Even when they had reached the borders of the Promised Land, after 40 years in the desert, all the Children of Israel wanted was to go back to Egypt. In Erez Biton’s poem, the immigrant from Algeria and his son fail to build a home in Israel. Independence Day is also the tale of the rift in our identity, created by immigrating here.
By Mati Shemoelof
“And the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” [Exodus 16:3]
“…And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would we had died in this wilderness!;
And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey; were it not better for us to return into Egypt?’;
And they said one to another: ‘Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.’” [Numbers Chapter 14 2-4]
Before we discuss the Mizrahi present in Israel, let us examine the trauma as it is reflected in the desire of the Israelites to return to Egypt and postpone the narrative of redemption in the Promised Land. Looking back at this theological question is important for a psychological understanding of the modern perception of identity, and the impossibility of achieving inner autonomy within Zionism and its holidays and Independence Day in particular.
At the beginning of the Israelites’ journey, and at the end of it after 40 years, the Israelites ask to return to Egypt. Both requests are impossible, as Egypt is already impossible. They are in a never-where, in the desert, which is neither the Promised Land nor Egypt. But in both cases they do not speak to God or to Moses and Aaron, and if they do, all they ask for is life and death in the land of Egypt, which still seems like a safe place to them. How could Egypt be a safe place for them, after having left it with such sturm und drang? How could they ask to return to Egypt, having drowned Pharaoh and his army in the Sea of Reeds? And how dare they ask to return to Egypt, a moment after the Song of the Sea, and all the miracles the Lord has performed for them?
It can be understood when they are still Egyptian slaves at heart, and so the moment there is hunger, and they are in the desert, they are afraid and want to go back. But after 40 years, during which they have received the Ten Commandments, Moses as a prophet and Aaron as his right-hand man, received the greatest technology there is, acquired monotheism, which no nation around them had. And with all these wonders, they still want to go back to Egypt. How does this happen?
Yearning for the cut-off hand
I wish to argue that Egypt in this context is not the Egypt of an enemy. Egypt is their identity. Egypt is their mother tongue. Egypt is the first memory. Egypt is the frame of reference, the context in which they live. When they say that they want to return to Egypt, it is like saying that they wish to return to their mother, to the womb. They are Egyptian slaves who following the awakening of a new identity have been thrown on a journey.
And they reject the terms of the journey. This is perhaps the context in which we may understand the golden calf. At Mount Sinai of all places, a moment before the theophany, they are Egyptians, and as such they speak with Egypt, even if at present Egypt is the land of the enemy, is the perfect other, is the one that wanted to put them to hard labor, to annihilate them.
Thus, a moment before entering the Promised Land, after 40 years, and also a moment after the escape, they discover Egypt as a place of love, a place where they’d rather die than live hungry in the desert, or fighting wars in the Promised Land against large nations, and huge kings such as Ogg King of Bashan, and the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Hivites and the other local peoples. They want Egypt, even though Egypt is impossible. They hold a dialogue with Egypt, and we may re-read Pharaoh’s reluctance to give them up also as Pharaoh’s reluctance to give up the Jewish-Arab aspect of his Hebrew-Egyptian subject. Suddenly the Israelites’ hyphenated identity, as Hebrew-Egyptians, and the Egyptian identity of Moses, as the grandson of the previous Pharaoh, and as a leader opposed to the current Pharaoh – all these do not seem so far fetched.
The Israelites’ cry is to bring Egyptian-ness into their world. In the crisis of hunger and threat of war, of all moments, they go back to speaking with Egypt, in Egyptian, and give up the spiritual guidance of their prophet, who comes from a different class, and is already speaking with God face to face. This is a class-based rejection, directed at an elite that no longer understands their daily life problems.
They wish to replace Moses and Aaron, to effect a revolution. They wish to die with full bellies sitting on the fleshpots of Egypt. In both cases, the first and the last, they reject the Lord’s leadership, despite all the wonders and the miracles, all the parting of the sea, Mount Sinai, water from the rock, manna from heaven, the pillar of cloud going before the camp, the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant and other super-natural moments.
Their call to return is almost childish, infantile, but could be considered as a desire to unite aspects of their identity that are irreconcilable in modern Jewish thought. Their wish to be Egypt is a wish to be with the dead parent, with the hand that was cut off. But in today’s thought there is no way to heal the trauma and to make peace with it. Especially not on Independence Day, because of its absence in the public sphere, within all the exclusion from the culture in general in Israel.
“Scaffolding,” By Erez Bitton (translated by Tsipi Keller)
On the threshold of half a house in the Land of Israel
my father stood
pointing to the sides and saying:
Upon these ruins
one day we will build a kitchen
to cook in it a Leviathan’s tail
and a wild bull,
upon these ruins
we will build a corner for prayer
to make room
for a bit of holiness.
My father remained on the threshold
and I, my entire life,
have been erecting scaffolding
reaching up to the sky.
Erez Biton in his poetry does not deny the darkness, the night and gloom – the trauma – entailed in immigration. He has no moment of redemption, he does not come to Independence Day with flag in hand. On the contrary. The father holds on to hope, as he moves from Algeria to Israel. But the father does not enter the Promised Land and has not a shred of Zionism’s redemptionist concept of itself, as celebrated on Independence Day. Biton’s father remains on the threshold. Belief in the Messiah will yet awaken, the father promises, with the Leviathan’s tail and the wild bull. He will yet build.
It is he, with the faith, who believes he will yet enter the Promised Land, but fails to do so. There is no kitchen, no temple. The son is busy with just erecting scaffolding to the sky. What does erecting scaffolds to the sky mean? Is it asking God to make his promise come true? You build the scaffolds, He’ll build the rest. Is it defiance? Like the Tower of Babylon? This is the internal Mizrahi state, which is hard to understand. Even if we wave the flag, that doesn’t mean the psychic trauma has been healed.
The father comes to half a house, to ruins. We know that Erez Biton grew up in Lod. Does he mean the ruins of the Palestinian city of Lod, or does he mean metaphorically, the ruin into which the Arab-Jews are thrown under the Ashkenazi-Zionist regime?
When we connect Biton’s poem to the theological part with which I began, we may see the perception of the impossible part of identity, which one wishes to unite. Therefore we see the dialogue between the father and the son: the father leaves behind hope, but remains outside. What does remaining outside mean? Can we compare this to the Israelites who remained outside of Egypt? Even stayed in Egypt at heart, despite arriving at the threshold of the Land of Israel, unable to enter the Promised Land? The Promised Land is the Independence Day celebration. As if the sovereign status of the State of Israel can cure the psychological problem of Mizrahim in Israel.
Did Moses die in the desert because he sinned, or because he was an Egyptian through and through, who could not have entered the Promised Land? This threshold is precisely the point of immigration, a point between here and there, between there and here. A point at which it is impossible to enter a culture that does not accept or contain the different parts of your identity. It leaves those parts outside, and so you remain outside as well. The father in Biton’s poem is full of hope that he might be able to go in, with a kitchen and a temple, in half a house, in the ruins; but the son discovers the truth, that the father’s promise has remained as scaffolding to the sky, remained outside.
Is Erez Biton’s “Scaffolding” the desire to build a Jewish-Arab culture within a state that has set it as its purpose to erase the Arab parts in its inhabitants identity? Do we think that with bestowing the Israel Prize the process of accepting Erez Biton and the Jewish-Arab poetry has been completed? Even if so, the trauma still stands, with the son looking at the father, and the grandson looking at his father, who is still looking at the grandfather, who still remains outside. The memory of exclusion passes as a collective viewpoint, a lamentation of parts excluded, leaving entire communities outside.