Israel, the Jews and the Mediterranean: Dilemmas of a Cultural Identity
This triumphant taste for life, this is the Mediterranean.
(Albert Camus)
What is the Mediterranean? A thousand things at once. It is not one, but innumerable landscapes. It is not a sea, but a succession of seas, not a civilization but, civilizations stacked one on top of the other…
(Femand Braudel)

Between the concept "Mediterranean" and the term "Mediterranean Sea," there is simultaneously an association (metonymic) and a disassociation (semantic). The former covers a larger semantic field than the latter. It bor¬rows, of course, from the sea (Mediterranean) its denotative and even connotative import, yet transcends it and creates a polyvalent geographic and environmental space, dealing equally with the mental and the cultural.
This association/disassociation (Mediterranean sea or space) is totally absent from the spoken language today in a country so manifestly Mediterranean as Israel. The Hebrew language has but one expression, Yam Tikhon (literally, "sea of the middle" - same etymology as Mediterranean) to designate the two notions, thus ignoring not only nuance but the important gap. To refer more explicitly to the riperian coun¬tries of the Mediterranean, one uses the expression Agam ham haTikhon (the Mediterranean Basin).
This simple, ostensibly insignificant linguistic detail brings us to the crux of Israel's cultural identity problem. As a new politico-cultural entity, Israel is part of a specific zone of the globe (Middle or Near East), which itself is in turn an integral part of a wider geo-political space, the Mediterranean world. While physically, then, Israel is an integral part of this region, it is culturally disconnected from it.

An Identity Dilemma

Israeli society is conflictual in many respects. First and foremost in its polit¬ical and territorial conflicts with the Palestinians and with its Arab neigh¬bors. But there are also four other sources of tension: religion/secularity, tradition/modernity, Ashkenazi/Sephardi and finally, this basic dilemma: East/West. The latter looms behind all the others, constantly haunting the consciousness of the Israeli living under the eastern sky and dreaming of a distant western world, in contrast to Judah Halevi, poet of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, who wrote in one of his poems brimming with nostalgia for Zion: "My heart is in the East/ And I am in the farthest West."
The tension is even harsher since Israel is situated at the intersection of the two axes which traverse the Mediterranean: The North/South axis and the East/West axis.
However, 47 years after having achieved independence, modem Israel seems to have made its choice: culturally, it considers itself a "Western" enclave, a sort of island in an Oriental (Arab-Muslim) sea. This is the image the Israeli establishment has of itself and which it projects to the world.
Israel's intentional, staged identification with the West was not inevitable. Indeed, the relationship to the locale, first in Zionist then in Israeli consciousness, seems to have passed through three phases.
At first, Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew designation for geographic Palestine) represented in the Jewish mentality of the Diaspora the mythical place, the aim and drive behind the concept of Return. The diverse versions of the Zionist doctrine incorporated the search for the past, the retrieval of historical memory, the search for authenticity, etc. In varying measures, these identity considerations and motifs reflect, in an attempt at a dialectic con¬ciliation between two factors, the anticipation of messianic redemption and a secular will to restore to the Jewish people terrestrial political sovereign¬ty and normalcy lost 20 centuries ago.
This ideological stage was followed by the successful practical applica¬tion of these ideas. This was the era of young, idealistic pioneers with egal¬itarian ideals, the desire for emancipation, and a certain dose of exotic romanticism.

The Tidal Wave

Paradoxically, the third phase comes after the proclamation of the State. The Jewish population of Palestine, called the Yishuv (slowly formed, since the end of the 19th century, by waves of immigration coming from East and Central Europe) had lived until 1948 in a sort of ideological sanctuary, far from the old Sephardi and Oriental communities as well as from the ultra-Orthodox Asl1kenazi islets which preceded them. In the early 1950s, there was a tidal wave of mass immigration, with a Sephardi-Oriental majority alongside the survivors of the Nazi extermination camps. In a drive which was more messianic than ideological, the Oriental and North African communities doubled the Jewish population of the country in less than three years.
Swamped by the newcomers, the predominantly European Yislll1v was in panic: the picturesque "cargo" of immigrants from Yemen, Morocco and elsewhere aroused opposition and defensive reactions. However, this was tinged with contempt originating from a stereotypical and deprecatory image of the Orient as "retrograde," "medieval," even "demonic." The Yishuv's visceral reaction to this human influx induced a movement of identification with the West, and its equally stereotypical image, as the source of progress, democracy, modem values, etc.

