Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Apropos going back to where you came from

When you have a chance and you find yourself in Madrid, take the train to nearby Toledo, a former imperial city and capital of Castile-La Mancha, a UNESCO designated world heritage site and a medieval town famed for its swords and a particular kind of marzipan. It is also famed for its pre-expulsion co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, though the manner in which Judeo and Morisco heritages have been Christianized is perhaps even more poignant and an object lesson in more or less benign forms of Christian supersessionism. (A long story in its own right.)

When you get to the Sinagoga del Tránsito (so named for the "transit" of the Holy Virgin), a stunning piece of medieval architecture, don't fail to spend time at the Sephardic heritage museum housed in the former women's gallery of the original synagogue where you can see a documentary from the 1920's where someone went around the Mediterranean (mostly the Balkans) to document the plight, poverty and cultural achievements of the Sephardic diaspora with the aim of persuading these Jewish communities to pack up and return--to Sepharad!
Sinagoga del Tránsito, Toledo (Spain)

Detail from the Women's Gallery of the Sinagoga del Tránsito

This little-known initiative, pre-dating the rise of Nazism but contemporary with modern Zionism, though quirky and of little real impact, nevertheless struck me as quite powerful. It brought home in a manner unmatched by history books or wikipedia the distinctly Sephardic heritage of Jews who had migrated with the Romans, who had settled in Visigothic and Umayyad Spain, and who contributed to the vibrancy of a multi-cultural, multi-religious, perhaps typically mediterranean society (if one is still allowed to use this term). And even after that relatively golden age came to a repressive and violent end through expulsion, forced conversion and inquisition, Sephardic culture continued to maintain its distinctive characteristics (including its languages) in the Ottoman realm and its heirs, especially across the patchwork of south-eastern European countries. (Think: Sarajevo or Saloniki.) Can these Jews go back to where they came from?

Hardly. Part of the sadness of the twentieth century is the realization that one cannot go home again. Part of the promise of the twenty-first century is that home is where (and what) we want it to be.

The Jews are tempted to regard the Land of Israel as their ancestral homeland. They are so tempted because, in some sense, it is. But the Land of Israel is also, of course, the homeland of the Palestinians. It *is* Palestine as much as it *is* the Land of Israel. That's because the land as such is just land, but it *is* ontologically and for us what it means to us, what we associate with it. It is Land of Israel or Palestine because of our memories and attachments, because of our pasts. Two very different sets of memories (and then some) are attached to the same patch of land. To imagine that we can go back home means to imagine that we can make the land of today into the land of the past, that we can merge reality and imagination. Part of the quarrel that is internal to the Zionist movement or what has become of it is the question of the role of land in the Zionist imagination of the past as compared to the role of the land in the Zionist imagination of the present. This quarrel is to some extent as old as Zionism itself, though it was repressed by Herzl in the interest of other pragmatic goals. From the beginning there were those who argued for Zionism as an answer to the plight of the Jews (the Sephardic project documented in El Transito being an alternative answer) and others who believed that an answer to this plight could only be found in the ancient homeland.

But history can be misleading. Revisiting the quarrels of the past raises the false hope that we can renegotiate the past. The Land of Israel, not in its completeness but in part, has been redeemed, a state has been created, society and economy exist and thrive. It turns out that this society is more mixed, less unambiguously Jewish, and more complexly Israeli than one may have imagined or wished for. That's because time does not stop and history is unpredictable, because people act in unforeseen ways. We can't even go home to the Israel of the 1950s or 60s any longer, a time that in hindsight looks like a period of innocence. Israel's muscular society came at a price. The redemption of the land came at the cost of the partition of Palestine, the flight and expulsion of over half a million of its population, and the harassment, indignity, and administrative erosion of Arab life in what remains of historic Palestine. But we can work for a future that is sufficiently capacious for everyone. Let's start by imagining Jerusalem not as a site of biblical phantasy but as a New Toledo, a place of a plurality of societies, without supersession and expulsion. It's worth a try.

No comments:

Post a Comment