THR Web Features   /   March 6, 2023

The Almost Unbearable Burden of Belonging

Whether to stay or leave when one’s country is at a frightening crossroads.

David Stromberg

( Jerusalem by Levi Meir Clancy, via Unsplash.)

By the time my dad settled in Los Angeles at the age of thirty-nine, he had lived in four countries: Georgia, Russia, Israel, and the United States. My mom had lived in four countries, too, but she had been unable to cope with the last emigration, and after six months, made her way back to Israel—with me in tow. I was six. We lived in Jaffa D, an immigrant neighborhood south of Tel Aviv, with my father’s parents. Two years later, it became clear that my mother was unable to raise me, and I returned to Los Angeles to live with my dad. I was eight and had lived in two countries.

For most of my childhood and much of my young adulthood, I was burdened by the question of belonging. In Los Angeles, we lived in Silver Lake, not in the upper-middle-class section above the reservoir, but down below, on the border of Echo Park, where most of the serious gang violence was located. As a light-skinned kid who barely spoke English, let alone Spanish, I was always out of place. A few years later we moved to a street that was slightly farther from the violence. By then I was being bussed out to the San Fernando Valley for high school. Four years later, I was accepted at UCLA and moved to Westwood, where I had never been in my life. I had made it out of the barrio, but no matter where I went, I never felt that I belonged. 

During my childhood, my mother would make annual trips to Los Angeles, and I only visited Israel once, at the age of ten. During the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 and lasted five years, she stopped visiting altogether, and I decided, at the age of twenty-three, to visit the country of my birth for the first time since I was a child. It is difficult to convey the intensity of the sensations I experienced that first visit back. Everything seemed overwhelmingly familiar from the first moments. The smells, the sounds, the light. There is something elemental about the place where you first experienced life, regardless of what that place is like from an intellectual, emotional, or even political perspective. You may not agree with a single thing the government does, but the sight of the food stand on the corner is deeply comforting. That internal tension gets to the heart of the question I have been asking myself ever since I moved to Jerusalem at the age of twenty-eight, one that has become even more acute since the current government in Israel has revealed its intentions to install what may soon turn out to be a hybrid klepto-autocracy. 

As a state, Israel has borne contradictions and inconsistencies since its inception. But these have always been accompanied, at the highest and lowest levels of society, by values and ideals that many believed would eventually bring freedom and peace to the inhabitants of this land and their neighbors. This was, at least, the Israel into which I felt I was born. But nothing remains as it was. The politics of the Middle East changed, and the vision of two states for two peoples was increasingly eclipsed by extremism and terror on both sides. Demographic changes within Israel also changed its social fabric and did not bode well for those of us who are freethinking. The values of liberalism and pluralism belonged to a section of society that was quickly becoming a minority. The rising majority simply did not share these values. At bottom, they did not believe in modern democracy as a governing system, and no democracy can keep itself afloat without the faith and commitment of its people. Simply put, the country no longer had a liberal democratic majority. This has been the case for some time and, in such a state of affairs, the end of democratic rule is all but inevitable. The real question is what comes next—and what do people like me do when it arrives. 

It is really an age-old question: When things turn dark in your country, do you resist from within or go into exile? The question was asked too many times by too many people during the last century. It was posed not just by those in immediate danger but also those who simply want to live without fear. As someone who has already gone through an immigration, I know that moving is no picnic. The loss of identity, a sense of belonging, a feeling of elemental connection to your surroundings—losing all this can feel like death, bringing on a period of mourning from which not everyone emerges. That said, staying put increasingly becomes a nightmarish option, a dark fantasy that is quickly turning into reality. 

