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Whither the Israeli Project?

Fall 2011 Features

Whither the Israeli Project?

Israeli ProjectIsrael’s own ‘Arab Spring’ suggests a far more complex national destiny, but one that is to be expected for a maturing state and multi-ethnic society

The unique street protests raging in Israel – Israel’s own brand of ‘Arab Spring,’ as it were – are far more portentous than meets the eye. On their face, the demonstrators represent a cobweb of variegated Jewish grievances against the Israeli government – grievances tenuously united under the philosophical banner of ‘social justice.’ Far more profoundly, however, the demands of the young Israelis spearheading the protests for the state to address the very practical needs, interests and well-being of common citizens betray the disintegration of the ‘grand idea’ or ideas on which the Jewish state was first built. This disintegration is rapidly ushering in a far more complex, multifaceted Israeli society and future (or destiny). At the same time, paradoxically, it signals the maturation of the Israeli project and the advent of a very normal, multicultural society in which notions of the good life are hotly contested; and rightly so.

For a nation sprung from a grand idea – the political emancipation of the Jews – the flowering of multiple, individual – often contradictory – narratives about what should be the proper concern of the Israeli state may well be disorienting. In a Hebrew-language op-ed in Haaretz in July of this year, Fania Oz-Salzberger wrote that “the era of ‘together the Israeli clan’ is over. We won’t sing anymore ‘how good it is to have brothers’ sitting together. […] Israel’s tribes are divided today more than ever – more than they were during the time of the Bible or in modern times. […] No single nation exists in any way, civil or national.”

But is this indeed the case? Do the clear fractures and divisions within Israeli society necessarily spell the end of the Israeli-Jewish nation? And if this is the case, is it such a bad thing?

The conventional expectation that there should be a single, unified Israeli-Jewish nation on Israeli soil presumes that a viable Jewish state could not simply consist of the accumulated people living within a defined territory, under a single representative sovereign; that is, that the state should have an idea and a purpose that are inherently stronger and greater than the sum of the individual preferences of its denizens; or that what may appear to be important cleavages in the body politic could not more plainly be read in the context of a more sophisticated political project that allows the people to express themselves – variously, of course – according to their own individual wills. In other words, the difference between the unified nation and the divided nation may also be the difference between a monocultural and a multicultural society; or, as Isaiah Berlin might have put it, the difference between the functional nation-state – a functional, impersonal political unit – and the organic nation-state that is the very embodiment of a national spirit – a Volksgeist.

Of course, the fragmentation of Israeli society is not a new experience in the history of Zionism. Fragmentation was evident from the early stages of the movement, as Zionism was shaped almost from its inception as a political system, with political parties and political representatives each representing an idea or group-interest. Throughout the years of the Zionist enterprise inside and outside of Palestine – even prior to the establishment of the state of Israel – a liberal, democratic contest of ideas and programmes was at play, meaning that the socialists competed with their ideological brethren – for there were several socialist parties at that time – and with liberals. Secular liberals competed with religious Zionists, and religious politicians and the pious competed with other religious politicians and pious Jews. Bref, competition and division are an integral part of any dynamic, politicized society, and Jewish society in Palestine during the pre-statehood year was most certainly political.

While contemporaries noticed the divisions and differences, the pre-statehood period is today remembered largely as one of relative unity. There were two major reasons for this relative unity. First, Jewish society during the years of the Yishuv was predominantly European, and its values, culture and economy were Occidental. Second, a big idea united this society – the achievement of statehood. Still, even this period of relative unity was marked by fierce political debates, ranging from the argument over the suggestion that the Jewish national home be built in Uganda – a notion that nearly tore asunder the entire Zionist movement – to the struggle within the Yishuv over the nature and methods of the struggle against the British mandate administration during and after WW2.

Things seemed to have changed with the establishment of Israel – for two reasons. First and foremost, the big idea that appeared to be keeping the Yishuv united had run its course, as the dream of statehood had been realized. Second, between 1948 and 1955, nearly half a million Jews immigrated to Israel from Muslim and Arab countries, resulting in a state that was no longer culturally and socially homogenous.

It was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who first gave the most elaborate public articulation of the fears of many contemporary Ashkenazi Israelis about the effect that the Sephardic newcomers would have on the fabric of Israeli society. For Ben- Gurion, dealing with the newcomers went hand-in-hand with the need to delineate the next great idea for the nascent Jewish state. He postulated that the need to deal with the transformations in Israel’s social and cultural fabric intersected with the basic imperative of ensuring the survival of Israel.

