Ilan Avisar

By Ilan Avisar

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One of the most surprising aspects of Israel’s semicentennial celebrations was the sharp contrast between the country’s impressive tangible achievements and the discomfiture that enveloped much of the public on Independence Day. The great successes of the Zionist undertaking include the realization of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after the Holocaust; the rebirth of a popular Hebrew culture; the creation of a stable, democratic state subscribing to the rule of law; the development of a flourishing economy; national security and the creation of an impressive military force with effective deterrent capability; numerous scientific and technological contributions to mankind; and the creation of a society devoted to the values of solidarity and mutual assistance, as expressed, among other ways, in its efforts to absorb new immigrants. The list of Israel’s accomplishments since statehood is impressive, and possibly unparalleled, both within the framework of Jewish history, and in the context of the modern world at the end of the second millennium; the atmosphere of crisis that finds expression in nostalgia for a better past, frustration and disgust with the present, and anxiety about the future, is inconsistent with any objective appraisal of the state and of Israeli society, notwithstanding the many pressing problems which demand real solutions.
The very attempt to define or redefine Israel in terms of the future identity of the Jewish state amounts to an admission that we are indeed in the midst of a severe existential crisis. In point of fact, however, such an assumption boils down to nothing more than a political claim, deliberately voiced in the thick of the jubilee celebrations by those opposed to the current government in Israel. The attitude of the Left is a direct result of the malaise which enveloped it after the illusion of peace was shattered and Labor fell from power in 1996. The Left’s cultural leadership (particularly the media) has fostered the impression that the melancholy of its particular political group reflects the general mood of the entire nation.
Nevertheless, the roots of the Left’s melancholy run far deeper. Its origins lie in the failure of one of Zionism’s ideological axioms: Israel’s secular social and cultural elites refuse to acknowledge the gap between their ideals and reality, and the need to soberly reassess and adapt to the demands of a complex reality.
A hundred years of Zionist history and fifty years of political independence attest to the fact that one of the central dreams of Zionist ideology has proved unattainable: The goal of normal existence, “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” Normalcy, a consequence of political sovereignty, was seen as a long-awaited ideal that would liberate Jewish identity from those demonic traits which, as Yehuda Lev Pinsker claimed, anti-Semitism had attributed to it; normalcy, argued Gershom Scholem, would provide a source of existential security, as the way to bring an end to irrational beliefs—such as the anticipation of a messianic redemption—that were responsible for, in effect, placing the Jewish people outside history.
But the story of the State of Israel defies a rational view of history. Rational explanations can hardly account for the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after an interval of two thousand years, while other ancient peoples disappeared. Nor can it account for the establishment of the state in such an unbelievably short period of time after the Holocaust. Israel’s history has been marked by a string of wars ending in decisive victories for Israel, despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of enemy forces. The possibility of a return to “sane” history was refuted when it became apparent that Israel had special standing in the eyes and attitudes of the world’s nations—and the state of the Jews would never be “like all other nations.”
Israel’s history represents a constant struggle, confronting threats of destruction, contending with terror attacks against the civilian population, and fighting diplomatic attempts to strip the Jewish state of its legitimacy. Instead of putting an end to the dangers of anti-Semitism, the Jewish state has become the focal point for anti-Semitic hatred. Nor has the problem of national security been resolved: The Jewish community in Israel is the most vulnerable in the world. The illusion of peace in our decade resulted in a political solution that literally exploded in the heart of our cities, exacting the painful price of hundreds of victims.
A further reason for the lack of historical normalcy has to do with the Jewish origins of the state. One of the major points of concern to Israeli cultural discourse is the fundamental conflict between the norms of universal morality, whose sources are in the Bible, and the particular needs of the country. Statehood has generated innumerable points of tension between the Jewish people’s moral self-image as the victims of injustice, derived from their long history in this role, and the dictates of the struggle to guard and defend the state by force of arms. The Israeli Jew emerged wearing an army uniform, and it was inevitable that he would behave in the manner required by its unyielding framework in order to survive, as dictated by the inhuman demands of war and conquest, and the challenge of defeating an unrepentant enemy. Israel’s lack of normalcy is clear from the fact that many people in the country—some of them enjoying considerable standing among the public—call for rejection of the state because of this presumed inconsistency between the moral values of humankind and the primary obligations of citizen and state to their own security and well-being.
