The State of the Israeli State and the Return of the Wandering Jew

Israel is the eye of an ethnic hurricane, sucking in fanaticized Jews thanks to its iniquitous “Law of Return” and spewing out its most sensitive souls in reaction to the racist culture engendered there.

Amos Kollek is a director who combines the sensibilities of New Yorker John Cassavetes and his fellow Israeli Amos Gitaï in one of the most powerful films I saw this year at the Mediterranean film festival in Montpellier, France. In doing so, he poses a fundamental question: is there any resolution to the conflicts inherent in a society controlled by a theocratic state founded upon racist premises? This is the question that advocates of “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians find difficult to face. Moreover, they find it especially difficult to even ask the question, much less offer a realistic solution to it.

This is why Amos Kollek’s new film, Restless, is so powerful: it goes to the heart of the problem posed by the creation and continued existence of the state called Israel. Kollek does not offer any solutions, but he draws no punches in the assessment of a society and culture that merits Frank Zappa’s characterization (speaking of the United States) as “a scab of a nation, driven insane”.

In the film, the great Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy plays the role of Moshe, an ageing writer in self-imposed exile in New York barely surviving as a hustler. His many scams are built on imaginative deceptions and they lead only violent retaliation and bitterness. It is as if you can take the Israeli out of Israel, but you can’t take Israel out of the Israeli. At least, this is what Kollek, through Moshe’s experience, suggests to me.

Here is the situation: Moshe, author of a moderately successful novel in Israel, left the country for New York twenty years ago because of his disgust with both Israel and himself. He left behind a wife and young son. The wife eventually died of depression and drugs, and the son entered obligatory military service, becoming a very talented sniper, a specialist in extralegal executions of Palestinian militants in the occupied territories. An important part of this story involves the conflict between the absent father and his abandoned son, who says at one point: “I always think of my father before I pull the trigger.”

After years of hustling in New York, Moshe’s drinking and failed deals have pushed him close to the bottom. At this point a friendly bar owner offers the drunken Moshe the chance to work off his bar tab by reciting his poetry on stage to the customers. To general surprise Moshe’s verses provoke both hilarity and respect by the mostly Jewish patrons of the bar. His impassioned words express something profoundly honest couched in a crudely naked, provocative style recalling Lenny Bruce. Infused with the feedback from the audience, Moshe is inspired and becomes a featured performer with a small but loyal following. Near the end of the film, we learn that Moshe produced a compact disc of his recitations and that a book of his poetry, Poems of a Restless Man, is about to come out. Although a Zionist shareholder in the bar has had Moshe removed from the bar’s tiny stage, Moshe was immediately offered another gig in Greenwich Village.

For Moshe, Israel is a country where racist ideology serves to disguise social class domination and military occupation.

“I grew up in a family where there was nothing
Moroccan immigrants in a country filled with Ashkenazi
My parents were too poor to buy me socks
I knew my escape was my wit, my way with words, my spirit
So I tried to be a poet.

Like my son now, I was a soldier then
I only followed orders, but in my heart I thought “Well, what about my life?”
So I served my country, and one day I just left
I never looked back, that is all I can say.
I didn’t want to see what I had left behind. Would you?

After all, I am a Jew with a conscience
I get choked up when I kill.
I felt my life was nearly over
I’d like to say I had the guts to choose
And that’s me in a nutshell.”

After this first recitation, a man who turns out to be his former commanding officer verbally attacks Moshe: “Why didn’t you stay there?” he asks, “What the fuck are you doing in New York?”

Moshe’s response is laconic, yet pointed: “I was disappointed in the country. You killed Palestinian women and children as a service to the Nation.” To which the Zionist retorts, less pointedly:  “No. I’m hi-tech.” As if technologically sophisticated means of human destruction excuse killing, and “homemade” methods are more reprehensible. No reason here to pontificate about the difference between state terrorism and insurrectionary violence.  In “asymmetrical warfare” the mighty have the moral advantage. After all, isn’t Israel a democracy?
In the other reading featured in the film, Moshe develops the theme of how the idea of democracy is the best justification for injustice.

