Knowledge-Nation Israel: A New Unifying Vision

By Carlo Strenger

To prosper in an interconnected world, the Jewish state must undergo a paradigm shift.

In 1889, Ahad Ha’am shook the Jewish world with his controversial essay “The Wrong Way.” Criticizing mainstream Zionism—a Zionism of land purchase, settlements, and agriculture—as shortsighted and unsustainable, Ahad Ha’am warned against the movement’s already waning power over the Jews of his day:

Whereas previously the [Zionist] idea grew ever stronger and stronger and spread more and more widely among all sections of the people, while its sponsors looked to the future with exultation and high hopes, now, after its victory, it has ceased to win new adherents, and even its old adherents seem to lose their energy, and ask for nothing more than the well-being of the few poor colonies already in existence, which are what remains of all their pleasant visions of an earlier day. But even this modest demand remains unfulfilled; the land is full of intrigues and quarrels and pettiness—all for the sake and for the glory of the great idea—which give them no peace and endless worry; and who knows what will be the end of it all?1

Though they may have proven overly pessimistic at the time, these ominous words seem sadly pertinent today, 120 years later. Zionism, at least in its classical sense, has lost much of its force as a unifying vision for Israel.2 To be sure, the majority of Israelis are still avowed patriots and regard post-Zionism as the gravest of sins. Yet even they would be hard-pressed to explain why the old national ideals are still relevant, or what part they play in the contemporary Israeli reality. At the same time, others are bitterly disillusioned with Zionism and consider it the root of all evil—from the continuing occupation of the territories to the systematic discrimination against Sephardi Jews and Israeli Arabs. The result of this ideological fragmentation is a politics defined by sectarianism, a country without an inclusive ethos, rapidly disintegrating into tribal structures. The frail cord that binds us together, it seems, is wearing fast.

Despite the general outcry against this trend and the numerous attempts to reverse it, classical Zionism, I believe, can no longer serve as a collective credo for the State of Israel.3 The reasons for its decline are not, as is commonly claimed, ideological bankruptcy and a turn toward radical individualism; rather, they are socioeconomic changes that are sweeping the world over. The first of these is the gradual dispossession of the nation-state by the market-state. The second is the evolution from an agrarian to an industrial to a creative economy, a process that has rendered the romantic ideals of the Jewish national movement somewhat obsolete.4 The third, more local reason for the dissolution of Zionist ideology is Israel’s reality as a multicultural society: Over half of its population is composed of three major subgroups—the Haredim, immigrants from the former ussr, and Arabs—that have never subscribed to Zionism and are not likely to do so in the future.

In analyzing the causes of the eventual demise of the old Zionist worldview this essay also seeks to formulate an alternative. Given Israel’s current character as both a market-state and a creative economy, the alternative herein presented—not unlike that of Ahad Ha’am in his day—is that of a “knowledge-nation.” The proposal outlined in what follows, which I have labeled KNI (Knowledge-NationIsrael), links the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish past with the new socioeconomic reality of the Israeli present. Drawing on the tradition of study that has dominated Jewish history throughout the ages, KNI proposes to turn the pursuit and production of knowledge into the binding ethos of Israeli society. Potentially meaningful for all sectors of Israel’s population, and perfectly suited to contemporary socioeconomic developments, KNI may serve as an innovative vision—a new form of Zionism—that will usher the Jewish state into the twenty-first century.



To grasp fully the urgency of adopting the KNI ideal, one must first understand the historical conditions that have necessitated it—most notably, the rise and fall of the “old” Zionist ethos. Classical Zionism was, of course, firmly grounded within the Jewish tradition. It was also, however, a distinctly modern phenomenon, inextricably linked to the dramatic developments of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In its attempt to respond to the challenges of its day, Zionism became historically bound by the circumstances of its inception, growing gradually anachronistic as those circumstances altered and times changed.

The dawn of modern nationalism, according to some contemporary theories, must be understood as a direct result of the industrial revolution.5 In pre-industrial agrarian societies, over 80 percent of the population worked in the agricultural sector, the ruling elite was defined by landownership, and the vast majority of people were illiterate. This situation changed dramatically in the nineteenth century with the emergence of the industrial state. Economic and political power was transferred to a rapidly growing, educated workforce, ranging from the liberal professions through a new managerial class to a burgeoning financial sector.

