Israel For Everyone

“I have no other country,” writes the Israeli Ehud Manor in a poem quoted by Nancy Pelosi before the U.S. Congress. “There is no Israel for me” says the narrator of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission. Danny Trom proposes, from a combined analysis of these two statements, a distinction between several experiences of the political relationship to one’s own country: that of having only one country, that of having no other, and that of having an alternative, even if it is impractical. The question arises here: is not every citizen of his state in Europe now in a position to feel a Jewish experience?

 

Malevitch, Landscape with five houses, 1932, wikiart, 1932 wikiart

 

“I don’t recognize my country anymore” was the clamor heard everywhere, in the United States when Trump was elected in 2016, in France when Marine Le Pen reached the second round of the 2017 presidential election, in Great Britain when the 2016 referendum vote decided Brexit. And after January 6, 2021, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, urged the U.S. Congress to vote to impeach President Donald Trump for denying his defeat and inciting citizens to rebellion. She said, “Especially at this sad time, I am reminded of the words of the great Israeli poet Ehud Manor […] when he said, ‘I will not stay silent because my country changed her face. I will not give up reminding her and sing in her ears until she will open her eyes.”[1] The quote is from Manor’s poem “I Have No Other Country.”

Interior Exile

The poet in question, aggrandized for the occasion by Nancy Pelosi, is Ehud Manor, a songwriter and translator of Hebrew plays. A television personality, Manor is known to the Israeli public for, among other things, composing a song for peace entitled “Next Year” (bachana ha-ba’a) that every Israeli knows by heart, as well as the song that won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978. He actually wrote the poem “I Have No Other Country” in 1982, which, in the context of the movement against the First Lebanon War, was put into song and enjoyed considerable popular success. But Manor’s fame never spread beyond the borders of the State of Israel. The Israeli left mobilized the song to mourn the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, while the right exploited it to oppose the evacuation of the Gaza Strip in 2005. The text comes to the mind of the Israeli who laments that his country “has changed her face” in one way or another. And it is supposedly transposable to anyone who “has one country,” as evidenced by its enthusiastic appropriation by Nancy Pelosi.

Comments to the Jewish Telegraph Agency (here and here) from close advisors to Pelosi drew attention to the little story that led her to this quote. Invited in December 2016 to an annual meeting of Israeli and American political and national security leaders, the then Democratic minority leader in the U.S. House sat next to Isaac Herzog, her counterpart, the leader of the Labor Party and the opposition in the Knesset, the current president of the State of Israel. A discussion ensued about the election defeat – her fear of a Clinton defeat by Trump, Herzog’s defeat by Netanyahu a few months earlier. It was then that Pelosi scribbled for the record the few words on a napkin, “I have no other country,” that Herzog whispered to her. Later, she instructed one of her assistants to obtain the entire poem from Herzog. Herzog sent it to her in May 2017, telling her that the poem helps ease the pain of one who sees his country drifting dangerously off-course. Since then, Pelosi, thrilled, has quoted it often, right up to her speech before Congress. The circulation of the quotation from the Israeli space to the American space is visibly fluid.

This fluidity has to do with our shared critical tradition, as it has been consolidated in Europe. “True exile is not being torn from one’s country, it is living there and no longer finding anything that made one love it,” wrote Edgar Quinet when he left France after Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851. The real exile is thus interior, it proceeds from the feeling of being alienated from his own country, from the pain of not being able to love it anymore. Exile is internal in the sense that the distance does not affect the exclusive relationship with the country from which one has temporarily moved away. In short, in this critical tradition, there is no escape from one’s own country, even in the case of dislike.

Michel Houellebecq’s Submission has given this fate a remarkable expression. The narrator’s girlfriend informs him that she is leaving France for Israel. Later, she laconically tells him “I’ve met someone”, as a way of breaking up. Disappointed, the narrator comments: “someone” is always “someone other than me”; as if, absolutely insignificant, he is nobody. Here he is doubly abandoned: his girlfriend leaves him for somewhere, then for someone. Alone, the narrator laconically notes: “there is no Israel for me.”

