Ma’oz Azaryahu

By Ma'oz Azaryahu

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Transitional periods tend to be marked by confusion, since they combine the old with the new. “Out with the old, in with the new” is, at best, a battle cry for ideologues whose doctrine sees no need for input from the real world just outside the window. And transitional periods also cause distress, because of the insecurity during times of change which derives from the inability to discern the direction and meaning of the change.
Israel is in a transitional period. The so-called end of the Zionist era, and the disillusionment prevailing in public discourse, are both merely expressions of the state’s having reached the end of its foundation phase. In all likelihood, Zionism’s greatest success was not the revival of the Hebrew language, nor even the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, but rather the transformation of Zionism from ideology to everyday life; in this case, the “end of ideology” is actually Zionism’s greatest triumph. In other words, the changes are real, but this does not mean the end of the Zionist era. What has ended, it seems, is the heroic phase of what may be the most successful project of the twentieth century.
Foundation phases are characterized by ideological fervor and the elements of historical drama. Vision is the necessary fuel for bringing about revolution. While Ben-Gurion insisted that “for want of vision, a people lose all restraint” (Proverbs 29:18), that idea was appropriate for the revolutionary phase, when the Hebrew aspects of the Zionist revolution were cast and poured, and the political structures of Jewish sovereignty formulated. The Zionist vision, in all its versions, was ever-present, determining the mental landscape of the community that would become the State of Israel. This vision was the state’s existential compass, it provided an idea of the future and the energy needed to get there, and it affirmed the basic principle that the future is more important than the present.
The Zionist vision moved between two opposing desires: The desire to establish a model society, a “light unto the nations,” on the one hand, and, on the other, the need for the normalization of Jewish life. The tension between these two demands could not be resolved, but as long as the Zionist revolution was in its foundation phase, this contradiction was of no real significance. With the end of the phase of nation-building and establishment, however, matters have changed dramatically. The gap between reality and what is left of the vision creates this tension, which expresses itself in a sense of disappointment. “Distress in Utopia” does not mean failure, but a true encounter and a needed grappling with reality. With the end of the state’s foundation phase, the Zionist Utopia, which until now has lived in the realm of ideas, has given way to something tangible, physical.
What appears to be a crisis of values in Israeli society is really only an affirmation that the ethos of foundation has run its course. It is also significant that the “new Israel,” whose contours are becoming clearer by the day, represents the end of the ideological and cultural hegemony that characterized the foundation phase. For the most part, the academic-cultural focus on smashing the Zionist myths is actually destroying the country’s foundation myths. These myths (such as the stories of Masada and Tel Hai) have long since lost the weight they carried during the early phases of Zionist history, at a time when the goal of renewing the people’s connection with the land was at the top of the Zionist agenda. Seen this way, myth-debunking is akin to dismantling scaffolding that was critical while the state was being constructed, but is superfluous now that the work has been completed.
What appears to those identified with the political and cultural hegemony of the foundation phase as a “crisis” in Israeli society, is in truth nothing more than an extension of their own sense of loss, accompanying their loss of hegemony. The prevalent feeling that Israeli society is disintegrating reflects the decline of the hegemonic ethos identified with the foundation phase. Thus, what are called “rifts” in Israeli society are in truth the mechanism for redefining the relationships among different segments of society. Of particular importance is the redefinition of relations between social groups that were unaffiliated with, or on the fringes of, the foundation project, and those segments of the population who had assumed their special place in society thinking they held preferred stock in the common enterprise.
The culmination of the foundation phase and the waning of the founding ethos signal the transition to a period that will be qualitatively different from what came before. It is tempting to outline the future in terms of a vision, but an important aspect of this transitional phase in Israel is the widespread suspicion of “visions.” What is needed is not a look into the future but a focus on the present, with the understanding that after a period of intensive nation-building, Israel has begun to cruise at a more or less fixed speed. Changes in direction and speed, if any, as well as advances and retreats—these will now be gradual developments. The state’s purpose today is to deepen the achievements of the foundation period of the Zionist revolution.
This new phase of Israel’s life will mean getting used to what Haim Assa called “twilight,” a continued state of not-peace and not-war, in which the rhetoric of peace includes the threat of war. Twilight requires a change in consciousness, primarily through a new language to understand and describe reality. This language must be free of messianic notions of an “end of history,” expressed in the longing for an unequivocal, complete resolution to the Jewish-Arab conflict. Overcoming the messianic frame of mind, and acknowledging the “twilight” in which Israel finds itself, are necessary conditions for the State of Israel to survive in the Middle East.
The new, “post-foundation” phase of Israeli life also comes through in discussing Israel’s nature as a Jewish state, and so defining its cultural and national identity. Such a discussion requires that two basic points be acknowledged. The first is that the State of Israel is the political expression of Jewish continuity in the Land of Israel. The second is that Israel’s national identity is in constant tension between its Jewish historical heritage and the broader, universal culture, and that this tension can be a source of creativity and vitality. In this context, it is especially important to understand that a Haredi nucleus is essential for modern Jewish identity, since it creates a gravitational field that enables the liberal elements as well to have a place on the field of Jewish identity.
The first point represents the Zionist aspect of the State of Israel, while the second point is necessary to prevent the dilemma of collective identity from being presented as a dichotomy, either joining the secluded Haredi community, or being part of an accelerated assimilation. The end of the foundation phase in Israel means a transition to cruising speed—moving forward steadily through what is surely an extended present, and not the end of history.

Dr. Ma’oz Azaryahu is a cultural researcher in the Geography department of Haifa University.

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