In 1993, my grandfather left Ukraine and moved to Israel. Before he retired, he had been a very well-known doctor in our city. I remember how, as a child, I didn’t really like to take walks with him because we would be stopped every two minutes by grateful patients who wanted to thank him, hug him, or shake his hand.
My grandfather founded several hospitals in the city, which, in the Soviet era, required incredible organizational skills and perseverance. He started a health facility where women could give birth in the water and where little babies were provided with a special swimming-pool. Every time when he opened a new hospital, though, he would soon be removed from it. He was a Jew, so that was to be expected. He never complained but simply laughed and started a new hospital.
By 1993, he felt he had had enough of anti-Semitism and moved to Israel. Ten years later, he came back to Ukraine. Living in the environment of constant fear and terrorist threat proved too much for him.
As we all know, Israel was created in the aftermath of the Holocaust when Jews were slaughtered in an act of horrible genocide, as the rest of the world stood by and watched. The idea behind Israel was that if Jews had a country of their own, they could feel safer in an anti-Semitic world. I think that today we can conclude that, as of now, this goal has not been reached. There are few places in the world that are as dangerous for a Jew as Israel.
Creating a national identity for people who, initially, have very little in common always requires a lot of violence. (Look at the US as another example of this). In such circumstances, a peaceful creation of Israel was absolutely impossible. The sense of being a beleaguered nation surrounded with enemies is indispensable for the creation of a strong national identity when we are talking about people who came together from very different countries, cultures, linguistic backgrounds, etc.
Jewish diaspora was a great tragedy for the Jewish people but it was simultaneously the root of great achievements both for the Jews and for the countries to which they dispersed. It isn’t a coincidence that so many great thinkers, philosophers, writers and scientists were Jews. When you are placed in a position of being a perennial outsider in a society where you live, you end up seeing things clearly. It is easier to resist the accepted ideology from the margins than from the center. This clarity of vision came at a great price. I don’t need to narrate the history of Jewish suffering in the course of 2000 years because we all know it well enough.
In no way do I condemn the Jews who decided to move to Israel and create a country for themselves. However, I don’t see that plan as something I might be interested in. Nationalism, in my opinion, always takes away more than it gives. Since I don’t value the sense of belonging to a community and don’t seek to dilute my individuality in a group, nationalism has pretty much nothing to offer me. The path I have chosen is one of seeing how one can make a country where one lives less anti-Semitic. When I tell my students about the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, I often see that they are really shaken. Granted, this is a small contribution on my part, but out of such small contributions, a sense of acceptance is born little by little.