Daniel Doron

By Daniel Doron

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To revive Zionism, or to replace it, while at the same time securing the Jewish character of the State of Israel, will prove difficult if not impossible unless we first understand the causes of its decay. Zionism’s degeneration as a social movement and its death as an ideology were merely part of a worldwide collapse of collectivist philosophies, such as statism and the various forms of socialism. In Israel as elsewhere, implementing socialism required subordinating the economy to politics, kindling fierce disputes about the allocation of dwindling resources, which led to factionalism, extremism, and political and economic corruption. Socialism stripped laborers of any incentive to work; it destroyed capital markets and the competition that breeds efficiency; it degraded every public system—the judicial system, health care, education and welfare—by politicizing them.
The burdensome regulations and high taxation of the socialist state and its universal welfare system stripped the family of its resources and of many of its essential functions. These were given over instead to an impersonal, power-hungry bureaucracy. Similarly, voluntary associations for charity and good works, which constitute the fabric of social life, were also destroyed. A gap inevitably developed between the system’s egalitarian rhetoric and its preferential rewards to its elites. A contradiction emerged between the professed aspiration to justice and securing civil rights and the government’s brutal confiscation of citizens’ property and freedoms for its own needs; together these emptied “spiritual values” of all content and turned them into the empty rhetoric of “Zionism.” Morally and culturally, the politicization of all life left nothing but scorched earth in its wake, capable of sustaining only the weeds of official culture and subversive nihilism.
The corruption of Zionism began in the 1920s, when radical socialist revolutionaries, led by David Ben-Gurion and his comrades, took control of the movement and its resources. With the help of their ally Chaim Weizmann, who also believed in the idea of “negating the diaspora” (in other words, negating Jewish tradition in an effort to create a new Jew, the secular Jewish pioneer), they used contributions collected by the Zionist Organization to set up the Jewish settlement effort on the basis of collective agriculture, thereby taking control of industry and commerce. They also initiated unbridled class warfare against the “bourgeoisie”—the violent strikes they led destroyed any chance of private economic growth, and forced those with capital to take flight. Considering the extent to which the land and water was nationalized—along with whatever else was available—the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel became the most collectivist economy on earth, certainly in the Western world. Scarce resources were wasted on developing a workers’ society, and on supporting kibbutzim and moshavim—abortive utopian experiments which, despite the tremendous dedication of their members, went bankrupt every decade.
This socioeconomic policy had harsh consequences. The economy could not take advantage of the tremendous potential of its human capital, since it had to forgo the rapid urbanization and industrialization which are preconditions for economic growth, the amassment of political clout and the absorption of large numbers of immigrants. Economic prosperity might have tempered the conflict with the Arabs, instead of inflaming it in a struggle for limited land and water. Economic weakness and lack of resources further harmed the Jewish community’s ability to rescue European Jewry from annihilation, and limited its defense capability and capacity to gird itself for the War of Independence—from which it emerged only by the skin of its teeth and by paying a stiff price in casualties, despite the Arab armies’ inferiority.
The process of centralization intensified once the state was established and the politicians wielded full government power (which the British mandate had limited to some degree). The Histadrut took control of the economy, especially the labor market. The banks and capital markets were nationalized de facto long before they were taken over de jure. The private sector was eliminated as an independent actor, leaving only the lackeys of the regime and the recipients of its largesse in control, as they shared in the pie of nationalized resources. Even as socialism came to be seen in the rest of the world as a broken reed, it continued in Israel (with the help of massive external aid) in the garb of statism. After the government and Histadrut sectors went bankrupt, as was to be expected, most of the assets “privatized” with the help of public credit were taken over by a few families who were in partnership with the political establishment and bureaucratic oligarchy. And so Israel, to this day, has a centralized economy unparalleled in any other Western country.
The concentration of resources in the hands of the political establishment corrupted the political parties, who lost any semblance of ideology and were transformed into unstable coalitions of special interests. Using money extracted from the taxpayer, the politicians forged alliances with groups who could be bribed, winning their political and financial support. Even religion and culture became arenas for the struggle among political hacks. The voluntary activity that is key to a healthy civil society came to an end. A process of negative selection was created, allowing people with connections and the recipients of “rents”—who devoted their time not to study and creativity, but to scheming and trickery—to push aside those with independent views and ability. The “poverty of resources” became a poverty of the spirit, granting legitimacy to a corrupt and corrupting regime, and assailing all “sacred values” in the name of a false freedom.
In the wake of socialism’s downfall, the Zionism that was so strongly allied with it speedily declined, especially among the youth. Lacking vision or challenge, the young generation lost all direction, and wandered to ashrams and drug parties in search of itself. The spartan, collectivist socialism of earlier days was succeeded by a new hedonistic, media-hyped Left, which was touted as individualistic although it always dressed in uniform, “nonconformist” designer labels. It borrowed slogans from America’s anti-Vietnam War movement to protest all wars (except “kosher” ones, such as wars of “national liberation”—as long as they were not about liberating Jews) and in favor of “peace now” at almost any price. Political correctness brought with it historical revisionism, which disparaged the values of “patriarchal,” “oppressive” Western culture and made subversive attempts to destroy it and whatever was thought to be its founding myths. Licentiousness, hard rock, drug abuse and cult dependence became the accepted fashions. This new breed tried to camouflage its cynical nihilism with much talk on behalf of the weak (the poor) and the oppressed (Palestinians, homosexuals, lesbians and so on). Dominating the media, the Left fought a zealous, all-out war against religion and the Right, especially after the rightist and the religious parties took control of the government and began to compete with the established elites for the rewards of power.
Israeli society must be cured of its nihilism, cynicism and contempt for the law (which is largely the result of the government’s abuse of and disregard for the law) and tradition, without which the law has no binding internal legitimacy. Only then will original, creative work, deeply rooted in the Jewish and Hebrew traditions, blossom. Such creative work must attempt to redefine its relationship with the past, and especially with the religion that gave it vitality. None of this will happen, however, unless we create an economic system that enables people to earn an honest living, and an educational system that spans the abyss of superficiality and ignorance which it currently imparts.
Creative activity, regardless of its content, will flourish only after the coercive political system, which strangles initiative in all areas, gives way to spontaneous, voluntary associations. Such was the enterprise envisioned by the early Zionists, before the movement went whoring after the false gods of the socialist vision and turned the state into a supreme value in its own right, instead of an instrument, essential as it was, for ensuring Jewish survival.

Daniel Doron is director of The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy research institute in Mevaseret Tzion.

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