Daniel J. Elazar

By Daniel J. Elazar

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The good news is that Israel enters its second half-century of statehood in an excellent position for continuing its progress toward security and economic success, despite the problematics of the peace process. The bad news is that Israel is woefully unprepared to confront the next fifty years conceptually, both with regard to the Jewishness of the Jewish state and with regard to its “stateness” in an era of globalization. Technologically, Israel is advancing well into the twenty-first century. Conceptually, however, most of the framework of Israeli thinking is stuck in the nineteenth. This is particularly true with regard to Israelis’ understanding of statehood today, the role of a small economy in a globalized world, and the proper relationship between religion, state and society, especially in a state of the Jewish people.
When I speak of “Israel” or “Israelis,” I refer to the community of opinion-molders in the state, including its governing establishments as well as its academic and intellectual leaders. (The ordinary folk are usually far wiser in such matters, although they often are misled by the former.) I would not want to suggest that their thinking takes the form of a commitment to a well-developed ideology. Rather, it is what has become the conventional wisdom, which they have absorbed and accepted from the world around them as filtered through their perceptions of that world. It is one that remains basically unquestioned, which informs their thinking and most particularly their policy decisions and evaluations. In their understanding of the state, Israelis of today remain very close to their Zionist origins, probably in ways that would surprise many of them.
Zionism was born out of late-nineteenth-century Central and Eastern European understandings of statehood. Whereas in the original states of Western Europe, national homogeneity had to be achieved through either the suppression, expulsion or physical extermination of minorities, in Central and Eastern Europe the prior existence of a variety of strong nationality groups meant that statism was linked to the demands of ethno-national majorities, placing local national minorities in serious jeopardy. The Jews, as a minority heavily concentrated in those regions, found themselves helpless victims in Europe. Those who were concerned with their survival undertook two important steps toward a solution: First, they embraced the idea of the state in its Central and Eastern European form; second, they organized themselves in the effort to establish such a state for the Jews, in the ancient Jewish homeland. They began to implement those steps in the last third of the nineteenth century, ultimately forming a fragment of European civilization in the Middle East.
As a fragment, the Jews brought with them the major elements of the regnant European understandings of the world, not only in matters of statism and nationalism but also in matters of religion, economics, politics and high culture. As in the case of other such fragments established by mother countries in overseas territories, while European civilization moved on, the Zionists either remained frozen in their original ideas or adapted them to the new context in which they found themselves.
For the most part, they chose the former. A hundred years later, Israelis are just beginning to emerge from their socialist beginnings and to move toward a market economy. They have yet to shed the religious and secular ideas of the late nineteenth century. Their politics remains mostly frozen in the pat-terns of a century ago. Their universities have acquired reputations throughout the academic world as the last bastions of the Germanic university tradition of that period. To make the point more specifically:
• In an era of ever-increasing globalized interdependence, when the U.S. and Japan, separated by 8,000 miles of ocean, are interdependently still seeking solutions to the problems of war and peace, we look for peace with our immediate neighbors through physical separation and territorial partition rather than through constitutionalized cooperation among neighbors.
• In an era in which the market economy has triumphed over all forms of command-and-control economies, we are still hesitant about finding our way out of our state-dominated economic system into a system capable of competing in the global market.
• In an era of increased understanding of the role religion plays in sustaining society and in which the state has a framing and facilitating role, we maintain a backward-moving religious establishment seeking the religious shtetl, opposed by the advocates of a militant secularism. In our conflicts between secular and religious, the former seeks to eliminate religion entirely from the public square, while the latter still expects state-enforced Orthodoxy to prevail sooner or later, instead of developing an indigenous Judaism based on the high level of traditionalism still evident in Israeli society.
• In an era in which every nation in the West is looking to its roots to find ways to sustain cultural continuity in a time of radical change, too many Jews in Israel believe that they should learn from every culture but their own, and as a result have developed one of the most uncultured populations in the world, people who know nothing of their Jewish heritage and nothing of consequence of any other as well, making the “ugly Israeli” a ubiquitous phenomenon.
• While everywhere in the world “civil society” is a term of promise, used to promote or strengthen democracy locally, in Israel it has become a rallying cry for those who would eliminate the Jewishness of the Jewish state, Israel’s raison d’être.
Even if Israel no longer can stand strictly alone, we need not expect that we will ever conform to everything that becomes popular in the rest of the world. Nor should we. Yet in order to survive in the world, we must learn how to adapt to its conditions in one way or another.
Paradoxically, Israel was established to be a Jewish state, but its very establishment marked the beginning of a new epoch in which the old ways of thinking about how to be a Jewish state would no longer apply. Those old ways were primarily organic, based on ethnic or blood ties. Today we are still in the early years of this new era and are far from beginning to raise the right questions about how to sustain Israel’s Jewishness under new conditions that involve considerably more choice. Instead, Israel’s elites are charging after what have become the canons of an increasingly dubious understanding of liberal democracy, particularly what is perceived to be the American version, ignoring the fact that there are two roads to democracy—the liberal and the communal—and that other strong democracies such as Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries have been experimenting (successfully, it would appear) with ways of making communal democracy work in the new age, no less than liberal democracy. The latter is more in keeping with Israel’s situation and needs to be developed in this country on appropriate grounds.
Instead of seeking to define the character of Israel’s communal democracy and simultaneously forging alliances with the other communal democracies of the world where international cooperation is necessary, some of us are fighting democracy in an effort to return to the shtetl, as if that historically brief and generally unpleasant experience were what all Jewish history was about, or repudiating our Jewishness to pursue some idealized cosmopolitan rootlessness (or at least some idea of what America is, without the roots that Americans have been laying down for the past four centuries).
Israel’s next fifty years will depend on the extent to which its people can leave the 1890s and jump forward a century. The state’s successes have obscured these particular failings until now, but no longer can do so. The time has come to abandon the discourse of a century ago, whose relevance has long been superseded, and attempt to ask and answer the questions of the coming era, together with the rest of the Western world.

Prof. Daniel J. Elazar is the founder and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is the author of the four-volume The Covenant Tradition in Politics (Transaction, 1996-1998) and Israel: Building a New Society (Indiana University Press, 1986).

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