The Crisis of Israeli Culture

By Yigal Alon

In a 1972 speech, the minister of education called for the rediscovery of Israel's spirit.

Members of the Knesset, nothing is more natural than a people’s longing to live a normal life in its own land, to live, as we say, “like all the other nations.” Yet there is no reason we should want to be like the others. A normal, healthy nation desires, above all, to remain faithful to itself and to its heritage. After all, the other nations are not all the same—each has its own unique qualities. Therefore, we should not look to become “like all the other nations.” Judaism has contributed something, to put it mildly, to the family of nations, and we have every reason to be proud of our religion and to show respect for our past.
Along the way a number of futile attempts have been made to answer these yearnings for normalcy. One of these was Canaanism.** Another was an exclusive focus on the Bible and the disavowal of two thousand years of exile, with its enormous creative achievement in all spheres of thought, culture, and practice. Does this mean that we can and should accept our past in its entirety? Certainly not. Every heritage, even one considered revolutionary in its time, tends ultimately to ossify, to atrophy, to become closed within itself. Not everything that sustained a people in the past can and should sustain it today. Even values and culture must follow the laws of natural selection. Yet every value that retains its essential quality can undoubtedly be applied in the here and now; being old does not automatically render something out of date.
Culture has been compared to a bow and arrow: The farther back you draw the bow, the farther your arrow will fly. If we do not draw our cultural bow back far enough into the past, if we fail to draw sustenance from our own sources, not only will our sources be lost, but we, too, will wither. At the same time, we cannot and should not attempt to wall ourselves in, to withdraw from the world. The days of spiritual “autarky” are over, never to return–if, indeed, they ever existed at all, at any point in human history. We must therefore be attentive to both our great past and our present. We must remain faithful to the place in which we live, and at the same time be open to the wider world and the winds that blow within it.
There are those who fear that we might become, God forbid, just another province in one of the most backward parts of the world, with all the difficulties this would entail. I do not wish to make light of this fear, but the fear of being thought provincial is one of the hallmarks of the provincial. Fashioning a cheap Israeli replica of Western culture, without fully understanding its deeper currents, might be even worse.
Honorable Knesset, the question of the spiritual and cultural identity of Israeli society was not answered with the establishment of the state. By “spiritual and cultural identity” I am referring specifically to patterns of behavior and the “culture of living.” Shaping the patterns of life, culture, and society in Israel is a long-term project. But it begins with our own generation. Everything here is subject to ongoing, tempestuous, rapid change. In this situation, the lack of fixed norms is sometimes painfully felt. While a small group united around a great idea could perhaps do without these norms, a people and a society cannot.
The problem of norms became far more tangible with the arrival of large waves of immigrants after the establishment of the state. True, every group of immigrants is changed through contact with our society; but each wave of immigration affects us as well, and in numerous ways: In its impact on the economy, on social and class structure, on fashion, religious custom, song and dance, food, and mores. Yet because of our shared foundation of Jewish nationalism, we are, in the end, one people, since a people is above all that which defines itself as such. Our country is a meeting place of traditions and cultures, and therefore also a kind of arena, where traditions, customs, and cultures vie with one another, sometimes publicly, but more often subtly. It is also a country where no small number of traditions and subcultures are in a state of crisis. Among certain ethnic groups, this crisis includes the painful destruction of the family unit, and in particular the figure of the father, and this destruction usually means the collapse of the entire value system that this figure represents.
Other ethnic groups face hardships of a different kind: Dislocation from their native cultural and social environment, as well as adjustment to a new language, and integration into a society that is not always welcoming. Sometimes the crisis takes a different form altogether: Many people came here in search of a clear answer to the question of spiritual and cultural identity, and they look to us to provide it. Yet to a religious person, we are too secular, and to a secular person we are too religious. Either way, we come up short.
Honorable Speaker, our society is very complex. It is multifaceted, variegated, and full of contradictions. I almost called it a “world-society,” because every tribe that came to Israel brought with it, along with its unique form of Judaism, the unique national culture of the land from which it came. True, the joy of the immigrants at arriving in the land of Israel is not what it would be in a time of peace. They have returned to the land of their forefathers, but cannot find rest in it. The scars of war and the bitter struggle that has been forced upon us penetrate deep into our souls, even when outwardly we radiate faith and self-assurance. If that were not enough, our people carries with it a history of traumas the likes of which no other people has endured. Everything that we suffered throughout the generations–all the anxiety, the fear, and the longing–naturally finds expression in our society, for better or for worse.
There is reason to fear that the prolonged, intense militarization of the country may damage our sense of humanity and that of our children. It may spawn in them an inflexibility and a recklessness that will leave their mark on all our relations, tomorrow if not today. Add to that the scars of the past, particularly the Holocaust, and we can see the effect this tension has on our way of life, and on the less-than-ideal relations today between man and his fellow man, and between man and the society in which he lives. With your permission I will provide a few examples.
First, a lack of tolerance, which sometimes leads to violence, and often wanton violence. This is a relatively new phenomenon, the likes of which we never experienced previously, either in exile or at home. Like idolatry, it is contrary to everything for which Judaism stands.
Second, the slaughter on the highways. This, from a nation whose children show the utmost sensitivity to human life on the battlefield, and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to save a wounded comrade. A society that unites as one family to mourn the loss of one of its sons on the battlefield nonetheless shows criminal disregard for human life.
Third, hooliganism in places where young people congregate: On the playing fields, in the movie theaters, and even in the concert halls and playhouses; this from a people who in every generation was sustained by the book, the life of the mind, and a respect for intellectual creativity.
In this context it is also worth mentioning our general unruliness, both in public and in private. With the radio playing at full volume, and people talking so loudly as to drown out everyone else, we can barely hear ourselves think. And our spoken Hebrew, once so florid, has swung to the opposite extreme: Its simplicity is not of the good sort, but rather it is vulgar and grating.
And then there is our tendency to desecrate our countryside, our antiquities, our rare flora, and our historical sites—and this from a people who preserved the vision of the land of its forefathers in its festivals, its prayers, and its very heart, even when in exile. We are a historical people that at times appears to lack even the slightest sense of history, ancient or modern.
There has, moreover, been a sharp decline in the reading of books, particularly those that demand effort and patience; in musical or choral activity undertaken purely for pleasure; in participation in sports; and in other edifying hobbies. It is true that our society does not have an abundance of free time, but what little time we have is not well spent. Instead, we see an increasing involvement in the more passive forms of culture, and a decrease in independent endeavors, such as literary, artistic, or theatrical societies.

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