Wednesday, November 09, 2011

israel iii: some thoughts on longer-term themes

I wrote previously of what I see as the biggest issue in Israel today: not the Palestinians, the religious-secular division, or even economic inequality--although these are all important--but the failure of the country's political and social institutions to keep pace with present-day reality.   Indeed, all of the other issues are to a degree parasitic on this broader failure.   I would like to develop this theme further.

One of the things that strikes you in Israel is the disconnect between the country's impressive people and its rather less impressive public debate.  The country had, in one accounting period, more high-tech startups than the entire EU combined.   The level of culture, even allowing for some rather dismal TV programming, is generally high.   Israel is astonishingly diverse and, with some obvious exceptions, surprisingly tolerant\; individual Arabs, in a restaurant or public place, attract virtually no attention, and even the much heralded split between religious and secular is a matter of degree rather than kind.

So why does the country always seem to be in trouble?  Leaving aside plainly simplistic answers--Jews are too contentious to run their own state, everyone hates us anyway, etc.--I think there are three basic reasons, each of which boils down to an institution inherited from the early days of statehood that has lost, or is in the process of losing, much of its original relevance.   To wit:

1.  The Army.--Everyone agrees that Israel needs a strong army.   But does it need to dominate the country in quite the way that it does?   It is not just a question of the absurdly large number of people in uniform at any given time (see previous post).  It is a question of a formative experience that colors perceptions of every conceivable problem and the choice of solutions.   A country that has 500+ combat planes will necessarily think that it can deal with any problem (Gaza, Iran, etc.) by launching an air strike.  A country close to half of whose political leaders have been former generals--and the percentage gets higher not lower with the passage of time--will inevitably have difficulty achieving true democracy.   The groups that are excluded from political power (Arabs, haredim, to a large degree women) are precisely those who are excluded from the army or its higher ranks.   When Ben Gurion was prime minister and defense minister he typically worked out of the latter's office in Tel Aviv rather than the former's in Jerusalem: it's hard to think of another country in which this would happen.

2.  The Predominance of the Coastal Elite--The division in Israel used to be Jews against Arabs, ashkenazim against sephardim, religious against secular.  Increasingly it is Tel Aviv--or a certain image of Tel Aviv--against everyone else.  Talk of tzedek hevrati (social justice) cannot mask the fact that virtually all of the country's wealth is controlled by a relatively small group of people, heavily European in origin, primarily secular or at least non-Haredi in orientation, and almost exclusively Jewish,  overwhelmingly concentrated
in Tel Aviv or small, mini-Tel Avivs in Jerusalem, Haifa, and other cities. But, you will argue, it is precisely the "liberals" in Tel Aviv who want peace and the others (religious, Eastern etc.) who are opposed to it.    Think again.  Blaming the poor and religious for the country's problems is like blaming the hard hats and rural southerners for the onset of the Vietnam War.  People who are excluded from economic and political power
will always take refuge in excessive patriotism, osentatious spirituality, and so forth.    The common wisdom is that social issues in Israel cannot be addressed until "the situation" (i.e., the Arab-Israeli crisis) is resolved. I would argue the opposite: the situation will never be resolved until everyone inside the country finds a common language with which to address it.
3.  The Ideology of a "Jewish State"--Israel was created to be a Jewish State and (not coincidentally) to provide a safe homeland for Jews after centuries of persecution.  To a remarkable degree that goal has been accomplished.  In two generations the country has amassed the largest number of Jews in the world; in another decade or two more than half the world's Jews will live here.   Notwithstanding residual fears, the likelihood of the country's outright destruction is minimal.   But ideologies--even (and perhaps especially) successful ones--sometimes outlive their usefulness.  At this point talk of the state's "Jewish character" serves mostly either to celebrate the past (which is irrelevant) or as a club to exclude people one doesn't like from discussions of its future (which is actively destructive).   No serious person thinks that Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank will suddenly come together in a "one state" solution that creates anything but more violence.   But even assuming a territorial compromise--hardly a small assumption--more than a third of the Israeli population will be Arab or Haredi and therefore outside the central Zionist consensus, a percentage likely to grow, not shrink, in the coming years.   This is not necessarily a reason for panic, any more than the coming of the Mizrachi Jews in the 50s or the Russians in the 90s; but it means that serious, constitutional change, to make the country a genuine medinat kol ezrakhekha--a state of and for all its citizens--cannot be indefinitely avoided.   Properly constituted, such a state would be more not less Jewish in its basic essence, and infinitely more attractive to those of us who remain in Galut, as well.

Skeptics will suggest that, by compromising on #1 and (especially) #3, Israel would be giving up on the "Zionist Dream" and surrendering its very reason for being.  But Zionism was supposed to make the Jewish people more normal, not less so.   It's hard to see how the current arrangements are achieving that goal.   Nor does the "reform" program of the coastal elite, which really means making the second problem worse so as to solve the remaining two, hold much promise either.   Rather it is time to transcend current debates and begin a serious discussion of underlying beliefs and practices--what Ze'ev Sternehll has aptly called the "founding myths of Israel"--in a fundamental way.   My guess is that the country, for a variety of internal and external reasons, is still a decade or so from this rethinking.   But in the long run it seems unavoidable.


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