Ben-Gurion strongly believed that Israel was still under an existential threat, and that to ensure its survival it had to remain Western. He argued that, while Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt had all signed armistice agreements with Israel, the Arab states did not in fact accept the terms of the agreements and Israel’s continued existence. He was convinced that once Arab leaders would be capable of so doing, they would resume the war against Israel in order to destroy it. Such a war – which Ben-Gurion saw as inevitable – would aim not only to undo the establishment of the state of Israel, but would attempt to physically annihilate its Jews. “Our security problem,” he said a few months after the end of the 1948 war, “is not only a problem of borders, the integrity of the state, its independence. Security means our very existence – to live or to die. […] Our security problem is an existential problem.” This existential threat, on this analysis, was made ever plain by the huge gap in demography and geography between Israel and the Arab states – a gap that, for all practical intents and purposes, made it impossible for Israel to end the conflict through its own will or means. Israel could win wars time and again, but it could not inflict a decisive defeat on the Arabs, such that it could dictate terms of surrender. Nor could Israel impose peace on the Arabs. The Arabs, on the other hand, could finish the conflict either at will or, after endless rounds, by a single decisive victory. The Arabs, for their part, assumed that time was on their side; and, at least demographically, they were right.

On Ben-Gurion’s logic, Israel was not only inferior demographically and geographically; it also could not expect the world to come to its help, should war occur; or when it would inevitably come. The Jewish people were alone in the world; that is, history had shown that the Jews were singled out from their neighbours, from their environment, and from the civilizations around them. “Am Levadad Yishkon” – a People that Dwells Alone – was one of Ben-Gurion’s favourite Biblical phrases. But this was not only a parable; it was very much a state of mind. The Jews were different and isolated – both in universal and practical terms.

The obvious solution – peace – was not an option. Arab leaders did not want peace with Israel, argued Ben-Gurion, and the few of them who might otherwise favour peace were unable to pursue it because of strong domestic pressures – pressures that they were not sufficiently powerful to resist. And in the unlikely event that an Arab government did sign a peace agreement with Israel, Ben-Gurion argued: “We must beware of the dangerous illusion that the peace will guarantee our security.” For as long as war was permitted worldwide as an instrument for goals of policy, Israel would remain under existential threat.

The best way for Israel to face the existential threat and survive – the argument continued – would be to maintain and excel in its Western features; especially in respect of scientific and technological achievement. Geographically, said Ben-Gurion, Israel was in the Middle East, but by any other criteria it was different from its neighbours. There was a profound difference between Jews and Arabs, the latter of whom were living “still under patriarchal or feudal regime, with power concentrated wholly in the hands of heads of clans.” Most Arab regimes were unstable, and none of them was democratic. With the exception of Israel, “all of the Middle East countries are subject to riots, revolutions, political mayhem, political assassinations, regicide and constant competition between adventurers and tyrants over power.”

Israel was different from its neighbours in “its language, the fundamentals of its existence, its spirit and values, its political and social regime, and in its historical destiny.” Israel belonged, “without doubt,” to the group of democratic nations that adhered to the freedom of the individual, and respected the freedoms of thought, speech and science. And Israel should maintain its advantage by adhering to modernism, rationalism and science. During the last three centuries, Ben-Gurion would say, in numbers that exceeded their demographic weight among the nations, “Jews were full accomplices to the profound intellectual revolution that took place in the perception of the material world, and in exploring the secrets of nature.”

The belief in the identity of Occidentalism and the survival of the Jewish state provided some of the rationale for assimilating the Jewish immigrants from the Orient. However, the process of assimilation and acculturation would not go without a price, as the creation or recreation of a monolithic society required newcomers to give up their past culture and values in order to endorse the culture and values – and overall narrative, as it were – decided for them by the state. Of course, some of the immigrants – particularly those from Iraq – already had Occidental training and occupations, the consequence of which was more rapid assimilation into Israeli society. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the newcomers were ill-equipped to integrate into Israel’s labour market, and were placed within the lower strata of Israeli society. And in either case, the immigrants had to leave behind them their Arabic heritage – language, music, geist – and adjust to the terms of the incumbent, European Israelis. Initially, this process of acculturation passed with minor resistance, and in the first years, where resistance was evident, the protesters did not demand that their cultural values be put on an equal footing with the dominant values and culture of the Ashkenazim. Instead, they largely demanded improvement of the economic conditions of their life.

