The Mediterranean Identity of Israel

In the year 70 CE, with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire, the limited autonomy of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel came to an end. At that time, the Jews of the ancient world numbered between two and three million, a respectable proportion of the estimated total population of seventy million.

Francesco Cito, Israel, Jerusalem,1988

But not all those Jews were living in the Land of Israel. Beginning with the Babylonian Exile of the Sixth Century BCE, the Jews began to scatter throughout the Mediterranean basin, and north of it as well. By the First Century CE, half the Jewish people were living comfortably among various other nations, in lands including today’s Iraq, Asia Minor, the Greek Islands, Egypt, Libya, and other parts of North Africa. Jews also lived in Rome itself. After the destruction of the Temple, the Jews’ dispersion increased, but many were able to preserve their distinct identity, which consisted of both religion and nationality.

After the fall of Jerusalem and the loss of independence, the number of Jews in the world shrank steadily as they were dispersed among the nations. Since their religion was based on prayer and study, the Jews could migrate easily from place to place, taking their sacred texts with them. At the end of the first Millennium, about 90% of the Jews were living in Muslim lands, and only 10% in Christian lands. By the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the Fifteenth Century, the world Jewish population had declined to perhaps one million. Most still lived in the Muslim world, or in Christian countries of the Mediterranean basin – Italy, Greece, the south of France.

The big change came in the modern period, when Muslim civilization began to lag behind scientific, economic, and intellectual developments in the West. Accordingly, the center of Jewish life shifted to Europe, primarily Eastern Europe, where the Jewish population grew significantly. By the eve of World War Two, the demographics were reversed: of eighteen million Jews in the world, 90% lived in Christian countries, including the Americas, and only 10% in the Muslim world. During the Shoah, one-third of the world’s Jews were brutally murdered in the worst genocide in history. The killing was a result not of religious strife or territorial conflict, but of insane racial hatred, even though the Jews had never been a separate race. Luckily, some perceptive, morally sensitive European Jews, most of them completely secular in outlook, were able to foresee, half a century before the Holocaust, the terrible tragedy awaiting the Jews. These resourceful individuals left the future deathtrap of Europe and returned to the source of their identity on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, to reclaim their ancient ancestral homeland, their independence and sovereignty.

Thanks to them, in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, museums and memorials to dead Jews were not all that remained. The State of Israel, established in 1948, was able to offer refuge to survivors of the Holocaust, and today, seven decades later, six and a half million Jews, fully half of the world total, live in freedom in Israel.

But the separation from Europe was incomplete. The identity of most of the Jews who came to the Land of Israel before the Shoah, including those who built the State of Israel, was deeply tied to European and American civilization. The millions of European Jews who managed to immigrate to America before its gates were closed in the 1920s saw themselves as thoroughly Western. Moreover, the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland disrupted the Jewish communities that had lived relatively peacefully for centuries in the Arab world. With the establishment of Israel in a portion of Palestine, and in the wake of the war launched against it by seven Arab states, most Jews chose, or were forced, to leave Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt and the rest of North Africa. These Eastern and Mediterranean Jews began, ambivalently and not always successfully, to adapt to Westernized Israeli identity.

The ongoing hostility of most Middle Eastern countries to Israel, its great dependence upon the United States, and the advance of modern technology worldwide, have made Israel into a typical Western country, whose residents do not turn to the Mediterranean basin, but rather toward Western Europe and America, as models for inspiration and imitation.

Israel is an integral part of the Mediterranean basin

But it must not be forgotten that Israel is an integral part, geographically and historically, of the Mediterranean basin. And if Israel wants to secure its existence in the region where the Jewish people originated, it must find a way to renew and deepen its Mediterranean identity, to absorb Mediterranean elements – cultural, spiritual, historical, economic – into its present Western identity. This development would be a fresh, creative contribution to the collective Mediterranean identity of its neighbors.

