War, and the Second. And while Europe was organizing itself into ethnic states, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Jews had no place in any of them, so the idea arose that we should have our own. Hence, Zionism.

After centuries of persecution, and in a modern Europe that had rejected the idea of a multi-national, multicultural, neutral society, the idea of a Jewish state was powerfully attractive. And even to many American Jews (like me) who grew up in a society that prided itself on maintaining the ideal of a multicultural, neutral state, there is something very appealing about a state whose dominant, majority culture is Jewish.

But then you get here and discover the implications of the vision: identity cards specifying one’s nationality; legislative debates and court cases over contested determinations of nationality (i.e., who is a Jew); different laws for different nationalities; legally acceptable discrimination, based on nationality, in various spheres - most notably, where you can buy a house... It seems that the idea of the homogeneous ethnic state is great in theory, but in practice runs up against a simple problem: the presence of Others. In other words, if there were no minorities, there would be no majority-minority conflicts. However, to create such a situation requires methods (“ethnic cleansing”) that violate just about every humane value you can think of. So we are left with states based on theoretical ethnic homogeneity - e.g., the Jewish state - that are in practice made up of heterogeneous populations.

What we have here is a conflict between two values, two visions of the ideal society - and a lot of people, like me, who are unwilling to give up either one, despite our continuing difficulty in trying to harmonize them. Sometimes the dissonance is depressing. But at least here in Israel there is a lively ongoing discussion, at least in academic circles and among non-political communal leaders, of different models for resolving it.

If we think of subways as not only carrying people, but values as well, then it is interesting to note that in the Haifa subway, the Carmelit underground inclined railway, stenciled at the end of each car is Leviticus 19:32, “Stand for an elderly person.”


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