national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Browsing History: Nostalgia and Immigrant Angst

Hadas Binyamini  • 
Oberlin College

I recently realized that whenever I want to express anything real, I always imagine two giant, striped, plastic Men of Straw, looming above me. One Strawman politely, passive-aggressively, asks me to shut up, to silence my oppressive voice. To neutralize my history and make space for marginalized narratives. My grandparents’ experience got too much airtime already, and now it’s just an annoying horn, a passé excuse for the occupation. No one buys it anymore, this sentimentalized victimization of the Jewish people.

During my sophomore year in college, deep into my Middle East minor, I was shocked by the hairy underbelly of Israeli politics and the Israeli military occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even though I was morally against taking classes about Western societies, I had to take a European history course to fulfill the history major’s geographic distribution requirement. I enrolled in Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in Eurasia. Since a traumatic witnessing of a survivor’s testimony when I was in fifth grade and still lived in Israel, I had defiantly avoided being exposed to anything Holocaust-related. But pleased by the “–asia” part of the class and fueled by moral-righteousness, I decided to take the class.

The first Man of Straw was born out of two comments made in this class. A student complained that one of the reasons we know and hear so much about the Holocaust is the American Jewish lobby. At the time, I was infuriated and devastated; the comment still makes my stomach turn. The second comment happened in a different meeting, in which the class discussed the ethics of hearing persecutors’ testimonies. In an act that I was soon to regret, I contextualized a comment I made on the topic by relating it to my familiarity with Israeli perceptions of victimhood and oppression. I can’t even remember what I said. I have since learned that in the U.S., talking about yourself can be perceived as rude and self-absorbed—not as an acknowledgement of your biases or as a way to relate larger themes to specifics, as I had intended. The same critic of the all-powerful Jewish American lobby responded that if they were to hear about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, they would not want to hear from an Israeli, only from a Palestinian.

Calm down; be quiet—the first Strawman tells me. The Holocaust entertainment industry won’t fool us. Israel is a colonialist, imperialist, capitalist, chauvinistic, militaristic, scheming, violent, schizophrenic country. Apologize for associating with it, or step off the stage.

The second Strawman is disappointed in me. Actually, it’s a straw-woman. She claims I have become a caricature, a stereotype, yelling words whose meanings I don’t understand, making accusations and allegations regarding things I only read about. I’m not surprised, she says, that you could be ashamed, that you assimilated, that you forgot who you are and overcompensated by talking about “Zionist hegemony,” “ethnocracy,” and the “moral decay of the Jewish state.” You have not learned from history—but I know how it goes. And the amnesia, brought on by humiliation and loneliness, will take its course. We can’t blame you for choosing this path, but don’t expect us not to comment on your foolishness, on the brainwashing of radical bourgeois “peace loving” propaganda.

As I write this, I try to escape from the Strawmen’s menacing, clashing shadows.

 

Marianne Hirsch, in The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust, examines the relationship of the children of survivors—the second, or postmemorial, generation—to “the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before—to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.” In the late 1980s and early 90s, technological and political developments increased the number of Holocaust memorial sites, remembrance ceremonies, movies, museums, and television series, and altered remembrance practices. Soviet archives opened up, and the invention and popularization of the internet enabled people to write more rigorous public and social histories.

The postmemorial generation that Hirsch describes is my parents’ generation—the generation that created the world of Holocaust representations that we were born into; the world of museums, memorials, textbooks, films, documentaries, and other media that my “third generation” in turn receives and interacts with. These representations of trauma are inextricably tied to representations of salvation with the establishment of the State of Israel, and to the preservation of familial history.

Hirsch’s analysis implies that distance from trauma is experienced through familial relationships. The familial relationship that transfers trauma parallels the relationship of recycling the archival image. The “original” or “first” image survives, then is recycled by the second generation in museum exhibits and memorial artworks, and then is recycled again by the third generation in homework assignments, documentary films, and pasting Google images and scanned family photographs into Word documents.

For now, I escape the Strawmen and backwardly trace their recycled memories, peeling back intertwined layers of historical myths in an attempt to find bone and flesh under their plastic.

