Memoir as Utopia

From personal recollections to the dream of a secular Israeli commonwealth

Memoir has existed for more than a millennium and a half—Augustine completed his Confessions at around 400 AD—but during the past two or three decades, the number of titles has exploded and, in its present form, the genre is distinctly different from what is generally referred to as autobiography. While numerous talented memoirists have produced masterpieces of the genre, for the most part memoir allows the author far more leeway than autobiography in pontificating, even bloviating, freeing him or her from the constraint of literal factuality. Tell a good story about your life, regardless of its truthfulness, and you have got a pretty good memoir. Or so the prevailing logic goes. Witness David Berlin’s The Moral Lives of Israelis: Reinventing the Dream State.

Berlin narrates his family’s move from Israel to Canada in 1953, when he was a small boy, as a result, he says, of conflicts among his burgeoning relatives. His mother told him that “had we not had you, we would never have left the country.” Berlin (and his mother) returned to Israel in 1970. He volunteered to serve in a combat unit and then in 1978 once again left Israel for Canada. Berlin uses this family context as a lens through which he looks critically at, and gives us his opinion on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of the ultra-orthodox and some parts of Israel’s political and military systems. He bases his point of view on the specific individuals he happened to talk to and on what he presents as his personal experiences, imparting a narrow, miniaturist view of his topic.

The detail Berlin sometimes supplies overwhelms the reader nearly to the point of fatigue. The manner in which he describes his family and the condescension he expresses in chronicling relationships among its members, especially with his parents, leaves the reader with the impression that his family is dysfunctional, yet it is also one whose members occasionally help and care for one another. But why do we have to know exactly who said what to whom, when and where? He portrays his relationship with his father, as well as the paternal character and actions, as problematic. His description of his father’s death highlights their strained and painful relationship. In his account of his mother’s death, we learn, among other things, that the author believes that she tried to poison him with her wretched cooking, not to mention that she tried to cut him out of her will. Is Berlin trying to justify his own character and behaviour by invoking his peculiar family provenance? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Strange that we do not learn much about the author’s reactions to his attendance at a religious school, the circumstances under which he met Yael (a former girlfriend) and how exactly they separated (after she wrecked his car and was injured), how he met his wife, why he refers to his childhood as “ridiculous,” what led him to attend Tel Aviv University, his unusual academic curriculum—political philosophy, economics, medicine, art and law—and where his studies took him.

A memoir expresses both the specialness of an author and the manner in which he or she evinces commonalities with all humanity. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes dramatizes his triumph over a childhood wracked by wretched, almost grotesque poverty; Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club chronicles the lives of the members of an unconventional, wilful family in a swampy, narrow, conformist East Texas community; Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle narrates the tale of a child and her siblings’ survival of dysfunctional, destructive, chaotic and neglectful parents. What is special about Berlin’s memoir? How do its particulars unite us with the human race? True, he tells a story that is unique and singular but, unfortunately, one that is only moderately interesting. There is nothing really revelatory about this writer’s life. And his views on Israel, although more interesting and provocative, are sometimes inaccurate and simplistic.

Berlin complains that in 1969 “there was … not a single decent snooker table, not a single … movie theater in all the land.” It is unclear how he knew all that when he claims to have returned to Israel only in 1970. Between 1962 and 1966 I remember at least nine movie theatres in Jerusalem alone (the Edison, the Eden, the Orion, for example), most of them very decent. At that time at least one snooker club existed in downtown Jerusalem. In 1975 Hagiga B’Snooker (“Celebration in the Snooker”), Boaz Davidson’s famous Israeli cult movie, was released. I am not persuaded that no decent snooker clubs existed in 1969 Israel.

In an offhand parallel clearly designed to shock, Berlin notes that in 1973 the Israeli law of return enshrined a new definition of Jew that he claims said “a Jew was more or less what the Nuremberg laws had said a Jew was,” ignoring the profound differences in content, purpose and context. This shallow and evasive comparison misses entirely the bitter and prolonged debates in Israel (involving the Supreme Court) about who is a Jew, the various suggestions, the political and legal solutions, and the yet unsolved dilemma of whether Israel is a Jewish state or a state of the Jews.