The industrial economy’s increasing need for a literate class brought the question of language to the forefront. Those whose language was taught in school would fill government and managerial posts as well as control the media (which, in the modern state, played an increasing role). Since most European territories were multiethnic and multilingual, the group that wished to impose its language on society had to secure its legitimacy through a historical narrative that linked the country to a collective past. This narrative served to create a sense of community within the emerging nation-state, allowing large, often heterogeneous groups to coalesce around a common language, ethnicity, and culture.6

Herein lies the dialectic of modern nationalism. On the one hand, the modern industrial state undermined traditional values, transformed agrarian society, and weakened the ties between the population and the land. On the other hand, it established its dominion by adopting a nostalgic rhetoric, creating a mythical collective past, and casting its mission in terms of the ethnos-land narrative typical of pre-industrial society.

Such a dialectic was particularly pronounced in the case of modern Jewish nationalism, which strove to promote the biblical ethnos-land narrative in place of the longstanding model of diasporic existence. It was a radical change, an attempt to transform a society that was, to use the terms coined by historian Yuri Slezkine, deeply “Mercurian” into something resembling its European host cultures, which were largely “Apollonian.”

This dichotomy requires further elaboration. The agrarian societies of Europe, argues Slezkine, bore an Apollonian structure (Apollo was “the god of both livestock and agriculture… the patron of food production”7). Since they lived off the land, they nurtured a strong sense of attachment to “mother earth,” were committed to a traditional values system, and prized permanence and stability above all.

Nonetheless, every major agrarian society from Malaysia to China to premodern Europe required a subgroup to provide the services incompatible with the Apollonian ethos, such as trade, banking, and medicine. Slezkine calls these Mercurian occupations (Mercury being “the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, art, and craft”8). The ethnic or religious subgroups that provided Mercurian services often differentiated themselves from their surroundings by marrying only inside the group, adhering to dietary laws that set them apart from their host culture, and passing down the knowledge that distinguished their professional expertise.

With the advent of the industrial revolution, the proportion of Apollonian and Mercurian occupations and their relative importance to the general economy changed dramatically. Specifically, industrial societies had a much greater need for Mercurian service providers, who quickly became the dominant professional class.

European Jews had traditionally fulfilled Mercurian functions and were therefore uniquely adapted to the economic and social upheavals of the nineteenth century. Indeed, notes Slezkine, Central-European Jews were soon enormously over-represented in Mercurian occupations, their percentage in the liberal professions often constituting up to tenfold their percentage in the population at large. They became, quite simply, indispensable to the industrial state: They provided it with financing, offered essential legal and medical services, and were highly influential in the media. Within the classes bound to Apollonian occupations, this only heightened an already existing animosity.9

Such were the conditions that led to the rise of modern antisemitism in the second half of the nineteenth century.10 If traditional anti-Jewish sentiment was couched in religious language, this new strain of antisemitism was deeply embedded in modern nationalism and its “blood and land” romanticism. Because of their speedy and successful influx into modern society, Jews were accused of being overly cerebral, dissociated, a foreign element wherever they resided. These antisemitic stereotypes reflected the threat experienced by Apollonian sectors such as the German Junkers, who felt the new industrial economy had rendered them irrelevant.

Zionism arose as a reaction to the Jewish condition in the nineteenth century, and as such is inextricably tied up with the rhetoric of modern nationalism. The impetus behind much of its ideology stems from the antisemitic notion of the fundamental unnaturalness of Jewish existence.11 When early Zionist ideologues (such as Max Nordau and Micha Berdichevsky) characterized the diaspora Jew as effeminate and insufficiently physical, they were paradoxically (yet quite logically) reproducing the hostile stereotypes propagated by resentful Apollonians who had been dispossessed of their dominant role in their country’s economy.12

Thus evolved what political theorist Avishai Margalit calls “orthopedic Zionism,” which strove to correct the deformity associated with the diaspora Jew.13 Labor Zionism tried to restore the Jew to health through agriculture, and Revisionism by reviving his sense of pride. Early Zionists also called for an amendment to their people’s “inverted pyramid,” demanding that Jews make a living no longer through their brains, but by the sweat of their brow.

All these endeavors had at their core a common Apollonian sentiment:  the belief that Jews were somehow cut off from natural physical reality and could be cured of their ailments only by cultivating a healthy relationship to the land. At the time, however, the Apollonian way of life was already beginning to wane. The very values on which the Zionist mission was predicated were quickly becoming a thing of the past. The twentieth century was, in Slezkine’s words, the “Jewish century”: The traditionally Mercurian occupations became the leading force in all advanced economies, and Jews rose to positions of power and affluence hitherto unknown. This, though, was only the first in a series of socioeconomic transformations that would change the world.

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