Henri Matisse, Nu au bord de la mer, 1909, wikiart

Does this mean that Manor’s poem “I Have No Other Country” could have occurred to the narrator of Submission, had he known it? Certainly not, at least not in the sense that Nancy Pelosi meant it. For here, the narrator does not say that he has only one country but that he has no other, which changes everything. Of course, his country, France, also changes its face, but he, having been left by his girlfriend, finds himself confronted with an alternative; an alternative which, however, does not apply to him. Now, the critical tradition of European origin, from Edgar Quinet to Nancy Pelosi, does not pose any alternative: their country is theirs, whether it has changed its face or not. Or rather: even if it takes on a repulsive face, it remains theirs. Precisely, when it drifts, when it no longer resembles what it used to be, when it is no longer true to itself, when it no longer deserves the love it used to inspire, the critical tradition makes its diagnosis by remaining riveted to the only country one has, like a reality without escape.

The narrator of Submission sees his girlfriend leave, but he remains in place. In this stasis lies his affinity with Manor’s poem. For the Israeli Manor’s poem “I Have No Other Country” can only be understood if we place it in the context of the State of Israel, which has abolished the Jewish past, or at least has the ambition to do so. Manor tacitly evokes a previous experience: the experience of the Jews of Europe, structurally open to alternatives. Residing somewhere, in a country, even in one’s own country, was always, for them, equivalent to staying there. And “to remain” meant “to rest”, in the English sense of the term, which implies being on the way, and therefore not to leave, not to leave yet. The Jews traditionally formed, and for some still do, a guest-people, a Gastvolk, according to Max Weber’s expression, wherever they rest. They reside conditionally, so that they are also virtually on the move. With political modernity, with the emancipation of the Jews in Europe, this structure faded but remained latent, even for those Jews who became citizens of nation-states. Henceforth, they were deemed, like any nationalized individual, any citizen, to have only one country. With emancipation, the weight of the Jewish condition diminished, but without being completely erased, always revived by the doubt cast, from the outside, on the full and complete belonging of the Jews to their respective nations.

Not having or no longer having another country

The narrator of Submission, in order to reach his conclusion, had to come to think beforehand of the alternative, even if it is not feasible. This alternative is represented by his girlfriend who announces her departure. The alternative comes to his mind in the context of a distance that augurs a breakup. And it is this rupture that cracks this simple, direct relationship with his country, which, from then on, is not self-evident for him either. The narrator’s experience proves to be a common one, since the departure of Jews from France to Israel is now public knowledge, reported in the media.  So it turns out that the narrator of Submission is closer to Manor’s experience than to the one that fuels the European critical tradition. In any case, he exhumes the almost implicit dimension of Manor’s poem that escapes Nancy Pelosi. Abandoned, he expresses it with that detached nonchalance that nevertheless lets a difference show.

Oskar Schlemmer, Abstract Figure, 1921, wikiart

Remain: the Jewish experience makes immobility an option. In contrast, the European critical tradition conceives immobility as a destiny. Zionism, precisely, was intended to be a passage from one to the other: it worked to voluntarily and definitively close the alternative. From now on, the Jew, like everyone else, would have no other country, since he has his own. He would have no other than his own, the State for the Jews. Manor, the nationalized Jew in his state, is still surprised at what is happening to him: it is not only that he has no other country, but that he now has none other country. Now, no longer having another one, supposes that there persists the memory of the alternative. The Jewish condition is overcome, but the memory of the Jewish experience that prevailed previously is preserved. The state territorialization of the Jews then also affects their mental map. This is the meaning of Manor’s poetry, which the Israeli understands immediately, spontaneously. “I Have No Other Country” contains an experience of the alternative that is now out of reach in the state intended for the Jews, for better or for worse. This historical transformation being quite recent, it can still be experienced and expressed in the mode of astonishment. “I have no other country” means that there is no way back to the country one left when the alternative was operative, even if the Jewish state changes its face.