 

Naïvely, I tried to physically go back.

Since moving to California when I was thirteen, I had strongly identified as Israeli. Even though I lived in the U.S., I was not “American.” I visited Israel every year, read Hebrew books, participated in an Israeli youth group, only had Israeli friends, only listened to Israeli music, went to Israeli music shows, and took classes in preparation for the Israeli high school graduation exams. I learned to project my social anxieties and failures on inherent differences between “Israelis” and “Americans.” At the age of sixteen, we Israeli teens understood—unlike our American peers—the meaning of real sacrifice, friendship, and community. We were ironic and sophisticated. Instead of smoking weed and pursuing individualistic passions, we would work together for our local Israeli community.

In youth group, we were all completely enchanted by the Zionist rituals of memorializations, particularly the annual ceremony in remembrance of fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks. The ceremony, a massive event for the Israeli community of the Bay Area, was a testament to what we felt to be the miracle and ongoing sacrifices of the Jewish state and to the extensive mini-nation-state of self-identifying Israelis and Zionists in the U.S. The makeup of this nation-state consisted mostly of families who had immigrated for economic reasons, many for university jobs or the opportunities afforded by the high-technology industry of the Silicon Valley.

I loved that sad ceremony most of all the nationalistic rituals. I loved the melancholic and nostalgic melodies. The celebration of eternally martyred youth. The uniform. The solidarity and common purpose. The intimacy of synchronized mourning.

But during junior year of high school, I instinctually realized I didn’t want to return to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), though I couldn’t eloquently express the motivations for my decision. I didn’t decide to go to college because of any ideological qualms with the IDF. I didn’t know much about current affairs, nor did I care about the news beyond being able to play devil’s advocate in smart boys’ pseudo-political arguments. The occupation certainly never crossed my mind as a reason not to serve.

My decision not to join the IDF was one of those seemingly inconsequential contradictions in personality that in retrospect was a bigger part of who I am than I realized at the time. My community assumed I would return to Israel, as my sister and most of my friends had done. My friends’ parents warned me about becoming Americanized if I didn’t return, especially at a hippie private school. But I didn’t understand their words.

By staying in the U.S., I had declared that I would rather drink, bike, hypothetically discuss violence, maybe even sweat a little for “institutional change” instead of “humbling myself in serving the higher cause of defending the Jewish state.” In staying, I explicitly and publicly let go of any pretensions I had to authentic Israeliness. By rejecting serving the IDF, I was saying that I didn’t care—I didn’t want to serve my country, didn’t want to pay my dues to the community that granted me meaning in life, didn’t want to do my part to maintain the constantly threatened Jewish state. I was selfish. Americanized. Immature. Shallow.

I got through the first semester at Oberlin, my American liberal arts college, while most of my closest friends moved back to Israel to live together in a Kibbutz and begin their service with the Israel Defense Forces. My first semester was the longest time I had spent without speaking Hebrew or having peers with similar immigration experiences.

While my time at college exposed me to the ugly and murderous potentials of nationalism, I still found myself clicking through my friends’ Facebook albums, documenting their transformations into soldiers with cigarettes, dressed in handsome olive-green uniforms. Every digital witnessing of my friends’ time in Israel provoked a painful longing that revealed the intimate ways in which my childhood and teen experience of Zionism had shaped my identity.

For winter term, my college boyfriend and I decided to go to Israel together. But from the moment we conceived of traveling to Israel, I was already defensive, coming up with answers to hypothetical questions from accusing compatriots. “Why did you choose diaspora over home?!”

Once in Israel, not yet having the words or the knowledge to explain my decisions, I let strangers make assumptions based on my boyfriend’s non-Israeli appearance. In cabs and pubs, in the museums and national sites, I spoke in English or not at all. No one ever asked, but I was prepared with a mask at all times. I had returned home to Israel in the costume of a foreigner. I had given up, I was defeated; I pretended to have just one neat and digestible identity.

