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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Culture and identity IV

Galilee Diary #347, July 22, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand?
-Sir Walter Scott, “The Lay of the 14th Minstrel”

The question is, does “my own, my native land” have to be a zero sum game? If it is mine, does that mean that it cannot also be yours? If my collective memory binds me to this particular piece of real estate from ancient times – and you carry more recent memories and connections – does that mean that ultimately, one of us will possess and one of us will wander, depending on who is strongest or who has God on his/her side (for the time being)?

The Peel Commission in 1937 answered that question with a “yes,” and proposed partition, arguing that it was indeed a zero sum game, so that sharing would never work. The Jews (most of them, mostly with some reluctance) accepted the proposal, and so did the UN. The Arab nations have only finally begun to come around. But even if we magically achieve peace with all our neighbors tomorrow morning, we will still be left with a 20% minority of people who are the non-Jews in the Jewish state. They are not the world’s problem. They are not our enemy. They are, if anything, proof of our claims that we did not expel populations in 1948, but meant what we said in the Declaration of Independence. They are Israelis, like me (actually, they are already third generation Israelis; I am a new immigrant).

…Which brings me back to where this series of Galilee Diary entries started – with the Galilee Circus. It seems to me that Israel’s survivability, in the long run, depends on our being able – without giving up on the ideal of a Jewish state – to create some kind of core of cultural norms, values, and symbols to which all Israelis can pledge allegiance. Maybe these won’t include the national anthem, which is so exclusively Jewish; but maybe we can create elements of popular culture, identification with the physical landscape, commitments to values that transcend our religious and ethnic traditions – elements of common culture and citizenship. This is a daunting task. The gaps are huge, and not based on politics or ideology. For example: in Israeli movie theaters, American movies are subtitled in Hebrew and Russian: one rarely sees Arabs at the movies – not to mention the fact that subscribers to the concert series and theater series at the Karmiel culture center are 100% Jewish in a region that is 80% Arab. I hear the dance music from the Arab weddings in our neighboring village, every summer night. It is not the music that the Jews dance to at their weddings. And the list goes on.

In the Jewish-Arab circus (and there are several in the country), there is total symmetry. Circus is a culture that is not determined by language. It is universal for both participants and audience. It is a model, and hopefully can serve as the basis for other experiments using the arts to transcend cultural divisions. Another basis for hope are efforts to attack particular problems whose impacts go beyond cultural identity: organizations seeking to solve environmental problems, or to benefit the handicapped – areas where the common “enemy” is culturally blind.

The circus has taught me that the possibility of a cultural and civic common denominator does exist. And here in the Galilee, especially, there are many people, good Zionists, seeking to identify it and nurture it. Not because they are soft-minded or soft-hearted, but because they want there to be a Jewish state here for their grandchildren.

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