Berlin’s comparison between the Third Reich and certain aspects of Israel, which appears repeatedly in the text, implies strong congruencies between them. For example, he compares his military basic training to life in a Nazi concentration camp. He tells of participating in a 2003 NDP-led Canadian delegation to Israel and recounts its meeting with an official named Ari, whom he describes as a physical and psychological stereotype of the quintessential Nazi, “coldly handsome” with “subzero blue eyes.” At the end of the meeting, former member of Parliament David MacDonald tells Berlin “this Ari fellow seemed more like a Nazi than anyone I have ever met.” Later in the visit they meet Major Daniel Beaudoin of the Israel Defence Forces and Berlin writes that “his boots are as brilliantly polished as his scalp, and there is the slight scent of the mercenary about him,” noting that “Beaudoin struck me as a man made of the same mould as Ari.” Moreover, he describes confronting Beaudoin directly and comparing, in a sophisticated manner, the Nazi occupation of Europe to the Israeli occupation of the territories. Berlin tells Beaudoin that what he has said about the territories is like what Adolf Eichmann once told a Jewish diplomat, implying lies, deceit and manipulations with the main goal—in the case of Eichmann—to cloak a massive genocidal effort by the Nazis. This confrontation caused some turmoil among both Israeli hosts and Canadian delegates, with Alexa McDonough apparently defending Berlin by saying he had not compared the Israelis with the Nazis. The question remains, though: of all the possible ways to challenge Beaudoin’s report about what was taking place in the occupied territories, why did Berlin choose to invoke Nazi Germany?

Berlin seems to accept his father’s belief that the ultra-orthodox (Haredim) hated everything the secular “new Jews” (Sabras) stood for, that they refused to believe that the Zionist movement had replaced the Messiah, some of them even refusing to recognize the state of Israel. Actually, the Zionist movement itself never pretended to replace the Messiah. Ultra-orthodoxy was—and still is—a countercultural movement to modernity. Haredim oppose Reform and Conservative Judaism as well as secularism. The Haredi view of Israel is complex: the extreme factions do not miss an opportunity to delegitimize Israel; others accept the reality of Israel as a pragmatic fact and some others—mostly Sephardic Haredim originally from the Arab lands—have little difficulty accepting the state. All this complexity escapes Berlin. While Berlin claims that the reason Ben-Gurion gave the Haredim certain concessions (such as exemption from military service) is a mystery, he hints that this might have been the result of a Haredi threat to “blackmail” the pre-1948 Zionist community by requesting a United Nations investigation into the willingness of Palestine-based Jews to have a country. This, of course, explains nothing because when Ben-Gurion was prime minister, the state already existed. There is no mystery why Ben-Gurion made concessions if one remembers the situation in 1948. Most European Jews were massacred by the Nazis and Ben-Gurion must have viewed favourably the appeal of ultra-orthodox rabbis to help re-establish and preserve ultra–orthodoxy as part of Jewish culture. As a secular leader Ben-Gurion probably also thought that, given the devastation in Europe, attempts to revive ultra-orthodoxy were doomed anyway. He was wrong.

Berlin suggests that the founders of Israel should have established “not a Jewish state but a secular commonwealth, which would have … kept the Orthodox religious community from overwhelming the state and undermining the entire Zionist project.” This fantasy does not take into account several issues. One is the rise of Arab nationalism and religious fundamentalism and its resistance to a non-Arab (or Islamic) state in the Middle East. Two, the European demographic reservoir of potential Jewish immigrants to Israel was wiped out by the Nazis. North American Jews have not immigrated in large numbers to Israel. Instead, Israel absorbed Jewish immigrants from Sephardi countries that were inclined more favourably toward Jewish tradition than to secularism. Three, the birth rate among orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews is higher than the secular sector. Thus, while the idea of a secular commonwealth may sound appealing, it is unrealistic.

