After finishing the last post on Islamophobia in Europe an unexpected association occurred to me—I thought of an earlier post in which I discussed problems with democracy in Israel. In both cases there is a tension between democratic principles and the desire to preserve an ethnic culture. Of course there are significant differences between the two cases.
In Europe a culture that has been formed over centuries—say, in France or in Switzerland (to take as examples two countries in which the issue of Islam has recently come into prominence)—is felt to be threatened with disturbing changes caused by the presence of large numbers of newcomers with a very different culture. There is a German word that succinctly catches this feeling, Ueberfremdung, loosely translatable as “being overcome by foreignness.” The word has acquired a nasty association with racism because it had been used in Nazi rhetoric. But this past misuse of the word does not change its graphic capture of a feeling by many people with no racist attitudes (as far as I know, it antedates Nazism).
In Israel there occurred the creation de novo of a Jewish culture rooted in the past but with radically new features. This duality has at its center the amazing rebirth of Hebrew as a modern language, no longer limited to its traditional character as the sacred language of Judaism, but now spoken by a majority of Israelis with only tenuous links with that religion. When the Israeli government insists that the Palestinian Authority should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, this has immediate political implications—refusing the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to the territory now constituting the Jewish state, a return that would very soon lead to Jews becoming a minority in that territory. But there is more to it than that. The Zionist dream was, in the words of the Balfour Declaration, the establishment of “a homeland for the Jewish people.” This dream became a political reality in 1948 with the attainment of independent statehood, but, beyond the realm of politics, there are now several millions for whom this state means “home” in every sense of the word. The fact remains that others also claim the right to feel at home in the land where they now live or from which their families came—Muslim immigrants in Europe, many of them native-born citizens—and Arabs, who are some 20% of Israeli citizens (not to mention the many more in the Palestinian territories and the Palestinian diaspora). The principles of democracy serve to legitimate these claims. Thus, in both cases, there is a direct tension between ethnicity (specifically, the ethnicity of the dominant group) and democracy.
Beyond the political and economic dimensions of this tension, there are deep emotions linking the identity of individuals with the ethnic culture in which this identity was originally formed. I think that these emotions are rooted in childhood. It is significant how many words denoting ethnic culture suggest childhood. “Fatherland,” “mother-tongue,” “patriotism” (derived from Latin patria, literally “father-land”), “homeland” (as far as I know, uncommon in American English before the recent installation of the Department of Homeland Security)—and indeed “home” itself, which in all Indo-European languages has synonyms referring to a dwelling place, all the way back to a Sanskrit word which, according to the Oxford Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language—a book I love dearly—“perhaps” (those Oxford dons are cautious chaps) means a place where one dwells safely. Patriotism is an emotional attachment to the place where one feels at home, closely associated with attachment to one’s original language/mother-tongue. Patriotism in this sense long antedates the modern nation-state. It must be distinguished from nationalism—the emotional attachment to the much more abstract, if you will “adult”, entity of the nation (once sardonically defined by somebody, whose name I can’t recall, as a language equipped with an army).
There is another hard-to-translate German word: Heimat. The word derives from Heim—literally “home,” but more specifically the building which is one’s home. But Heimat has a much broader meaning –basically, the region or country from which one comes. The word is emotionally charged. It refers, precisely, to a place where one feels at home.The Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg wrote a novel about a curious figure from the Middle Ages, Suesskind von Trimberg, the only known Jewish troubadour. In the novel the narrator observes that Heimat is where one was a child. I’m not sure that this is universally true—some individuals have a bad childhood and in later life they will feel at home, if anywhere, in places as far removed as possible from the locale where they were children. For most people, I think, it is the sounds, the sights and the smells of childhood—recollected or re-experienced—which convey at-home-ness. Perhaps especially the sounds, those of the mother-tongue. In my case this is a bit complicated—German in its distinctly Austrian version was the language of my father (father-tongue, if you will)—Italian was the language of my mother. But either language, whenever I hear it as an adult, gives me a feeling of being at home (mostly strongly of course when the language is heard in Austria or in Italy—when, so to speak, I swim in it). Let me quickly add that it is possible to feel at home in a language and a place where one was not as a child—in my case, in American English and in the country where it is spoken. But such later experiences cannot replicate the dawn-like quality of childhood. It seems to me that it is a human right to be able to live in a place where one feels at home. Could this perhaps also be called a right to one’s childhood? Of course this is another way of saying that there are cultural rights.
I think one gets a better grasp of the two conflicts at issue here if one recognizes this emotional dimension. A child growing up, say, in Switzerland feels at home with the sound of church bells heard across an Alpine village—and the call of the muezzin from a minaret recently built across from the village church would disturb this feeling. An Israeli child grows up with all the experiential and symbolic realities of the world created by Zionism. In the (admittedly unlikely) case of a binational state “between the river and the sea” (as Palestinians like to put it), with an Arab majority and (even more unlikely) the cultural rights of the Jewish minority protected—would this child still feel at home in this state? However, need one add that there are conflicting childhood emotions. The child of Turkish immigrants growing up in Switzerland has a different set of at-home experiences, as does an Arab child growing up in Israel. In a democracy these claims of home must also be recognized.
Conflicting cultural rights can be accommodated by carefully constructed political and legal institutions. I would not for a moment want to underestimate the difficulties. As between the two cases here, it is easier to be optimistic about the integration of immigrants in Europe than about a settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Every year on May 14 Israelis celebrate the anniversary of their independence (Hebrew azmaut), following in the wake of the Holocaust, the greatest tragedy in Jewish history. Every year on the same day Palestinians commemorate their national catastrophe (Arabic naqba) caused by this independence. There is a chasm between these two enactments of memory. The difficulty of finding the political means to bridge the chasm are staggering. It cannot be achieved by emotional empathy alone. But it seems to me that every time that the pain of one side becomes real to the other side such a bridge becomes a little more plausible.
Some years ago I read that Palestinian refugees took with them into exile the keys to houses they had left behind—houses which very often no longer exist, as many of the villages and neighborhoods where the houses stood cannot be found on contemporary Israeli maps. Much more recently I read that Jews, expelled from Spain some five centuries earlier, also took with them the keys to houses they left behind, along with the archaic language (Sephardic, in Hebrew literally “Spanish”) which many of them still spoke until just a few years ago. An individual’s memories of childhood very often contain the memory of grandparents and ancestors, and the pain of such memory can be passed on for a very long time.