Nancy Pelosi’s “I have no other country” simply expresses the concern of one who laments the fact that her country is changing its face. It is not affected by a thought of the alternative. Herzog confirmed Pelosi in this superficial interpretation. Does this mean that he knew that the words he instilled in her contained a meaning that had no relevance to the Democratic House leader? Or did this meaning also escape him, so much so that this Sabra, a Labor member of parliament – son of the sixth president of the State of Israel and great-grandson of the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, and later of the State of Israel – is himself a product of the historical transformation designed to make the Jewish experience inaccessible? One can assume that Herzog, in the meantime elected President of the State, whispered the poem to Pelosi, knowing that the literal meaning of “I have no other country” would suffice for all practical purposes.

“There is no Israel for me

But the narrator of Submission, left by his girlfriend, proceeds from a lateral knowledge of this transformation of the Jewish experience. He sees his girlfriend leave. He sees her choose. He takes us away from the obvious meaning of the quotation. He is the spectator of a movement of secession. “There is no Israel for me”: this is the tragicomic way in which a difference, often imperceptible, which separates Jews and non-Jews in Europe, is expressed in the present situation. This difference in condition, this slight discrepancy, which distinguishes the Jew from his fellow citizens, long considered a residual injustice, suddenly appears as a privilege. Traditionally, Jews were deprived of the certainty of having no alternative. Exile is an uncomfortable condition. They were virtually always on the move. And the persistence of alternative thinking was correlated with the failures of emancipation. Now the non-Jew experiences being deprived of an alternative, in the mode of regret. In the crisis, he sees the Jew pushing on the lever of the alternative, but the latter does not apply to him. “There is no Israel for me”: this is the singular way in which European critical thought now relates to the Jews.

Wassily Kadinski, To the Unknow Voice, 1916, wikiart

This opens up a curious European dialectic. The alternative exists, it stands before the narrator of Submission, but it does not apply to him. The opening of a rift where to rush in is perceptible, but it is not practicable for whoever, or, to use the narrator’s words, for someone. Is this impossible possibility, the possibility of leaving, the legacy of the Jews to Europe? In a basic sense, it would be the other way around: the State of Israel, founded as a refuge for those Jews who fled Europe, stems from the crisis of the state in Europe. The State of Israel would then be rather an involuntary legacy, fortunate or unfortunate, according to opinion, of Europe to the Jews. But then, the condition of the Jews is assessed here only in its dimension of potential departure: with the birth of the state deemed to be destined for them, the Jews have a country to leave to – a country that will be theirs, without alternative, the Zionist doctrine asserts. Yet the narrator of Submission points to another possibility, that of staying. “Staying,” in the sense given here, is no longer a state of stasis. To ”remain,” in the sense given here, is no longer a state of stasis, but rather the sense of a hindered mobility. And it puts everyone, Jew and non-Jew, in motion. Either one is obliged to stay because one has no place to go. Or one chooses to stay, to remain in one’s country, with the clear awareness that this gesture implies the unfulfilled possibility of a departure.

“My country has changed her face,” associated with the clause “I have no other country,” transforms the condition of Europeans. Europe is not only potentially left, abandoned to itself. Europeans, Jews and non-Jews, now share a common condition, doubting that they have a single country. Europe is experiencing this shift from self to self, once reserved for the Jews. Christianity had spiritualized Jerusalem, it was drawn to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” and when secularization eviscerated heaven, Europe riveted itself to its land, to its country. The Jews of Europe kept their eyes on the worldly Jerusalem, which no secularization could empty, and this favored a thought of the virtual splitting of its destiny. The Jewish State is only the modern product of this, partially fortuitous, among other alternatives. By lamenting that there is no Israel for him, the narrator, disoriented, expresses a lack, which everyone now feels, the Jews since forever, the other Europeans since recently. The relative advantage of the Jews is that, by dint of experiencing it in an emergency, this lack has been institutionalized in the form of a state, which is intended for them alone.


Danny Trom

Notes

1 Nancy Pelosi quoting Ehud Manor to the US Congress:

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