He begins by reading the Miranda rights, as Lenny Bruce once did. Like Bruce’s, Moshe’s talent is using wit and common sense to break taboos. In baring his own guilt, he reveals the hypocrisy of others. This time his words run on in the manner of Allen Ginsberg:

You have the right to remain silent
Everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law
Nobody read me those rights when I was born in a kingdom far away in a sea of Ashkenazi aristocracy

And when you got into the army to kill or to be killed, by people who I had nothing against nor they against me, in the very far away kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, now a democracy of hope, homes and children, and you have the right to remain silent when you see the funeral coming and you just hold your tears, your children scream by the coffins, on your TV screens.”

In Kollek’s film, the “children of Israel” are screaming because of the false promise of the Zionist state. People like Moshe are Israelis; they are no longer Zionist pioneers driven by a utopian vision, a nationalist delirium that blinded them to the realities of ethnic cleansing. Moshe is the new “wandering Jew”, wandering because he cannot exist in the land where he was born. His realization of the horrors produced by the Zionist dream, that perverted offshoot of the “American Dream” — the first “New Jerusalem” —, is a form of the internalization of state violence. Israel was to be the home of the “new Jew,” it became the trap in which identity is bound up with the systematic denial of the other, a denial requiring racist inhumanity.

The existential suffering caused by the Zionist project is symbolized by the estrangement of Moshe and his son, Trach, who was refused reenlistment in the Israeli army because of his overly pronounced pleasure in executing Palestinians from ambush. Trach also experienced another sort of emotional trauma after he shot, accidentally,  a Palestinian child. When Trach travels to New York to confront, and perhaps kill, his prodigal father, the scene is set for a rather classic clash between father and son, but one that juxtaposes two generations of Israelis whose personal problems are conditioned by the state of permanent militarization and racist hatred necessary for the maintenance of the Zionist state.

There is a kind of resolution is this film. Moshe and his son are drawn together by their respective grief and rootless-ness, but it occurs outside Israel, in the relatively neutral zone of New York where Jewish-ness is accepted as a normal social and personal condition that does not imply the oppression of other groups. At the same time, Moshe is given a new chance to reconstruct his self-esteem, not only by his new success as a performing poet, but also by a new relationship. Symbolically, he found as female companion a tough, former professional soldier who served as an officer in Iraq (and now as bartender in the Jewish establishment!). A self-styled “army brat”, this strong woman, with a young son, has likewise fled a world of racist violence and inhumanity and has taken refuge in a marginal world where, at least, she can reconcile herself to herself, without dominating or exploiting others.

In his final performance at the bar, Moshe speaks in Hebrew saying

I want to say one more thing to my brothers in Israel:
‘My glorious brothers, heroes of battles, schooled in suffering…where else could I find such beautiful, beautiful people as you, who else could I talk to about myself, ourselves, about our country, no one else’s, about our girls, about our army, and no one else’s, that defeated seven armies in six days.

Perhaps we have become spoiled, corrupt since then. We have become confused. We have lost our way.

But where else in the world can we feel at home as we do in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, with or without the Temple Mount?

And that’s all from the Israeli fort in New York.

Irony from a “self-hating Jew”? Maybe. But Moshe’s self-loathing and guilt are clearly entwined with his identity as an Israeli. It is not because he is a Jew that he has been emotionally lost and artistically unfulfilled. It is because he is an Israeli, a citizen of an imperialistic “national security” state relentless in its pursuit of territorial domination and the exploitation of other people’s resources. In New York, on the contrary, as a Jew and as an artist, he has found refuge, and then solace (in the arms and heart of a “gentile”). In New York he was able to reunite with his son and come to grips with his guilt. Only in New York was resolution possible.

Can Israel continue to be a “national project”? Can Jewish people afford to cultivate “nationalist aspirations”? Is ethnic cleansing and national chauvinism still the political modernity, the cutting edge of social progress, as it was generally believed to be in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Will a “globalized” planet become a collection of elite-ridden ghettoes — such as Israel and the United States represent — or will a truly democratic and cosmopolitan society and culture emerge from the disaster of capitalism and its ideological pathologies?
The merit of Amos Kollek’s film is to ask these questions on such a profound human and emotional level. In viewing this powerful work about the psyche reality of Israeli society, we cannot escape the pathos of a situation that has ruined the lives of generations of people of different ethnic and confessional identities.

LARRY PORTIS is an historian and writer living in France who has recently published a history of fascism in the United States (Histoire du fascisme aux Etats-Unis, Paris, Editions CNT-RP, 2008). He may be reached at larry.portis@orange.fr


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