The Moral Lives of Israelis: Reinventing the Dream State

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9780307356291: The Moral Lives of Israelis: Reinventing the Dream State

Brave, intensely personal and politically incisive — an essential and thought-provoking look at the state of Israel today from an Israeli-Canadian's perspective.

The Moral Lives of Israelis explores the last ten years of life in Israel, a sixty-one-year-old country that has never not been in a state of war. It began in David Berlin's head as he sat vigil over his father's deathbed in a falling-down hospital in Tel Aviv. The last words given to him by his father were not words of love for his son and his grandchildren, but this command: "Look after my little country." That note set off a huge voyage of exploration and remembrance for Berlin, who has spent much of the last six years living and reporting in Israel, interviewing his own generation and the new crop of politicians and leaders, and witnessing the Second Lebanon War, the removal of the settlers from Gaza, and other defining events.

The result is a thrilling blend of memoir, reportage and original thinking on the place of Israel in the world. The fundamental question that floats over every page of this passionate book is, with so many missteps and in a region deeply fraught with antagonism, racism and misunderstanding, how can Israel move forward? After many dead ends and twists and turns, it is the nineteenth-century visionary father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who ultimately sparks Berlin's dream for Israel in the twenty-first century — it is Herzl's insistence on a secular and cosmopolitan state that Berlin sees as a way to move beyond.

Berlin's brave inquiry will be a must-read for anyone concerned with the fate of the Middle East — it engages on every level from the deeply emotional to the philosophical, and brings new perspective to a question that resonates well beyond the borders of Israel.

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About the Author:

DAVID BERLIN is an Israeli-born journalist and editor who grew up in Canada but returned for a time to live in Israel. He served his military duty in Ariel Sharon's reconnaissance unit, Sayeret Shaked, and took part in Sharon's Suez campaign. After attending medical school at Tel-Aviv University, he graduated from the University of Chicago's program on social and political thought, and taught at several universities. His work has appeared in Saturday Night, the Literary Review of Canada (where he was the editor-in-chief from 1998-2001), the Globe and Mail, the National Post and Haaretz Newspaper, among others. He is a founding editor of the Walrus. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Deborah, a violinist, and their three children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

My parents called me Zafrir, which in Hebrew means zephyr, a cool morning breeze like the one that blew me into Assuta Hospital on May 14, 1951. The morning I was born, that gentle current of air soon broke into the flattening, scorching wind that the Arabs call hamsin and Israelis call sharav; even the insulated walls of Israel’s first private hospital could not hold back the disabling sirocco that attacked Tel Aviv from the south. “I sweated you out,” my bittersweet mother never failed to remind me. “My own father was swept out of the hospital on the waves of his own perspiration. And your father? Well, he was called up to the reserves. I stuck with you,” she said. “But your name? That was your father’s doing. He loved the name as he loved the boy who first carried it, Zafrir Carmelli, who was your father’s sunnier side. The two of them grew up together on the farm and then Zafrir was killed on the Castel, an old crusaders’ fortress on the road to Jerusalem. The Arabs took it over from the British and a sniper’s bullet went through his head. That was your father’s blackest day and the pall hung about him until you were born. You brought him back to life.
 
But there is more to my name than the blood of a beautiful boy. Roll it on your tongue, breathe in its vowels, and let the rhythm of its consonants work itself out and you will hear the entire history and greatest hopes of the Sabra generation, Israelis whose lives straddled the desert of the colonial powers and the creation of the State of Israel, which gained its independence three years to the day before I was born.
 
Zafrir is a dawn wind that carries hope for the day that will follow. To allow one’s hair to blow in it is to imagine that the restless heat that will soon be kicking at the door does not matter; what matters is only the crisp and silky touch of the early light; what matters is only the here and the now. It was Chaim Nachman Bialik, the great Hebrew poet, who taught the Sabras (or New Jews) how to put the old language to new uses. To him, Zafrir was not only a breeze, but one of those esoteric Kabbalistic spirits—a goblin, a sprite, a gnome. The morning wind, or ruakh tsafririm, was Bialik’s April, which sprang lilacs from the dead earth. It was not cruel but mischievous; it was not a harbinger of false hope but a reminder that there is more to heaven and earth than either the old rabbi or the realist could dream.
 
Zafrir is a Sabra imprimatur, a signature of their times. It bears no resemblance to Motl or Tevye or Rayzel, names of the shtetl. When you say it out loud, it challenges you to be who you are, not as all men must be, but like Atzmon and Zohar and Noga and Miron, to become a foundation—to be the rock of the first generation born to freedom. The two r’s are throaty and uvular, as in the Arabic letter ghain, which is where the Sabras got the phonemes they used to create Dugri, the blunt, staccato patois they carved from the ancient Hebrew. To many Sabras, the opportunity to pay homage to the Arab, and to the Bedouin in particular, was almost an obsession. For them, the image of the nomad, clad in a kaffiyeh and wrapped in the enigmatic desert shroud, brought to mind the aboriginal, the preternatural, the Ur source for which these native sons and daughters yearned. Which is one of the reasons why my maternal grandfather, Yunkl, hated my name.
 
