Joel Schalit, Secular Marxist and Punk Rock Intellectual, Discusses Jerusalem Calling

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For Joel Schalit's eighth birthday, Yitzak Rabin gave him a model of an F-4 Phantom jet. This was in a Moroccan restaurant in the Old City of Jerusalem, in 1976. "I sat quietly," Schalit writes, "staring at my couscous, thinking, Rabin gave me a Phantom jet, Rabin gave me a Phantom jet..."

As the American-born son of an Israeli patriot, Schalit had been fully inculcated in Israel's warrior culture.

As a kid he was fascinated with, and deeply knowledgeable of, military hardware and affairs. His father and his father's friends, high-ranking political and military men, proudly looked forward to the day when young Joel, like his older brother, would do his part in what they envisioned would be Israel's unending wars with its Arab neighbors. As a boy Schalit bought into that vision, not least as a way to please his dad.

Now in his mid-30s, a secular Marxist and punk rock intellectual who's lived in Israel, the U.S. and Europe, Schalit tells me he has come to see that warrior mindset as "a neurotic need for a permanent state of war, because that's all the country has ever known." He never did service in the Israeli military, and can be viewed as something of a draft dodger when he visits there. He describes his views of and experiences in Israel in his new book, Jerusalem Calling (Akashic, 216 pages, $14.95).

I met Schalit and we did a reading together when I was in San Francisco last summer. He's a slight, shaved-headed, soft-spoken guy with a merry laugh that belies a deeply contemplative nature. He's an editor at both the lefty-intellectual journal Bad Subjects (he coedited NYU Press' 1997 Bad Subjects anthology) and Punk Planet. (NB: He was instrumental in having my last book reviewed in both.) He was also a founding member of the Christal Methodists, who phone-pranked Christian radio talk shows and recorded the results, and a new group, the Elders of Zion, whose first CD, Dawn Refuses to Rise (Incidental Music), disturbingly layers radio fragments and other field recordings over electronics and heavy beats.

The topics in Jerusalem Calling range from Schalit's days as one of the few Jews in an Oregon prep school to his involvement in?and eventual disenchantment with?the Northwest punk scene to his political education as a dedicated Frankfurt School Marxist.

It's his complex personal relationship with Israel I found most interesting. His father was born in Jerusalem, his mother (now deceased) was American. A great-grandfather, Eleazar Elhanan Schalit, was a pioneering Zionist whose home in Rishon Le Zion, Bet Schalit ("Schalit's House"), is now a museum. A grandfather, Israel Brody, "was an active philanthropist, and involved in setting up a potash concern by the Dead Sea," Schalit tells me. His father was raised in Palestine until his teens, when he went to Texas A&M for a couple of years of education and military training. He joined the Canadian Air Force during World War II. Back in the U.S. after the war, he procured and transported weapons for the Haganah during Israel's war of independence?activities that got him into some trouble here.

Schalit was born in Norwalk, CT. His mother "had insisted that all the kids be born in the States, so that we had the option of not serving in the army in Israel," he says. "She was very wise about that, I think. Though it didn't alleviate any of our problems with the army as we got older." During much of Schalit's childhood, his father lived and worked in Genoa, where the family would visit him for a few months each year, with frequent side-trips to Israel. In '75, when Schalit's mother died, Schalit went to live with his father in Italy, and later in London, and for a few years in Israel.

Asked what it was like to be an eight-year-old American kid living in Israel, he tells me, "I think I viewed the experience largely from the perspective of someone who just suffered an enormous loss. And so, even though I'd traveled to Israel prior to my mother's death and spent time there as a child, her passing made it an incredibly new and unique experience for me. Particularly because Israel's a victims culture. And regardless of how most progressives characterize Israel as being fairly merciless today, both in terms of inter-Jewish relations and in terms of Jewish-Arab relations, this was still a period in which there was a very strong civic ethos of welcoming everybody, because everybody was a victim of the Diaspora? It was very warm and welcoming to me, and it really blew me away. I think it was part of what allowed me to have a classic postwar Jewish immigrant experience to Israel. And allowed me to identify very quickly as an Israeli?to go from being Jewish to an Israeli."

Although he remained fascinated with Israel's affairs, Schalit's lived solely in the U.S. since 1980 and didn't return to Israel until 1994. He's been back to visit his father there several times since, most recently just after the outbreak of the second Intifada in the fall of 2000. He describes an Israel that has come to look more like a West Coast shopping-malls-and-fast-food culture than the heroic, hard-scrabbling communard land he remembers as a kid. (The kibbutz nearest his dad's home is now best known for its collectively owned McDonald's franchise.)

I ask him about the vast differences he sees between the Israel of his childhood and the country he visits today.

