Should I Stay or Should I Go03-12-2023
I’ve been reading and teaching Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Writings in the Arendt Center’s Virtual Reading Group. Making my way through the 600 pages of Arendt’s writing about Jewishness, antisemitism, zionism, exile, and being a stateless refugee was a thrilling reminder of the profoundly personal experiences that informed so much of Arendt’s political and theoretical writing. Above all, it is a reminder how deeply Arendt felt the fact of her being a Jew and how central that sense of Jewishness was to her self-understanding. I was reminded of that sense while reading David Stromberg’s personal essay about his emigration to Israel and his present wrestling with the question of whether he should stay or go. Stromberg identifies as a writer and as Jewish. For reasons he cannot fully explain, he feels most at home in those identities in Jerusalem. But now as the Israel he knows and loves—an Israel committed to liberal democracy—is threatened, Stromberg is asking whether he should stay and fight for his home as a dissident or flee and live the life of an exile. Like many recently in Hong Kong, Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere, Stromberg is wondering whether to stay or to go. He writes:
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.