He was a shtetl bourgeois, a merchant who refused to buy into the religion mostly because he believed that all convictions came at a price and he preferred to pay for nothing. But then again, it was he who footed the bill for the private hospital where I was born. And it was he who doled out the keymoney for the apartment on Shlomo HaMelech Street to which my mother and legions of my parents’ nearest and dearest soon accompanied the newborn, and where they immediately set him to one side while they drank and sang and exchanged chizbatim (tall stories). “My father wants to call him David,” my mother said to my father when he arrived from the base late in the day. “Asik, can we do that for the old coot? It’ll just be a middle name—nobody will know, we’ll never use it. Maybe it won’t even appear in his documents.” My father, whose name was Asher but who went by Asik, shrugged.
 
“It’s for a good cause,” my mother said without much conviction.
 
“What cause is that?Asik asked.
 
Shlom bayit—order in our household,” my mother replied. Asik shrugged and it came to pass that I was called Zafrir David after Yunkl’s favorite dead brother, Doovidl.
 
What neither my father nor my mother had factored into their decision was just how bound to the actual physical reality of Israel were all the meanings of the name they had chosen for me. What they never imagined was how living away from Israel would loosen the bond, carry off a consonant here and a vowel there, and that before long there would be not a trace of Zafrir, but only David, at which point Yunkl, the old Jew from Poland, would declare a mighty victory.
 
One Monday morning, in the fall of 1953, my parents, Asher and Rachel Berlin, left Israel for Canada, where they pitched their tent for the better part of half a century. Why did they do that? Why did they leave their dream state and for what? The question is compelling when one recalls that both Rahela and Asik had given all they had—their best time and their best friends—so that Israel could rise and go forward. Why leave, and why so soon? Why abandon the family they loved and hated, the hevre (friends) they adored, the cafés that ran them a tab? How could my mother, who wandered by the shore and stared out at the sea when she was sad, who was an ocean child and who loved the Mediterranean, leave it behind? How could my father leave the farm whose scents were his life, betray it all, and for what?
 
Neither of my parents spoke a word of English when they arrived in Canada. They hated the cold and it took my father more than twenty years to learn how to make a buck. Nor was Canada in the early 1950s particularly Jew-friendly. In the immediate post-war period, Charles Blair, an official in Prime Minister MacKenzie King’s government, compared Jewish survivors seeking asylum to hogs at feeding time. When he was asked how many of these hogs Canada was prepared to accept, he offered an unabashed “none is too many.” Governor General Vincent Massey agreed.
 
Many Canadians, English and French, rallied behind these leaders. At the time, there were strict quotas and restrictions on Jewish students. Those who applied to the University of Toronto needed to score higher than others. The level of Jewish admissions to McGill was capped at 20 percent. In the early 1950s, a dozen men’s clubs were restricted and Canadian hospitals were loath to accept Jewish doctors. Nor was immigration to Canada made any easier for the kind of Jews my parents were. These young Israelis did not think of themselves as Jews at all, maybe even as “un-Jews”: brash, full of chutzpah, post-Jewish Jews who were not the least interested in Diaspora Jewish culture. Nor were they ready to adopt the parochial values of the secular Jewish community in Canada. In fact, the Jewish establishment in Toronto, where my parents and I ended up, was far more conservative than others in Canada and tended to think of the Sabras as Philistines whose noisy spirit needed to be broken and tamed to fit the assimilated British posture.
 
And yet my parents stayed in Toronto, where they suffered the cold, the cold shoulders and their poverty—though that abated once my father figured things out. They shovelled snow while their old friends in Israel dug graves for those killed in battles. They did not participate in the joys and in the woes and they were not in Israel to bury their own parents. Except for an interval between 1970 and 1975, when my parents separated and my mother ran off to Israel to be with her mother, they never got the experience of living in the dream state to which their entire youth and much of their adult life was devoted—until the fall of 2000 when they returned home to Israel to die.
To write of the unhappy family circumstances that caused my parents to leave Israel is to write very close to the ground. From this level the pettiest annoyances and the largest tectonic movements often seem of the same order of magnitude. A mother’s stubborn insistence on cooking with artificial flavouring can be as compelling a reason to leave a country as a profound moral disagreement about whether a war should be waged or not.
 
The characters in this particular drama, my family, are not different from the characters who play the lead in other families’ dramas. My mother’s father, Yunkl, was like any other self-centered, authoritarian patriarch. What made him interesting was not the unique shape of his spleen, but that his spleen had the same quality as the spleens of the small-minded, conservative element that made up one part of the Mayflower generation, that wave of immigrants who arrived in Palestine from Eastern Europe dreaming of their own country. Asher Ginzberg, the father of cultural Zionism, feared this kind of pioneer would overwhelm the Labor Zionist movement and he argued that immigration to Palestine should be reserved for only the best and the brightest.
 
When my mother said, and she said this more times than I care to remember, “Had we not had you, we would never have left the country,” I thought she was guilt-tripping me, which she undoubtedly was. But then again, before I was born, the two sets of in-laws, my mother’s parents, Yunkl (Yaacov) and Yudit Mass, and my father’s parents, Gershon and Pess...

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