The aspiration to normalcy contains a logical contradiction, because to be “like all other nations” means to lose one’s unique identity. History shows that our attempt at this has failed. Perhaps instead we should dare to start thinking that the Jewish people does indeed have a unique historical fate, a fact that the Holocaust, no less than the State of Israel, proves. Similar to the relationship between ego and superego, a society’s strength is measured by the balance between those who profess universal morality and those who act to ensure the state’s specific interests. Intellectuals, literati and artists have always played a decisive role in fashioning the historical fate of the Jewish people. The Zionist revolution came about in great measure thanks to philosophers and poets, and it had a dual aim: Attaining political sovereignty and renewing Hebrew culture in the Land of Israel. In Israel’s cultural history, not only have the paeans to the Zionist enterprise been replaced by criticism and protest, but the sober analysis of the difference between Zionism’s promises and the reality it created has deteriorated into expressions of profound national nihilism. Attitudes critical of extreme nationalism have turned into negation of the entire national ideology. The painful revelation of immoral acts committed by Israeli soldiers on the battlefield has led to expressions of self-hatred and glorification of the enemy as innocent victims.
In recent years, Israeli artists have forsworn any attempt to touch upon Israeli authenticity. They are drawn to the exceptional, while invalidating the exemplary; they express no love or esteem for local personalities, and are infused with a rejection and dislike of the Israeli character, combined with a longing for other cultures. Israel’s problems are real, difficult and gripping. Rather than presenting the country’s tragic contradictions, expressing the human greatness that can result from coming to terms with tragedy, and offering examples of victories as well as the lessons from painful defeats, the works of Israeli art convey a profound unease with the Israeli experience.
Fifty years after the establishment of the state, Israeli intellectuals and artists represent a negative force that casts doubt upon Israel’s continued survival as a Jewish state. I do not propose that artists alter their political outlook. There is room, however, for more humility toward a reality that is both source and inspiration, a reality of flesh-and-blood figures, places charged with great historical drama, and a people that must balance utopian visions against the basic needs for survival.
In this new world dominated by mass communication, where each citizen can express opinions and influence the way society organizes its democratic life, a new balance of power is forming between artists and the public at large. The perception of the artist as the herald of new ideas, as a visionary, as a prophet at the gate hurling reproaches, is being replaced by an idea of the artist as taking a courageous approach to the society around him. Art is no longer a sort of mirror reflecting reality from an external point of view, nor merely a voice of conscience, but rather a work of dialogue that attests to the cultural drama in which it is created. Art is part of the entire fabric of life, presenting complex situations that verge on tragic contradiction, expressing the range of opinions of all segments of the population, and formulating the memories and dreams, hopes and fears, aspirations and inhibitions of the society as a whole.
Israel is strong enough to come to terms with the current melancholy. It is obvious that the trend in artistic circles has little cultural viability, given the astounding shallowness of their arguments and the low artistic standard of the works they create to attack the country’s values. Israel’s own vigor, by contrast, is evident in the tremendous gap separating the majority of the citizenry from the creators of culture on the political Left. The public’s suspicion and resentment of the media, its disdain for politically motivated film, the declining numbers in theater audiences, and the fact that the public is only aware of artistic efforts insofar as they are controversial—all of these demonstrate the extreme alienation of Israeli artists from Israeli society.
At present, we are witness to a struggle for survival by the spokesmen for a social group that sees itself as the Israeli elite, and is concerned about the constant erosion of its standing. Its struggle is characterized by expressions of condescension and loathing toward those it deems a threat to the existing social order, with a distinct tendency to demonize them as hostile forces, and even to incite against them. They have chosen to reject dialogue with the wider, more diverse public; the prevailing view, in fact, is that it is not even possible to have a dialogue with some parts of the public, the religious in particular. This closed worldview has received additional support from a post-romantic artistic ideology which regards the public’s alienation from an artist’s work as evidence of its individualistic worth or avant-garde status. The same elitism and opposition to the norms of society also characterize media reports, since the media are derivative of the world of art and cultural creativity.
Israel’s Jewish citizenry is representative of human dramas, historical events, a diverse range of opinions and, above all, living testimony to Israel’s strength as the Jewish state. In the future, its culture will give authentic expression to the real pulse of the people, rather than to the madness of those who have lost their way. We should eagerly anticipate the moment when Jewish society in Israel takes the path of creativity, instead of wallowing in pessimism. Whatever form this takes, it may reasonably be assumed that—in addition to repairing the damage wrought by national nihilism—it will result in an important cultural contribution to the world and to Jewish history.

Dr. Ilan Avisar is a lecturer in the Cinema and Television department of Tel Aviv University.

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