To be clear, I don’t think the Israeli people are wholly to blame for the situation in which we find ourselves. Nor are we completely innocent. Ours is a geopolitical situation that has eluded peaceful resolution for nearly eight decades. But the fact is that we are at a frightening crossroads in which the character of our country is revealing itself in a way that many who live here never thought possible. Seventy-five years after coming into existence as a Jewish state, our country’s democratic character—which was never originally declared and only formally entrenched as law as late as 1985—is no longer a given. We are now finding that because many of the assumptions and ideals on which this country was established were not enshrined in a constitution—including its commitment to democratic rule—we are living in an incidental rather than intentional democracy. This makes it much easier to erode the democratic aspects of the institutions that make up the country’s fragile social fabric. It also foregrounds those aspects that may be considered Jewish.

In 2008, just ahead of my move to Jerusalem, I sat with a friend at a Belgian cafe on Hudson Street in New York City. She asked me why I was moving, and I said that it was hard to give a satisfying answer. I knew only two things about myself—that I was a writer and that I was Jewish—and these two core aspects of my self somehow propelled me into this next phase in my life. She gave me a curious look, and at the time I didn’t know what it meant. Looking back, I think she was wondering why I could not be both things in New York. A reasonable question, but I still have no simple answer. 

What makes any answer complicated is that there is no single definition of “Jewish.” Yet one thing was clear to me around the time of my move: In Jerusalem, I shared a set of existential concerns with Jewish writers and artists who lived there that I had not in New York. Jerusalem can be a difficult city. As a friend who is a painter put it, the city is not culturally robust. You have to struggle to lead a life of art and culture here despite—or because of—its special qualities as a religious city. You also discover, with time, that culture in Jerusalem is difficult to stamp out. You discourage it in one place—and it pops up in another.

Five years after moving to Jerusalem—a time during which I wrote on arts and culture for the English-language press and completed a doctorate in literary studies—I came to regard the city as my home. I was thirty-three by that time and, for the first time in my life, felt a deep sense of belonging. I had also lived here long enough to understand that my sense of rootedness did not come without a cost. It came with a painful awareness of a conflict that was constantly reigniting. There was no way of reconciling the good and the bad of this reality. People talked about dreams of coexistence with Palestinians, but riding through Palestinian neighborhoods on the light rail, I often thought, “So this is what coexistence looks like? Not some joyous fulfillment of a dream, but a hard-earned semi-tolerance covering an always-simmering anger.” At other times, as I rode on buses that passed through the ultra-orthodox Haredi neighborhoods, I wondered how it would ever be possible to share a single society with people who were vehemently against so many things in which I believed, from women’s rights to freedom of the press. The contradictions that I witnessed on a single walk through the city could leave my heart and mind ready to explode—or implode—and I never knew exactly how it all came together to give me a sense of belonging. Yet there it was.  I felt at home, connected to people I loved, and abiding by those core commitments I made before I left New York: living as a writer and living as a Jew.

What changed? Many things. Another ten years passed. The world as a whole took a dark turn. Vladimir Putin subjugated Russia. Donald Trump steamrolled America. Iran established an axis through Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, with the goal of totalitarian hegemony throughout the Middle East. And several European nations began slipping toward what is now known as illiberal democracy. In our own country, Benjamin Netanyahu retook power and never let go, plowing through a single year in the opposition like a ruler who only awaited his return. With Trump’s grin in the background, he closed secretive deals with Arab sheikhdoms who have never known, and will never countenance, even a whiff of democracy. Politically, he strengthened the position of every bigot, brute, and bully in the Knesset. His long tenure as prime minister has already deeply changed the nature of this country. Any hope of peace with Palestine is buried not only under mutual mistreatment and distrust but layers of dysfunction within Israeli society. If once you could still believe in some form of understanding between the two nations, today you can barely hope for understanding among the various constituencies within each one.

In my personal life, too, things changed. I met my wife in 2015, moved with her to New York for two years, and then returned to Jerusalem. In 2019, we had our first daughter, who was six months old during the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. We had our second daughter at the end of 2020, during one of the worst waves of illness, and our third in mid-2022. During that time, I wrote a series of essays exploring the complexities of this historical moment from political, cultural, and personal perspectives. I also began publishing speculative essays driven by extreme anxiety over world events, particularly Trump’s refusal to admit defeat in the 2020 election, the Jewish-Arab riots that erupted in Israel during the war with Hamas in May 2021, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. For me, these events could not be catalogued with any of the old labels. These were paradigm shifts, after which there seemed to be no return to anything close to the old normal.

