Ya’ir Sheleg

By Ya’ir Sheleg

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Since the birth of the Jewish state, the Israeli public has been preoccupied with the tension between its relationship with the Jewish people, both inside and outside Israel, and its obligations to its non-Jewish citizens. Even the Declaration of Independence addressed this issue, offering a solution that is amazing in both its grace and the simplicity of its formulation. It is this solution which should guide us today, as well.
The Declaration unequivocally defines Israel as a “Jewish state” that is “open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.” Yet without batting an eye, it adds that the state “will foster the development of the country for the good of all its inhabitants” and “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens.” In other words, the Declaration draws a distinction between nationality and citizenship: The state is defined as a Jewish state, and the nationality to which it gives political expression is that of the Jewish nation; nevertheless, all of its citizens are equal before the law. Thus it is easier for a Jew from Brooklyn to acquire citizenship than a non-Jewish immigrant, but from the moment the former becomes a citizen, he enjoys no preferential status over the non-Jewish citizen.
So, as far as the larger question goes—is Israel the state of the Jews or a state of all its citizens?—the answer is: Both, simultaneously. Since this was already spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, it requires no further elaboration. Nevertheless, if it is important to Israel’s Arab population, there is no reason why lawmakers should not express it more clearly in a future constitution or relevant Basic Law. Such a document, however, should clearly stipulate that this duality recognizes certain domains in which Jewish national identity is superior to the principle of basic equality inherent in a “state of all its citizens”—as expressed, for example, in the Law of Return, or in barring non-Jews from employment in certain positions on security grounds.
This restriction would also apply to state symbols such as the flag and the anthem. These symbols appropriately express the national character of the state, and do not constitute a violation of civic equality. After all, the official seals of many European countries include the cross, and the British national anthem begins with the words “God save our gracious Queen”—which undoubtedly does not refer to the Jewish God. Nonetheless, no Jewish citizen of these countries would ever argue that his national sensibilities have been harmed, or that civic equality has been undermined.
But the important question for the future of Israel’s national identity, however, is not the state’s formal definition, but its cultural identity. The great enemy of the Jewish, or the Israeli, national identity is undoubtedly the “global village.” Obviously, this is not just an Israeli problem, but a worldwide phenomenon. Around the world, the preservation of a unique local or national identity has become increasingly difficult. American culture has become ubiquitous. American movies and television cover the globe; even when the local language is dubbed in, the viewers’ world becomes at least partly American, as an American outlook becomes inculcated into the worldview of those watching both the big and small screens.
“Americanism” in this context is, however, only a metaphor. In the world of televised mass culture, Americanism is indeed dominant. Yet the Japanese and other Asian nations have surpassed the U.S. in producing sophisticated consumer electronics. Accordingly, the “global village” does not refer to American domination of all parts of mass culture, but simply refers to the popular, consumerist culture to which America gave birth. This is the realm in which the dollar is the supreme value, where people are measured by their purchasing power, and products—from books to socks—are also measured according to their commercial worth. Television and movies comprise only one category in this consumer culture. This new value system negates the values of an earlier, more romantic era, when people believed in religion, a unique national culture and social commitment. At best, the consumer culture replaces these with a distorted caricature, such as the fundamentalist preacher or nationalist fanatic.
Consumerism emasculates traditional values without bothering to confront them head on, as did competing ideological streams of times past. Instead, it simply discards these values as irrelevant, and does so with amazing success. From this perspective, ideologues of every hue—Left and Right, religious and secular—should understand that their most dangerous enemy today is not a rival ideology, but the common enemy of them all: The consumer culture.
The “global village” also has a simple physical quality which contributes to the blurring of identity. The impressive achievements in modes of transportation have enabled more and more people to migrate from one place to another in pursuit of their economic aspirations—especially those from poor countries who seek to move to a better economic climate. As a developed country, Israel partakes of this worldwide trend. In recent years, about a quarter-million foreign workers, along with another quarter-million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish, have joined the million non-Jewish citizens in Israel. Assuming these trends continue, they will, of course, have a significant long-term impact on the homogeneity of Israel’s national culture.
One strong attraction of consumerism is how easy it makes everything: There is no need to honor boundaries of a unique culture, no need to observe traditional restrictions—for every ideology, even a secular one, mandates certain codes and limitations on behavior (“commandments”) to which the individual must commit. In the consumer culture, all you need is a hefty bank account and a willingness to be swept along by the fun, hedonistic flow. Also, in this world the individual rarely feels alone, since he is surrounded by others like him who are driven primarily by the same consumer considerations which have obscured their national and cultural differences. Moreover, the consumer culture allows the individual to shirk any responsibility for collective needs, and to care only for himself or, at most, for his family and closest friends.
How can this trend be resisted? By understanding the human mind, especially that of the individual. The attractive force of consumerism is that it touches upon the basic human desire for pleasure, and the urge to be absorbed into the masses (in this instance, the worldwide masses), in order to feel acceptance, and a sense of belonging.
There are, however, other foundations to the human soul. Along with a willingness to be swept along (so as not to be rejected), every person has within him a need to be different from the rest of mankind, to be recognized for this unique identity, and to emphasize his personal qualities and individual views. Moreover, parallel to the need for pleasure, every person has an inherent need for meaning, for which he is frequently willing to pay a steep price.
These elements of the soul must serve as the focal point in the struggle to reverse the consumerist trend. In other words, the various information markets—from public education to public relations—must emphasize again and again the price the individual pays for being drawn along by the global consumer culture: A price measured by the loss of self-respect, of unique identity, and of meaning. Since these substantive values already exist within the human psyche, repeatedly bringing them to the fore will help, over the course of time, influence many to return to search for their special national identity, each in his own way.

Ya’ir Sheleg is a journalist who writes for Ha’aretz, and a member of the editorial board of the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir.

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