Berlin echoes uncritically his father’s oversimplified and difficult-to-believe view that the “continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza … was all about the rivalry between two big-name Sabras: … Moshe Dayan and … Ariel Sharon.” History teaches us that the continuation of this occupation has complex economic, religious, ideological, security, social and geographical roots rather than a simple rivalry between two macho generals.

Berlin does not seem to miss opportunities to bash Israel or Israelis, including, in addition to his repeatedly invoking Nazism in the context of referring to certain Israeli institutions and practices, Israelis who loot in the middle of a war; a claim that Israeli education is characterized by “core racism”; his description of the 2003 trip to Israel (and the region) as a “descent into hell”; the Israeli hospital in which his father dies where doors are scuffed, walls are chipped and scratched, and the floor shines “only when yesterday’s soup has dried on it”; and the physician who treated his mother’s terminal illness presented as a disgusting and unfeeling person.

Berlin’s possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggests temporary arrangements achieved via an interim agreement. The main problem with this old idea is that if the Israelis and Palestinians cannot agree on how this conflict is supposed to end, an interim solution may give an opportunity for both sides to take steps that will make the end of the conflict something only the Messiah can bring about. Thus, years of non-solution have created a massive Israeli settlement project out of lands captured from Jordan, Syria and Egypt in 1967, have solidified Palestinian animosity and hatred toward Israel and vice versa, and have helped bring into being a delegitimizing campaign against Israel and got the two sides into some nasty and brutish exchanges of violence, not to mention plunging them into a particularly pessimistic mood. The existence of the settlements also means that this interest group exerts demographic, ideological and political pressures that may drive an interim agreement into a difficult corner.

In the final chapter, The Moral Lives of Israelis looks again at the religious element, focusing on one of the extreme factions of the Haredi community—Neturei Karta—within the more general context of the state-religion relationships and conflicts in Israel. While this issue has attracted large volumes of research, views and debates, Berlin chooses to spotlight some articles by Nehemia Shtrasler, the economic commentator of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism by Yakov Rabkin, a relatively less known work. This narrow concentration frames the issue in a curious way. Early on Berlin notes that some religious elements plan to take over Israel. The fact is that in a democratic country it is legitimate for a particular group to want to lead the country according to its principles. The problem in Israel is that the country has no constitution and no well-established democratic tradition. An extreme religious (or ideological) group may treat the democratic process like toilet paper: to be used only once. In this regard, I believe that Berlin’s concern is justified. Still, the religious-secular conflict raises some serious questions about the nature of Israel’s identity as a state: What type or types of Judaism should the state adopt? How would non-Jews be treated in this state? Should Israel be a state of all its citizens, Jews or not? Should it practise more socialism or more capitalism? What should its geographical borders be? The probability that all ultra-orthodox would agree to a secular Jewish state is either zero or very close to it. However, some may accept it as a pragmatic fact and try to get the best out of it. Haredi Knesset members are among the fiercest objectors to the creation of a constitution for Israel. Many of them claim that the Torah is Israel’s constitution. Berlin’s idea is that a secular Jewish state for all its citizens will probably appeal to Israel’s Arab citizens, but it will not appeal to very many ultra-orthodox and many in the Israeli political right. Comparing Israel to New York City, where many Jews and non-Jews live, is an unpersuasive analogy because the context and framing are too radically different.

Berlin’s book may attract readers interested in a personal and a critical view of Israel. While it indeed provides this canopy lavishly, it also focuses on aspects of Israel’s military, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and limited parts of the religious-secular conflict. The book’s title directs readers to the moral lives of Israelis. However, Berlin’s “moral lives” are delimited by his own, by those of his intimate and extended family, and by some of Israel’s political aspects. Unfortunately, he misses the moral lives of Israelis as expressed by the country’s various novelists, poets, artists, cinema, theatre, architecture, food, universities, songs, music, sport and fashion—in short, its rich culture, ethnic mosaic, various traditions and more. Moreover, secular Judaism encompasses a variety of moralities, not just one. Indeed, Berlin could benefit from reading David Biale’s impressive Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought. The relatively narrow focus of Berlin’s work sheds a feeble and distorted light on the moral lives of Israelis, creating a one-sided view and only a partial understanding of Israeli realities.