The Israeli election in early November 2022 was another breaking point, not just for me but for many people I know. Yes, the Israelis I am close to are currently a minority among a majority who either support or are simply indifferent to the changes that the new governing coalition plans to make. But the intensity of our shared apprehension makes up for our small numbers. To us it is clear that the judicial reform aimed at restricting the powers of the Supreme Court is just the first step in a complex process that will end with a country that is no longer democratic, even in name. Even the notion of “Jewish” is no longer what it was—since this criterion was also something that was neither described nor enshrined in a constitution. We are in now a situation in which one group’s definition of “Jewish” differs from another’s, and these differences create camps that grow further apart, making consensus impossible and turning the political field into one of pure power mongering. The power mongers, the ultra-nationalists, and the religious extremists have all banded together to take control of state institutions, including military, police, civil administration, and the treasury—creating a system that oppresses the liberal minority while at the same time, depending on its taxpayers to fund its constituencies and policies. We have all, law-abiding liberals and conservatives alike, worked to tolerate those elements of society we found most difficult to accept, but now they are banding together to take over the place we call home. This is the reality in which we now live. 

This is a moment of truth for Israel. Some people say that this government merely exposes what has always been true about Israel: that it is a racist, colonialist, apartheid project built on the suppression of an entire people. Others—who criticize Israeli policies but believe there’s more to the country than what appears in the news—say that the common sense of the Israeli people will prevail. But those of us who live here and believe we have some measure of common sense, and who do not hold the simplistic view that Israel is an illegitimate political project, do not see, at the moment, how things will get better in our country.  

And so the question now urgently arises: What to become? Dissident or emigrant? Move abroad? Or continue to live with fear in an increasingly illiberal, intolerant, and uncivil nation? I have no clear-cut answer. At least not yet. I know that the heroic posturing of both roles comes with great personal cost. Regardless of the choice, anyone who believes in freedom and minority rights will have a price to pay.

As a writer and a scholar, I have spent much of my professional life reflecting on the fates of artists and intellectuals who have chosen to be either dissidents or emigrants. Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera are, in some ways, emblematic examples of this difference. The first remained in communist Czechoslovakia, writing under systematic repression, while the other left for France and gained literary stardom. 

Kundera was an emerging Czech writer before he left his native country, but he became a celebrated world author only after establishing his residence in France. Aside from an impressive body of fiction, what made him so famous was his status as an émigré author. At first being an émigré was the topic of his writing, but later it also became its condition,  as he moved to writing in French in 1992. Kundera established himself within the canon of distinguished émigré letters, but by the time he began writing in French, his ideas and his status both began to lose their distinction—perhaps because the world itself had changed and Czechoslovakia, the country he had fled, was no longer even on the map. He was an emigrant who now came from nowhere, and he did not move back after the fall of Communism. He had become not only a French citizen but also a French author. Yet his perspective on life in his adopted home was not as inspired as his take on the country in which he had been born and raised. As an emigrant, the lightness of being somehow turned into the dullness of existing. Yet his decision to remain in France betrayed something else: He was comfortable, satisfied, or perhaps even happy. For an emigrant who made both laughter and forgetting central to his work, this was no laughing matter.

