“Set the world on fire,” the song belted out, so as the rockets fell we danced. Strobe-lights flashed and colored orbs flickered through the park where the party was being held, across the highway from a kibbutz entrance. The sound of the DJ’s rumbling remixes rang-out in the open area, competing with the occasional roar of fighter jets overhead.
“Welcome to Israel,” declared a young man, who, evidently, had found out I was American. “Now is not such a good time to be here, but we will make party here and forget about all the bad things happening.”
But it’s hard to forget about the war when you’re at a going-away party for three young men about to enlist. The party didn’t make it possible to forget the war; it only reinforced it. The bass drops and bangs of dubstep sounded more like the churning of the machinery of war, the repetitive beats of techno more like the pace of marching feet.
Towards the middle of the party, the three young men who were enlisting the next day were thrown into the middle of the dancing mass of people. Garbage bags were draped over their bodies, still pulsating to the blaring house music. “Now this is something you won’t see in America, achi,” someone shouted to my left. With the lights of camera flashes and mobile-phones illuminating the center of the dance floor, several guys – friends of the future enlistees – began to shave their comrades’ heads. The partiers cheered and ululated as locks of dark hair fell to the ground, stomped and kicked under the feet of the manic dancers. Like the tribal societies of old, we saw the future soldiers off – revelry with our warriors on the eve of battle, dancing to the drums of war.
It is wrong to say that Jews have never been a warrior people. The biblical legends feature the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan and the continual warring of tribes in the ancient Middle East. But for most of recent history, and even not so recent history, Jews have been more inclined to study that to swordsmanship. The jingoism and militarism that make up the foundation of the contemporary Israeli psyche seem anomalous when compared to the past two thousand years of Jewish history. There was a time when we didn’t celebrate sending our young men to fight in wars. A time when we neither commanded murderous armies nor possessed devices of mass-death. There was even a time when the thought of peaceful coexistence – with gentile neighbors and Muslim coworkers – did not seem like a foreign idea. Zionism changed that, with it’s concept of Jews as an “‘organic national body’ or race that could one day be housed ‘inside the closed walls of a biological entity’ or state,” but not Zionism alone.
There is a battle being waged over the nature of the Jewish tradition – a battle that our side of justice, equality, and solidarity is losing badly to the side of chauvinism, racism, and violence. The Jewish tradition is not a monolithic body without diversity; it is a collection of beliefs, ideas, and texts, many of which challenge and contradict each other. Even within complete and codified tracts, there are textual ambiguities and internal contradictions. In the ideological struggle over the content and future of Judaism, neither side’s interpretation is less legitimate than the other’s. The reactionary and the regressive will always be able to justify their positions, legitimately, through tradition: but that means we must combat them with our own positions that are no less legitimate. As Israeli apartheid becomes more intractable, and as the hope for a peaceful finale to the regional conflict fades, it is more important than ever to articulate a different kind of Judaism. Israel is a place of tremendous inequality and violence, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.