Tell me quick–what UFO event happened at Ahihud? At Shikmona? Kadima? Yatzitz?
You don’t know? I didn’t either, and truth be told I still don’t. I’d probably have trouble even finding these places on a map of Israel. They belong to a world that’s long fascinated me but into which I’ve had no entry: the Israeli UFO scene, so parallel to ours yet in many ways so different. And just last year, it appears, a book was published that might serve as my guide.
The author is Dr. Tehiya Eshet, a Ph.D. in anthropology who teaches at the University of Haifa. Her book’s Hebrew title translates as To Their Eyes Only: UFOs and Extraterrestrials in Israeli Society (Resling, 2015). I learned of its existence a couple of weeks ago, when my friends Sarah and Marc Bregman passed on to me an article from the website of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz describing the reactions of Israeli abamologim (UFOlogists) to Eshet’s book. They’re not complimentary.
Not surprising. Eshet is an anthropologist and writes about the UFO community–so I gather from the responses and her counter-responses–the way an anthropologist would about any society primitive or modern. “Like witch-doctors in ancient Guinea,” complains Eli Eshed, who I gather is a cultural critic of some importance and an ally of the UFOlogists. (The resemblance between his name and Eshet’s is pure coincidence.) “It’s as if someone were to go to a physicists’ conference, listen to the learned presentations without any interest, and afterward make detailed inquiries about who the speakers were, how they grew up, what they think about their colleagues and organizations, and all along stay utterly indifferent to the topics on which they spoke.”
Actually, this would be a completely legitimate way to approach a physicists’ conference. Yet I can see Eli Eshed’s point. If you’re part of a scorned and neglected field of inquiry that (unlike physics) still struggles for recognition as a science, it’s galling to be treated with the same anthropological detachment as tribal shamans. The non-judgmentality of the anthropologist conceals an implicit judgment: that the system of thought under scrutiny is not, as it imagines itself to be, the simple truth about the world. Eshet is careful to express no opinion on whether or not UFOs exist. Yet, while her critics protest that Israeli UFOlogy today is “scientific”–as opposed to the 1990s, the period Eshet writes about–she continues to call it “pseudo-science.”
Eshet and her critics agree on one thing: that the 1990s were the heyday of UFOlogy in Israel. Eli Eshed blames its decline since then on several factors, including the absence of The X-Files from television. (The series was shown under the Hebrew title Teekeem ba-afelah, literally “Files in Darkness.”) UFOs have been supplanted since then by vampires and afterward zombies. (Did you know any of this stuff about Israel? I didn’t.) Eli Eshed predicts the imminent return of space aliens to popularity, “this time as a metaphor for Muslims. This is a culture invading the West. A strong, mighty culture–what is it if not space aliens? As a metaphor, it’s reminiscent of ‘The Eighth Traveler’ [the Hebrew title of the horror film “Alien”], the creature inside the belly.”
Huh? However plausible or implausible the metaphoric reading of UFO aliens as a stand-in for Muslims might happen to be, it’s something I’d more expect to hear from an anthropologist like Eshet than from a UFO believer or near-believer. The Haaretz interviewer sounds unconvinced. “It could also be a metaphor for Jews, but the Nazis never had a developed UFO culture.” (I’m not sure if the interviewer is aware that the Nazis had no UFO culture at all, that it’s a post-World War II phenomenon.) Eli Eshed dodges the point, repeating that zombies are “irrelevant” and aliens about to make a comeback. “The fear of the burkas will appear as fear of the space aliens.”
So Eli Eshed is prepared to use the same tools as Tehiya Eshet in approaching the UFO. I have the impression, though, that she wields them with more nuance and skill. In an interview on a student website called “Maamul,” perceptively headlined “The Alien Begins Inside Me,” she explains that “the UFO and the extraterrestrial are stories that Israeli society tells about itself. … By examining this I try to learn about the Other. We need the Other (the alien) in order to define everything that isn’t alien.”
Which is probably true of the UFO in this country as well. But however Americanized Israel may have become in the past few decades–UFOs may be one indication of that–its relation to its “Other” is so vastly different from ours that I’d expect its UFOlogy to show the differences. We don’t live in a country the size of New Jersey, locked into a seemingly endless occupation of a sizable chunk of that territory whose people would understandably prefer that we disappear. The Israelis do.
It’s not likely to be an accident that the 1990s, the golden age of Israeli UFOlogy, was also the era of the Oslo peace accords. These were the years when hope shone bright that the occupation might find its end in what writer Amos Oz called “a fair and decent divorce” of a free Palestine from a secure Israel. A lot has happened in the region since then, most of it awful. From 2000 onward the dream of Oslo drowned in the blood and horror of the Second Intifada, and no one has any idea what might reasonably take its place. As metaphors, vampires and zombies turn out not to be so irrelevant after all.
Eshet clearly has registered the correlation. According to the Haaretz article, the UFOs’ links with Oslo (and with the Yitzhak Rabin assassination of 1995) are part of her book. Of course these events have no relevance for American UFOlogy, and I hope Eshet provides an analysis of how our UFOs and theirs differ in this respect.
“Israeli society is busy with the here and now,” writes the author of the “Maamul” interview–and I can almost hear the voices of the Israelis who told me more than 50 years ago that there aren’t any UFOs in Israel because “we are a practical people.” Israelis, the writer says, are occupied with staggering problems of security and economic inequality. Unlike in America, which the writer imagines as “a supermarket of ideas” in which you can fill your cart with anything that suits you, Israelis pigeonhole themselves into categories like religious vs. secular, right vs. left. Precisely because they’re so marginal, UFOs offer the possibility of escape from these rigid boxes.
The writer continues (though maybe he or she is quoting Eshet; the quotation marks are a bit bewildering):
“In a newspaper op-ed … Azmi Bishara wrote that he once thought that [with UFOs] we were talking about an American import–space aliens, like McDonald’s. Like talk shows. But on second thought, maybe the explanation for the space-alien euphoria shared by rich and poor, secular and religious, Jews and Arabs, is something yet more banal. Everyone is sick of the atmosphere, the politics … just sick of it. He wrote this almost 20 years ago.”
Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian citizen (or former citizen?) of Israel now living in Qatar, was in the 1990s one of Israel’s leading Arab intellectuals. Was he right that, at least for a few years, Jews and Arabs could sink their differences in a shared “space-alien euphoria”? That the UFO, like “joy” in the Schiller poem set to music in Beethoven’s Ninth, has “magic” that “binds together / What custom has sharply divided”?
Might that “magic” somehow work again–I realize how absurd, how impossible this is, but I can’t help saying it–now that it’s needed so badly?
Maybe Tehiya Eshet discusses these questions in her book. It’s the book I’ve always wished somebody would write. I can hardly wait to read it.
by David Halperin
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