Klima, on the other hand, remained in Czechoslovakia, forced to work menial jobs while being followed and interrogated by secret police, who had confiscated his passport. He was also forbidden to publish books. Still, he kept writing, publishing his books abroad, and living the reality before him in the hope that the oppressive regime would end and be replaced by freedom. By his own account, he thought it would only take five or ten years, not twenty, and he considered himself lucky because he had access to his royalties from abroad. He had even had a chance to defect with his family not long after the Soviets rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the democratic shoots of the Prague Spring. But Klima decided to go back. Asked about his choice, he said it was essentially a professional decision: “For a writer it’s very important to be in close relation with a milieu you understand more than any other, and with a language. Exile is always very dangerous for a writer.” But is it less dangerous than dissidence? In Czechoslovakia, perhaps. But not in every country.

Though some people still consider Israel a European-style nation, the reality is that it is located in the Middle East. While much of our pre-state infrastructure was established by Jews who were born in Russia and Europe, the majority of Israeli Jews today are descended from those who came from North Africa and the Middle East. Intermarriage and cross-cultural melding have made the two groups less distinct, as has the shared experience of coping with the challenges of Israel’s geopolitical location in the Middle East. In this part of the world—unlike in Western Europe or North America—dissidence has a more troubling track record.

For observers living abroad, it is easy to point to freedoms that are enjoyed elsewhere and to claim that anyone who stays in a country that does not provide them is somehow complicit with the regime. What such people ignore is the gray area in between—where real life actually happens. Nearly half of Israelis are feeling the shock of powerlessness as they witness a group of politicians steadily dismantle our liberal and democratic institutions. And though it would seem easy for those of us with foreign citizenships to pack up and leave, there is a reason why we are here in the first place—and it is not always because we believe in the policies being advanced by the state. I can say for myself that I believe Jews have a right to self-determination—and that, as someone born into a world where Jews created a modern state in our spiritual and historical homeland, I see this right as being bound up with the State of Israel. 

That said, Jews in Israel have continued to develop as a people, and some of them have established a vision for the state that is radically different from mine—and from that of a great number of other Israeli Jews. Because the people now in power are doing everything to ensure they remain there, they have not only deepened the divide between those who support and  those who oppose what they are doing;  they have also exposed the troubling reality that when we talk about self-determination for “Jews,” we no longer agree on what that means. Jews cannot determine among themselves who may, or may not, lay claim to that identity—and whose vision for Israel’s future will be realized.

Contemplating the alternatives of dissidence or emigration, one has no way to calculate the personal cost of either choice in advance, Klima reflected not only on his situation as a writer but also on his social milieu: “I had a lot of friends in Czechoslovakia,” he said, “and it became something like a mission to join them in the fight against this stupid, stupid regime.” As long as a fight is possible, this becomes an option. He also had children staying meant they grew up in the country he knew best, even if that country was itself at its worst. Being a parent in a foreign country is no walk in the park. I should know. I was raised by one.

Will I abandon the place where I was born and where I feel I belong among people who are as worried as I am for the welfare of our children? Will I, like Ivan Klima, decide that it is best for them to stick it out, insist on solidarity in the face of this “stupid, stupid regime” so that we can, in his words, “pull together in this struggle”? Will I move to the country where I spent part of my life—where they speak the language in which I write—but where I never felt I belonged? Will I, in Kundera’s words, have to embrace the “émigré’s artistic problem,” in which, “leaving the place to which the imagination, the obsessions, and so the fundamental themes are bound ends up making for a kind of ripping apart”? There’s a false distinction in Kundera’s formulation. Yes, in a way, you are ripped apart if you leave. But if you stay, you are ripped apart in another way. 

I remember the friend I sat with at the Belgian cafe on Hudson Street telling me that she thought moving from New York to Jerusalem took courage. I wonder what she would say about my moving back. I guess it depends on your perspective. Klima can be called brave in one way; Kundera, brave in another. When history has you in its crosshairs, any decision you make—to move or to stay—requires courage. You need courage just to live. To wake up, to feed the kids and to take them to school, to go to work, to come back home—to go through the daily routine that gives life its real flavor.

And in the process, as you put on coffee in the morning or prepare dinner in the evening for the kids, you wonder whether, regardless of your choice, you will be making the right decision—and where in the world you belong anyway.