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

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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?

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.

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."

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

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.

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.

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."

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.