“A thousand words on integration.” That was the request of Ohad Ben-Ari, founder and director of ID Festival Berlin, an arts festival showcasing artists who moved to Germany from the State of Israel. The festival’s topic for 2017 was “integration,” and I was invited to write a critical essay to accompany the festival program.
I hesitated at first. “I have a problem with ‘integration,’” I said. But he, expecting my reaction, said that this alone should justify the commission. My concerns, however, were not only with the theme of the festival, especially after Ben-Ari’s willingness to add the critical question mark — “Integration?” — My hesitation was over the general terms of accession. That is, over the discursive conditions behind the festival. I was afraid that joining meant being co-opted into an ideological discourse in service of hegemonic systems of power.
This dilemma was already presented in 2015 when the ID Festival was first launched in Berlin during the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and West Germany (the name “ID” was chosen, among other reasons, for it combined the initials of “Israel” and “Deutschland”).
Official anniversaries, especially those funded by states, are timely occasions to reinforce dominant narratives, terminologies, and ideological values, while suppressing those that are not convenient to the ideology in power. I think, for example, of Columbus Day of 1992, in which Native Americans were told that America was “discovered” by Europeans. This was an occasion not only to conceal a genocide in a celebration, but also to consolidate the triumphant myth of America’s “discovery,” thus perpetuating the erasure of its pre-Columbian history.
Elad Lapidot, who was then in charge of organizing a series of philosophical-conceptual discussion panels dedicated to exploring key concepts of the festival, invited me to participate in one of these panels. “How could I take part in an anniversary that basically celebrates the institutionalizing of arms supply from Germany to the State of Israel in 1965 in the form of ‘reparations’ for a Genocide?” I asked him. Moreover, how could I join a philosophical-conceptual discussion within a celebration, which represents the relations between the concepts Israel and Germany as something that only began 50 years ago?
It is convenient for states ― that is, for systems of power that claim monopoly not only over violence but also over language ― to begin the history of Israel and Germany only in 1965, suppressing the much older record between these two names.
To give an example: shortly after the foundation of the German Empire in 1870, the Hebrew and Yiddish writer and intellectual Yitskhok-Leybush Peretz asked in a Hebrew newspaper, “What is going on in Berlin and what is the hope of Israel in Germany?” Peretz was referring to the Antisemitism debate in Berlin (Berliner Antisemitismusstreit) that started after historian Heinrich von Treitschke wrote in 1879 that “the Jews are our misfortune.” Heinrich Graetz ― whose monumental work, die Geschichte der Juden, has been translated into Hebrew as The History of Israel ― wrote in reply to von Treitschke that “Antisemitism robs Israel of its peace.”
Both Peretz and Graetz used the concept Israel in a way that has been made difficult for us to understand today. However, 150 years ago, the “hope of Israel in Germany” or the “peace of Israel in Germany” was heatedly debated. Here in Berlin, there was no question as to the meaning of the term Israel.
Indeed, for more than three thousand years, Israel has been the name of the Jewish people, among Jews and non-Jews alike. Already in its earliest documented occurrence in Pharaonic Egypt, but mainly in the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud; in hundreds of years of Midrash, Aggadah and Halacha, and in mystical writings; as well as in poetry, prose, philosophy, and history, the term Israel continuously meant either the entire Jewish people, some Jews, or a single Jew.
Thus, beginning the history of Israel and Germany in 1965 also means skipping over August 1938, when Germany ordered to add the name “Israel” to all Jewish men whose first name did not suggest their Jewish identity. When the German Chancellor proclaims today that the “security of Israel” is Germany’s reason of state, she represents a discourse of power that assumes the concept Israel as external to Germany, and not as having a real historical existence here. Such historical-conceptual discourse, which developed after the Second World War, is keen on dealing with the “Question of Israel” (that is, the Judenfrage) not here, in Germany, but rather over there, in what is called the “Near” East. Near, yet sufficiently far.
Besides my conceptual disagreements, I also suspected back in 2015 that ID Festival Berlin might, in fact, be a part of the Hasbara campaign (“Hasbara” is a State of Israel newspeak for propaganda, literally translating to “explanation”) that attempts to co-opt and appropriate the independent Hebrew and Jewish culture in the diaspora in general, and in Berlin in particular. However, the festival organizers assured me that the purpose of the festival was to explore, among other things, questions of Israeli identity in Germany, while promoting an independent cultural activity here and not in any way to mobilize art in the service of states. The organizers also confirmed that the festival was financially supported by local German authorities only and would not feature any Hasbara institutional stamps.
Nonetheless, I still felt that marking the relations between Israel and Germany as something that began 50 years ago serves a hegemonic discourse of two states seeking to erase whole segments of their shared conceptual history and imagine a shortened and incomplete record in its stead. Consenting to such amnesia and accepting the concept Israel as external and separate from Germany meant to take part in the erasure of the past, in a linguistic-historical ignorance, and — in this particular case — in a nationalistic celebration of “diplomatic relations.”
Lapidot, the panel organizer, suggested that I should say all of this in my lecture at the festival. And so I did. He believed that my participation would be more effective than having this discussion privately. In this case, the political advantages of joining were bigger than its disadvantages. I was afraid of co-optation and, at the same time, of the problematic effort “to stay clean” through seclusion.