Literature and Society

The literature of a country, or of a people, is as faithful a reflection of that particular society as "scientific" analyses backed by "objective" statistics. Literary texts can be even better expressions of the paradoxes, contradic¬tions and incertitudes of a society.
Let us glance superficially at the Jewish majority in Israeli society (we are not dealing in this article with the separate and complex question of the Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel) and its literary output, cover¬ing a period of nearly a century. I shall limit myself here to one element which determines all cultural identity, i.e., the relation to place or space, in this case to this corner of the eastern Mediterranean.
The "miracle" of the Return has not erased ipso facto the deep imprints of a very long Diaspora. Ideology could promote heroic exploits, transform patterns of behavior, establish and institutionalize a language resuscitated from the ashes. However, it has not obliterated the former structures of the individual and collective unconscious. Neither has it eliminated the affinities and the secret traces that the native soil and child¬hood memories of the Diaspora inscribe in the deep recesses of souls.
Thus the new East-Mediterranean environment, vibrant with light, with warmth and fragrance - a total change of scenery for the natives of East European mists and snows - is ignored, eclipsed, at best beheld distract¬edly by the new Israelis. The lyrical poems written during the first three decades following independence are often steeped in a sort of melancholic setting and autumnal atmosphere totally out of place in a Mediterranean context. The theme of falling leaves is over-exploited (deciduous trees are rather rare in these Levantine surroundings) at the expense of the perenni¬al olive and palm trees. When the immediate surroundings are evoked, it is often through Biblical references. When, in rare cases, the actual physi¬cal landscape is mentioned, it is especially the Zionised landscape, rehabil¬itated, tamed and "modernized."
Discrimination against Oriental elements is thus found even in vegetation. The eucalyptus tree, for example, imported and newcomer like the Zionist pioneer, is widely quoted in Israeli poetry and songs, while the native fig, almond or date trees make only intermittent appearances.

The Specter of the Orient

The other side of this rejection phenomenon is obviously the Israeli passion for the West, and an indiscriminate acceptance of its vices (exaggerated individualism, excessive rationalism, etc.), as well as its virtues (science, technology, democracy, etc.).
Everything happened as though the new Jewish culture in Israel had nat¬urally to take Western civilization, the temple of progress in our time, as model and reference. As if it could not help but banish and suppress every¬thing in the setting, in the physical and human landscape, in behavior and mentality that is liable to recall the Orient, antithesis and foil to the West.
It should have been otherwise in a land supposed to be a melting pot where exiles from every shore and origin could merge. It was not impossi¬ble to contemplate a symbiosis, even a synthesis between the different components of the new Israeli perception had not the prejudices against the Orient and demeaning stereotypes impeded the natural process of development of a civilization in the making. The hard political reality all but reinforced this movement of repulsion.
One cannot easily turn one's back on one's individual and family past, and the attempts (ideological and/ or aesthetic) of writers, painters, musi¬cians during the 1920s of this century, to promote an original culture on the ancient native soil could neither avoid nor restrain an irresistible movement toward the West and its values. The very East European elements which form a considerable part of Israeli customs and culture, are presented as "Western," as against the "backward" and menacing Oriental surroundings.
Hebrew literature, in particular, has felt and followed the swings, revolts and innovations which have agitated Europe and America during the 20th century: symbolism, expressionism, surrealism, existentialism, structuralism, hyperrealism, to the point that one could speak of certain writers such as A.B. Yehoshua or Amos Oz as Europeans writing in Hebrew. It wasn't flattering or in good taste to refer to the immediate envi¬ronment: it was running the risk of being labelled folklorist, regionalist, exotic, even primitive. Wishing to be fashionable and modem, Israeli writ¬ers and artists since the turn of the 1950s until the 1980s have looked to Paris, London, New York, averting their eyes from their close surround¬ings and expressing little interest in the culture and creation of neighbor¬ing countries which are deemed to be culturally backward.
There were a few exceptions and a few "converts" who recognized the Sephardi-Oriental sector which was demographically in the majority in the Jewish population, but was culturally devalued. These understood that Israel's future is linked to its Mediterranean destiny. But we are far from an in-depth rehabilitation of the eastern Mediterranean element in our leadership, in our creative artists, in the average Israeli and public opinion.
Apart from the problems of their integration into the social and eco¬nomic fabric of their new nation, the Oriental and Maghreb Jews did not play the role which should naturally and historically have been theirs: to constitute a bridge between a composite Jewish society and the Arab world, a cultural bridge preparing and enhancing a p0lilical dialogue based on mutual knowledge and respect, as well as on the experience of coexistence in Islamic countries where the Jews had enjoyed an infinitely greater tolerance than in Christian lands.

What Perspective?

In order to give a chance for all the cultures or sub-cultures, traditions and folklore of the various components of the Israeli mosaic, there must be a change in mentality and an end to the stereotyping of the East. Israel has produced an impressive output in the areas of literature, music, art, the¬ater, ballet, etc., but who can tell how much cultural wealth has been sup¬pressed and wasted by the mere existence of this Western hegemony?
Reoriented (or re-Oriented), Israel could discover its true vocation as a nation simultaneously Mediterranean and modern. The Israel of tomorrow, finally at one with its environment and with its neighbors, will be able to pon¬der the virtues of the Mediterranean, instead of a cultural identity saturated with myth, ideology, and memories of other places to the point of abstraction.

This is an abridged version of an article which appeared, in French, in the Journal of Mediterranean Studies, Vol. 4, No.2, 1994.