Pretending I was American in Israel: That failed return forced me to accept the reality of my hyphenated identity. I didn’t have enough nuances of speech, or common childhood memories to have “cultural intimacy.” The only people I felt “rooted” with were other bilinguals, immigrants, strangers. I had to accept the warning of my friends’ parents. My Hebrew weakened. I read more slowly. I wasn’t keeping up with new Israeli music and slang.

Even worse, in the U.S. I apologized for being Israeli. My mark of exclusion from Israel—not serving in the IDF—had become the key for my inclusion in political conversation at college. Through silence, I let beautiful activists assume that I didn’t join the IDF for ideological reasons, lending me more progressive legitimacy. “Ya, I’m Israeli.” “No, I don’t support a legacy of American-financed-Israeli illegal occupation of Palestine.” “Well, I didn’t serve, so—”

Viscerally, politically, morally, I was ashamed of becoming American, and ashamed of the Occupation.

“Where are you from?” I hate that question; I am scared of that question. I am a cartoon, wingéd fury; but the VCR broke, and now it’s skipping, rendering me always at the verge of unleashing my immigrant angst. I get angry with well-meaning and polite strangers. At Oberlin, I sometimes allow myself to be rude: “What do you mean, ‘Where are you from?!!?’ Do you mean where my accent is from, or where I was born? Or where my parents live?” “No, like, where you grew up,” they reply.

That answer reveals that we like to give the passage of time a single physical space. When we ask, “Where are you from?” we’re actually asking, “Who are you today? Who were you before this moment? Which experiences shaped you?” To make sense of the human experience of continual change, we group time into real, existing locations. But I grew up in a transition between spaces, between social norms and unspoken expectations. My “from” can only be located in the transition, passage, in-between.

 

In the seventh grade of Israeli public schools, everyone has to complete a “roots project” about family history. It’s a year-long, serious assignment. I assume, in theory and in practice, it’s supposed to make each student’s relationship to Israel more concrete. Why did your grandparents come to Israel? From where? How old were they? What did they do? Which youth group were they in? What war did they fight in? How did they contribute to making Israel what it is today? Such a project concretely links personal history to communal history, and aligns history with political space. Through discovering the specifics of your family, of your intimate circle, you discover your relationship to the Israeli whole.

I moved to the U.S. at the end of sixth grade, so I never got to do the project, but my older sister did. When I was younger, I searched through her room and sometimes I would go through her “roots project.” If I were really bored, after exhausting all her photo albums, I’d go through my parents’ old pictures, smooth black-and-white photos from their teens in the 1970s. During these frantic searches for images of something, my mind would go into a sort of trance—marathon of binge-drinking nostalgia, trying to satisfy an insatiable desire for rootedness.

My sister’s “roots” binder gave me a skeleton for my family’s history. As I continued my studies, I would read my family into every history class or article. My parents’ and grandparents’ lives mixed in my mind. Echoes of family conversations I wasn’t actually listening to. Anecdotes with distorted meaning melted into TV documentaries and high school textbooks. I felt guilty for not paying attention to the lived experience of history around me while growing up in Israel. I was left with a fetishized, eclectic narrative of my family and national past.

My time at Oberlin, and involvement in JStreetU, a student movement advocating for Jewish and Palestinian rights to sovereignty, added more images to the chaos of my familial memory. Visceral third-generation memories now smoothly and quietly merged with my witnessing of fragments of a Palestinian national narrative of dispossession, exile, and dreams of homecoming.

 

I too, am someone’s Strawman. My experience is silenced, generalized, or distorted to make a political point, an anecdote for someone’s polemics.

Apologia in the form of an ethical question for young armchair philosophers about cultural appropriation and allyship: How should I experience a Palestinian dream for national return?

I don’t yet know how to dream another’s longing.

The ideal I posit for empathy with another’s historical memory is based on the deep, visceral shock of semblance. I can only imagine the terror of another’s historical trauma through analogies. I can only reach empathy by temporarily emptying a picture of a checkpoint of its contemporary meaning, filling it instead with my familial anxieties and diasporic, nostalgic dreams.