This dilemma, I feel, is precisely comparable to the challenge of assuming an effective role in a hegemonic society, culture, and discourse without conforming or consenting to the oppression mechanism behind its call for “integration.”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s Parable of the Indik in fact illustrates this dilemma. Written almost entirely in Hebrew (with one noteworthy Yiddish intervention), the tale is given here in translation:
A prince once became mad and thought that he was a turkey, which is called (in Yiddish) indik. He felt compelled to sit naked under the table, pecking at bones and pieces of bread, like an indik. All physicians gave up hope of helping him and of curing him. The king grieved dearly.
A sage arrived and said, “I will undertake to cure him.” The sage undressed and sat naked as well under the table, next to the prince, also picking crumbs and bones.
“Who are you? And what are you doing here?” asked the prince.
“What are you doing here?” replied the sage.
“I am an indik,” said the prince.
“I am also an indik,” said the sage.
They sat together like this for some time, until they got used to each other. Then, the sage signaled the king’s servants to throw them shirts.
The indik-sage said to the prince, “Do you think that an indik cannot wear a shirt? One could wear a shirt and still be an indik.”
With that, the two of them put on shirts. After a while, the sage again signaled and they threw them pants.
As before, the sage asked, “Do you think that you cannot be an indik if you wear pants?” etc. And they put on pants. And so with all other garments. Then he signaled and they threw them regular food from the table.
The sage then asked the prince, “Do you think that if one eats good food iz men keyn indik nisht? Men ken esn un oykh zayn an indik! (in Yiddish: Do you think that if one eats good food one is no longer a turkey? One can eat such food and still be a turkey!”). They both ate the food.
Then the sage said, “Do you think that an indik must sit under the table? One can be an indik and still sit at the table.”
The sage continued in this manner until he completely cured the prince.
When talking about integration it is unclear who is the object and who is the subject of the action. Does integration mean integrating someone as a transitive verb (that is, from the hegemony’s point of view) or rather integrating oneself (from the minority’s perspective)? This ambiguity is not accidental. Its role is to present integration as benefiting both parties. Similarly to other key concepts in modern political language (e.g. enlightenment, democracy, modernization), integration, too, presupposes a process of progress that, allegedly, is in everybody’s interest. Thus, at least here in Europe, integration claims to have a mutual subject, comprising both those who integrate and those who are to be integrated.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s classical tale seems to describe an ideal case of integration. At the end of the story, the prince is completely cured of his madness and rejoins the society of humans. The sage shows him, in words and in actions, that one may wear clothes, sit and eat at the table like everyone else, without ever stopping being an indik. Indeed, the prince goes through integration without denying his identity, peculiar as it may be. And this, after all, is precisely the promise of integration: to allow its objects to integrate while keeping certain parts of their particular identity.
But the claim of integration to be the result of a mutual action by both the integrator and the integrated is soon put into question when one asks who is producing the concept of integration. Minorities do not need integration; they need rights. Integration is a product of the discourse of hegemonic power, replicated daily in its institutions, in government offices, in educational institutions, in the media. For the hegemony, the function of integration lies in its capacity to divert attention from the organized violence it produces against the very objects of integration in the Mediterranean, in border controls, in the suburbs, in immigration offices (“foreigner offices”), in detention centers, through deportations, through drone strikes, etc.
Integration is the universalist-humanistic pretense whose function is to conceal the fundamental intolerance of hegemonic power systems toward manifestations of the particular. In spite of its pretense to “work out the differences” between various parts of society, integration functions as a mechanism that clearly marks who does and who does not belong to the hegemony. It is the call for integration that underlines otherness and fabricates it as a problem to be resolved, paradoxically, through integration. Contrary to its claims, integration is in fact a rejection of the hybrid, of the other, of the particular, whom it positions in what it calls “a ghetto”— a term repeatedly used to pathologize those who are required to undergo the process of integration.
As a concept originating in hegemonic power, integration is the successor of assimilation, a concept that went out of vogue after its promises, it seems, dissipated in the concentration camps. For even the most assimilated Jews of Europe were not spared the murderous violence of a regime that strove to be universal through the absolute negation of the particular. Although integration presents itself today as an updated version of assimilation, and even as an antithesis to national and racial separatism, it is nevertheless similarly based on principles of segregation, discrimination, and oppression.
While at first glance, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s tale seems to narrate the curing of the pathological behaviors of the particular, another look at its details — its multifaceted narrative, its hybrid language, its context as a Hasidic tale — undermines the interpretation according to which the moral of the story is integration. In fact, such interpretation collapses altogether when considering that the object of integration in the story — the prince — does not represent any minority group, but rather personifies hegemonic power itself. The tale of the prince’s re-integration at the royal dinner table without letting go of his identity as a turkey is no sincere call for integration, but rather a wild parody on the Mendelssohnian ideal, later formulated in J. L. Gordon’s poem “Awake, my people!” (1866) with the famous verse: “Be a man on the street and a Jew in your tent.”
Reading the tale as a parody on integration exposes the mechanism of pathologization and manipulation through the discourse of integration, but it does not provide a sufficient answer to the question: “How should one cope with the call for integration?” Indeed, the tale does not offer an unambiguous stance as to the proper response to integration. For even a call to resist integration means, eventually, consenting to and replicating the integration discourse.
A separatist call to reject integration does not constitute an act of solidarity with a minority that simply seeks to live its life without having its particular identity perceived as a pathology to be cured. To act in solidarity means, rather, to expose and to critically undermine the discursive mechanisms of integration. One way to do that is to temporarily join the prince under the table and to say “I am a turkey.” That is, to join the discourse of power with the hope of changing it from within. However, I’d like to suggest that a more preferable answer is to seek hybrid and diasporic alternatives outside of the integration model altogether.