There are four good reasons for this. The first has to do with what Zionist intellectuals, including the great scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, called the “return to history” – the Zionist transition from a mythic Jewish identity to a historical Israeli identity. During two thousand years of exile, Jewish identity was based on texts and myths that transcended time and place. The Jews moved from place to place the way a person moves from one hotel to another. As Hannah Arendt put it, the Jew was “everywhere and nowhere,” including herself in this definition. The Jews regarded the many lands to which they wandered, either by choice or as a consequence of expulsion, as temporary homes. They waited and prayed for the day of redemption when, by an act of God, they would return to their historic homeland – which, surprisingly, they managed to avoid in their many wanderings.

Most of the time they took no real interest in the broader history of the nations among whom they lived, but only in those matters that affected their rights and responsibilities as temporary minorities. The component of “homeland” in the identity of the Jews remained weak, so as not to compete with the strong, demanding theology that dominated their national consciousness.
Thus the return to history in their ancient homeland, with full responsibility for all aspects of life and for one another, requires Israelis to make a fundamental change in Jewish identity. They must take a genuine interest in their geographical neighbors, and learn about their borders, their history, and their characteristics as Mediterranean peoples. If Israel as a sovereign state continues to develop its identity only in cultural and spiritual dialogue with Western Europe or faraway America, it will not be able to realize fully the return to history, and is liable to revert to dangerous religious mythology. The fantasy of rebuilding the ancient Temple on the contested Temple Mount, for example, is a recipe for disaster. The second reason for enhancing Israel’s Mediterranean identity involves reconciliation with Arab countries, which from the start have rejected, or not fully accepted, the existence of the State of Israel.

Israel must reconcile with its Arab neighbors

The Palestinians, as well as the Arabs in countries that border Israel, claim that the Jews are essentially foreigners in the Mediterranean region, and that it was only anti-Semitism that drove them to find a home in the Middle East. Therefore, the embrace by Israelis of their Mediterranean identity may well prove to the Arabs that the Jewish people, for most of their history, have been residents of the Mediterranean region. Indeed, most of the great works of Jewish religious literature – the Bible and Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud, and early Kabbalistic texts – were created in the Land of Israel and not in Europe, further evidence that the ideal identity for the State of Israel is Mediterranean. Not Western, not Eastern, but Mediterranean – making Israel a legitimate, permanent member of the region that is the cradle of global civilization.

Thirdly, a further rationale for Mediterranean identity is the demographic makeup of the Israelis themselves. On the eve of World War Two, only 10% of world Jewry lived in Arab lands, with the remainder, for the most part, in Europe and North America. But in today’s Israel the Jewish population is evenly divided – half of European origin, half from Arab lands. And if we add the million and a half Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, then a clear majority of Israeli society is of Mediterranean stock. Thus, despite the Western veneer of Israeli identity, there is a large population of Eastern origin, yearning for a stronger link to Mediterranean culture, history, and religious expression. The encouragement of Mediterranean identity can bring about a healthy balance in Israeli identity, reconciling its Eastern and Palestinian component with its Western and European side.

Francesco Cito, Israel, Jerusalem, 2010

Finally, a fourth factor: globalization. Technology, free-market capitalism, and the rapid rise of the Internet have created a superficial veil of uniform identity. This has led to a growing hunger to recover specific national identities. We have seen this in the breakup of Yugoslavia into separate nation-states, and in Czechoslovakia, among the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Scots in Great Britain, and elsewhere. This trend may sometimes be unwise from an economic standpoint – Brexit is a prime example – and can lead to new and unnecessary conflict. Therefore, regional organization based on shared history and culture can supply a fitting response to the steamroller of global identity in today’s world, and also discourage narrow local identities that can spark unnecessary strife.

Mediterranean identity is a wonderful identity, both ancient and modern. Great civilizations arose and thrived in the Mediterranean basin – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and of course Greek and Roman – which remain the great bedrock of world culture. It is inconceivable that the Jews, who were longtime guests in Muslim and Christian lands, should not make a decisive contribution to Mediterranean identity by means of their historic Israeli identity, which goes back 3,000 years. This is the debt they owe to the Mediterranean, where they seek to stay, after the travails of endless wandering, as permanent citizens.

Cover photo by Francesco Cito, Israel, Jerusalem, 2009