"Obviously I think the understanding I had of Israel as a child was one built around Zionist mythology," he replies. "It was very uncritical. The view of Israel that I had as a child was one that was very multiculturalist and bought into all the colonial narratives, uncritically. The one I have now is of a far more sober adult understanding of the country, which I'd like to think?unlike a lot of traditional Western leftist views of Israel?understands Israel for all of its complexities both politically and culturally?as both a colonialist entity and a post-Socialist market-driven immigrant society in the middle of the Middle East. It's hard not to look at Israel today as being an incredibly complex tragedy. I think Westerners who condemn Zionism so quickly should understand that it was inevitable that a Zionist state came into being. People forget that America refused enormous amounts of Jewish immigrants to this country, both prior to and during the war. Israel happened because the West willed it to happen, since it was unwilling to do anything on behalf of the Jewish people in Europe under Hitler."

And yet, I say, you do have real problems with it.

"Oh, I have terrible problems with it," he agrees. "I'm appalled by the degree to which the Arab-Israeli conflict has been exacerbated by nationalist and territorial expansionism. I honestly think that the Intifada could have been avoided. I honestly believe that there have been many opportunities to conclude a final settlement, which the Israelis have gone out of their way to avoid. I see it as being partly pathological. I think there's a neurotic need for a permanent state of war, because that's all the country has ever known. I don't think it's a question of being a debate over real estate. I think it's a deep psychological problem on the part of the Israeli mindset."

What about the argument that were Israel not to defend itself as well as it does, its neighbors would swallow it up in no time at all? Syria wouldn't invade in 10 seconds if Israel let down its guard?

"Oh, I think the Syrians would, but I think that it's important to understand that the number of enemies that Israel has has radically diminished during the 1990s. The military problems that remained during the Oslo period were with Syria and Iran. The Iraqis were destroyed by the Americans?their military capability will never recover. By the mid-1990s Israel already had peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. So the notion that Israel is living in a sea of Arab hatred is a convenient myth that would have to be radically adjusted in order to understand the true realities on the ground. Unfortunately, I think that Israeli conduct in Lebanon during the occupation, and the way that the Palestinians were treated starting with the post-'93 Oslo period, contributed to a reconstruction of old forms of Arab hostility toward Israel. Particularly the introduction of closures as punishment for suicide practices. The exercise of collective punishment, though not without precedent in the 70s and 80s, was very much a unique 90s thing, and helped contribute to the remarkable hostility and total lack of faith on the part of the Palestinians in the Israelis being able to conclude a just peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority."

So now we're a year-plus into the second Intifada. Arafat has been completely rejected as a dealmaker by the Israelis. It sounds like they're massing for some sort of rather large occupation of Palestinian land.

"No, I don't think they're doing that," Schalit replies. "Knowing Sharon's mindset and knowing what the Israeli military has been saying lately about the feasibility of a military solution to this problem, I don't think they wanna go in and reoccupy at this point... I think the consensus for continued use of military force and a desire for a reoccupation really stem from the mindset of the right-wing parliamentarians who constitute Sharon's cabinet. As well as Sharon himself."

Schalit doesn't have the highest opinion of Sharon, I take it.

"No, but I respect him," he says. "Intellectually, I think he's scary. I think one ought to respect how formidable a strategic thinker he is. Look how he survived this long. What is being considered now is Sharon's favorite idea?that there's no need for the creation of a Palestinian state because Jordan already is one. Unfortunately, there is some truth to that, but the way that the region was parceled up by the British has created a geographical situation where the Hashamite monarchy will always run that country and Jordan will always remain a national entity, regardless of the fact that some estimates run as high as 80 percent of the population being Palestinian.

"My sense is that the best-case scenario for Sharon would be to try some kind of cooperation agreement with the Jordanians for administration of the West Bank," he continues, "and either remain in control of Gaza indefinitely or engineer some kind of shared administrative agreement with the Egyptians. But the war cannot continue. The Israelis don't want it. The Palestinians obviously don't want it. It's ruining both countries right now. The most recent poverty figures coming out of Israel estimated 1.5 million Israelis live in poverty, out of a population of a little over 6 million. That's insane.

"The war also puts off dealing with very big social problems in the country. The church-state issue, the role of religion in Israeli public life. The proper absorption of immigrants, which of course will never stop. And all kinds of social justice issues. It's really frightening. And I think that the right [in Israel] prefers to maintain a constant state of conflict so that many of the potential changes that could've taken place in Israeli society in a postwar situation would not be effectively brought back to debate. Barak was introducing a number of these possibilities during his short term in office, regardless of what a moron he turned out to be... I think there was a very strong impetus toward eliminating the competing civil and religious legal systems in the country. In an ideal world, the secular legal system takes precedence over the religious legal system. The courts would be hegemonic over the rabbinate. Right now, the rabbinate has far too much political authority in the country on matters concerning things like family law and divorce. One of the nice things about the Oslo period was it seemed as though it might be possible to deal with these problems, in order to turn Israel into a truly secular Western democracy."

Schalit grudgingly admits that this, like many of his other Marxist-influenced dreams of a new world order distinctly contrary to the New World Order, is a fairly wan hope. But it's one he seems adamant about preserving.

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