A number of factors conspired to transform the character and intensity of the Sephardic protest by the 1970s and 1980s. The 1973 Yom Kippur war destroyed the nearly blind trust of Israelis in their leaders. A new musical genre, the Mizrahi or Yam Tihoni (Mediterranean) style – once virtually banned from the Israeli public domain because of its resemblance to Arabic music – was gradually introduced by singers and performers at the periphery of Israeli society, and embraced by Israelis of Mizrahi origin. The Labour party was toppled from power in 1977, and Likud formed the government – to a great extent the result of the shift in the voting patterns of many Mizrahi people. Israel’s foundational ethos was destroyed by those who came to be known as ‘new historians’ and, later, ‘critical sociologists.’ Through their work, Israelis learned that the establishment of Israel involved atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians in 1948, and that the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem was not the result only of Arab actions, but also of Israeli soldiers who had expelled Palestinians – combatant and non-combatant alike – by the hundreds of thousands from their homes; or that Israel had not always been pursuing peace relentlessly, while the Arab leaders unexceptionally rejected Israel’s peace offers, but that, in fact, Israel too had missed opportunities to make peace. The free market and privatization were endorsed as leading economic and social principles – idées fixes that gained momentum principally from the mid-1980s, with the introduction of the unity government under the premiership of Shimon Peres. In 1987, the first Intifada made it clear to Israelis that the occupation of millions of Palestinians could not remain a remote dynamic having no bearing on their daily lives. At the end of the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of Jews (and non-Jews) from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel. And the political power of particular interest groups – especially religious factions, previously on the margins of political life – grew markedly. Also important was Israel’s short-lived experiment with the direct election of its prime minister, which ended the era of large, umbrella parties, and ushered in the present era of multiple smaller, issue- or cause-specific fractions. The Oslo peace process pushed to the forefront the ‘elephant in the room’: since 1967, the fate of the occupied territories was nary a prime subject of debate within Israeli society. The Oslo Accords made the status of the territories a subject of heated public discussion that, among other things, led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and further exposed the hostility between the proponents of continued occupation and those opposing it.

In the aggregate, all of these factors seemed to distance Israelis from each other, or at least to divide them into what analysts described as ‘Israeli tribes.’ Centrifugal forces (interests) split Israeli society and created many small and sectarian power centres that supplanted the major power centres – the big political parties – that had reigned until the early 1970s. This coincided with the end of Zionism as it had been defined, for many years, by its creators and practitioners. If Zionism had meant to solve the Jewish problem, and to allow the Jews to realize their right of self-determination, then that meaning was no longer valid by the 1980s and 1990s. For the vast majority of the Jews that had wished to exercise their right to live in a Jewish state had by then already done so. Meanwhile, Zionism seemed to be acquiring a new, less consensual meaning. The settlers who settled the occupied territories declared that they were the successors and inheritors of the first Zionists – seeking to turn Zionism from a movement for the salvation of the people of Israel to a movement for the salvation of the land of Israel. That is, the settlers turned a secular ethic – embedded in a worldly, political, international law Zionism – into a religious messianic movement. And the settlers carried their own self-declared next great idea for Israel.

At the same time, more and more Israelis – and particularly young Israelis, like those leading the national protests – have been turning away from the search for a great idea, wishing instead to simply live their lives. For them, this is a time to turn to self-fulfillment and the expression of self. (Classical Zionism, as it were – a clear creature of Western thinking – has been colonized in Israel by the equally Western preoccupation with the individual.) More and more Israelis are acting to advance their own ethnic, social or religious interests at the expense of the ‘grand idea’ of the Jewish state. And more and more Israelis do not bother asking themselves what it means to be an Israeli; that is, they are Israelis by the sheer force of their life in Israel. They are defined by territory, not by idea. And within that territory – that space – there are various voices and tunes, each meriting its own place. These voices are variously complementary and contradictory. Sometimes they form coalitions, and sometimes they oppose each other with great ferocity. But it is in the very nature of a normal, modern society and normal, mature political system to have these differences and struggles. The key concern for analysts should not, therefore, be whether the Israelis are united. Rather, Israel’s apparent fragmentation should be regarded as the somewhat predictable outgrowth of an increasingly ‘thick’ multiculturalism.

The real question should be whether the Israelis will manage to accept the core idea that their differences should be respected by society, on the one hand, and appropriately address at the political level, on the other. In other words, given the myriad challenges that Israeli society and Israel’s political system face today, the common ground remains the country’s liberal democratic framework. As long as this remains the case, the factionalism and divisions in today’s headlines should not be deplored, but viewed instead as a sign of a complex, no-longer-embryonic society in which the versions of the good life are hotly contested.

Further still, the current public divisions and arguments – sometimes heated and nearly violent – should not be interpreted as symptomatic of the dissipation and disappearance of core values to which Israelis would surely rally in a time of need, and for which they plainly will be ready to fight. The Jewish-Israeli sense of patriotism continues to remain strong enough to bring Israeli Jews together against external challenges. While in the past, the vast majority of Jewish Israelis had never questioned the decisions of their politicians to go to war, they began to do so, as mentioned, after the October 1973 war. Having said this, most Jewish Israelis still accept the dominant Zionist premisses about the necessity of a Jewish state and the need to defend it – even if they will not say so explicitly. This means that today’s ‘multicultural’ debates in Israel are taking place within psychic and indeed legal-constitutional boundaries that most Israelis continue to accept.


David Tal is the Kahanoff Chair in Israel Studies and a professor of history at the University of Calgary. He is the author of War in Palestine, 1948: Strategy and Diplomacy (2004).

(Illustration: Doug Panton)

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