Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Towards a Values Based Discourse on Aspirational Zionism: Tal Becker

Insightful piece by Tal Becker on creating a 'Values Based' discourse on Israel; moving away from the crisis mode of survival towards a meaningful dialogue on how to create the kind of society we wish to build and inhabit. Worth reading in its entirety.

The Place of Values

Even if necessary or unavoidable, the crisis model is inadequate. It is not just that many Jews – especially younger ones - cannot reconcile this model with the success they see, or the comfort and safety they feel. It is that this model fails to provide a compelling narrative as to why Israel can, or ought to be, both central and meaningful for contemporary Jewish life.

Especially for those Jews indifferent to, or disillusioned with, Israel, the conventional narrative is both narrow and shallow. Narrow, in that its focus is on the physical existence of the Jewish people in their homeland, not on the breadth of what this sovereign project might offer for the collective Jewish experience. Shallow, in that it pursues Jewish survival for its own sake but tells no deeper story as to why that survival is important and worth fighting for. This may be self-evident for some, but an increasing number of young Jews seem to have little stake in Israel's quest for survival, and a conversation centered around the threats Israel faces creates little incentive for them to care.

Beyond Survival


For many years now, the conversation about Israel in the Jewish world has taken a familiar form. With rare exceptions, our sovereign project is spoken of in Jewish communities across the globe with pride about the past and anxiety about the future.

At formal gatherings, visiting Israeli speakers are invariably introduced with some reference to the fact that “Israel faces grave new dangers” or the “greatest challenges in its history.” They are expected to address the threats confronting the Jewish state and respond to audience questions that spread across a familiar spectrum ranging from concern with Israel's policies to concern with its public relations.

As one of those speakers, I am often struck by how a discussion about Israel can draw Jews together in so many different and distant communities around the globe. There is something inspiring in knowing that Israel is not alone in facing adversity and that Israel’s fate still stirs deep emotions in Jewish hearts.

And yet, there is also something deeply disappointing about a conversation that is so crisis-centered, something disquieting about the extensive focus on how to protect and defend Jewish survival, rather than on how to imagine and advance a sovereign Jewish society.

This crisis-based mode of talking about Israel retains pride of place among the many Jews deeply attached to Israel's future as a sovereign Jewish State but worried about the trajectory the country is on. These Jews may differ greatly, and argue vociferously, about how to respond to Israel's crises, but it is the sense of peril that animates their passions.

Nowhere is this kind of discourse more evident than on issues of peace and security. Territorial compromise with the Palestinians, for example, is for some Jews a national imperative and for others national suicide, but each position is invariably cast in terms of the threats we face. We are warned of “demographic threats” and international isolation if we do not withdraw from the territories, of security threats and a violent rupture of Israeli society if we do. In either case, it is the threat to Jewish survival that is summoned as the decisive argument and that plays into the wellworn patterns of our national discourse.

The Roots of Anxiety

The roots of this threat-based conversation about Israel are deep and multifaceted. The first, and perhaps most important, is that the crises facing Israel – from a nuclear Iran, to terrorism, to delegitimization (the list continues) - are real. Though sometimes exaggerated, they are not imagined. It is irresponsible to belittle them, and entirely legitimate to pay serious attention to how to confront them.

It is understandable that many Jews – certainly in Israel - feel we are still at the stage of protecting what we have and cannot yet indulge in the "luxury" of thinking beyond the dangers we face. Survival is our first responsibility. And so, we continue living on a knife’s edge, ever alert to existential threats, and pushing off questions of national identity and purpose to quieter and less dangerous times.

A second, deeper, undercurrent of the crisis narrative is found in Jewish tradition and experience. Our history as a people is so riddled with persecution and existential anxiety that the relative success and safety we enjoy today does not easily displace it – at least among older generations. Israel remains for many of us the “Jew among the nations”: isolated, wary and vulnerable. Israel may be the “beginning of the redemption,” but until that redemption comes in full and prophetic form, every achievement is seen through the lens of Jewish history as fragile and reversible.

In this respect, as much as some of the earlier Zionists imagined the emergence of the “new Jew,” the discourse about Israel remains dominated by the old one. We have soldiers to be proud of, and a society that is innovative and vibrant, but we carry the anxiety about our place in the world and our survival not unlike the archetypal Jews of Exile.

Yes, we have power now, when in the past we were powerless. We can take pride in our capacity to defend ourselves. But in our national consciousness, the sense that we are a fortress under siege remains palpable, and even the way we use our power, and speak about its use, seems to reflect this self-perception. We do not tend to broadcast confidence in our future or control over our destiny and even the vocabulary of our leaders is filled with talk of existential threats and impending peril. Israel may have cured the Jewish people of its statelessness, but not yet of the state of mind with which it is associated.

This is all to say that in many ways we are still a traumatized people and this does much to explain why the politics and language of fear resonates in Israeli and Jewish society. The scars of the Holocaust remain deep and will take generations to heal. Even if Israel’s enemies were not providing present threats, the ghosts of past ones would – at least for many of us – be enough to shape much of our mindset and preoccupation with potential danger.

This sense of national vulnerability influences the third factor that seems to drive the focus on crisis: the model of Zionism that underpinned Israel’s establishment and continues to shape the national psyche. The political Zionism of Pinsker and Herzl, of Nordau and Ben Gurion (among many others) was richer and more nuanced than is often appreciated, but its primary goal was to establish Israel as a place of refuge for the Jewish people.

Unable to live "normal lives" in the Diaspora, the political Zionists’ core aspiration was to form a sovereign Jewish state in which it would be finally possible for the Jewish people to be free to live as all other nations. As Leo Pinsker put it in his early Zionist work of 1882, "Auto-Emancipation":

The essence of the problem, as we see it, lies in the fact that, in the midst of the nations among whom the Jews reside, they form a distinctive element which cannot be assimilated, which cannot be readily digested by any nation. Hence the problem is to find means of so adjusting the relations of this exclusive element to the whole body of nations that there shall never be any further basis for the Jewish question.

This yearning for a "normal," accepted, sovereign existence naturally places attention on the obstacles to its attainment. If this is Israel's aspiration, then it is the specter of the "nation that dwells alone," of a state in perpetual conflict, that must be overcome. In his first address to the Knesset as Prime Minister in 1992, Yitzhak Rabin articulated this as the wish of many Israelis:

No longer are we necessarily "a people that dwells alone," and no longer is it true that "the whole world is against us." We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation and cooperation that is spreading over the entire globe these days - lest we be the last to remain, all alone, in the station.

Political Zionism's pioneering moment may have passed. After all, it succeeded, against incredible odds, in establishing the Jewish State. But its hold on the national discourse is maintained by the sense that that success is tenuous and must be constantly defended from external and internal assault.

To all this may be added another layer, which is perhaps more disconcerting. As a people, we have become so used to crisis that we may worry (subconsciously) whether we can maintain our unity and collective purpose without it. Crisis is a powerful rallying cry and useful political tool. It generates commitment, sacrifice, mutual responsibility and philanthropy. It can help smooth over fundamental differences and defer divisive issues. What would the Jewish people look like in the absence of some defining emergency as its focal point? How would collective activism be maintained? Would there be a core narrative or set of values that would keep us united?

Given our enemies, our history and the enduring spirit of the political Zionist ethos, the Jewish people can be forgiven for worrying so insistently over the last decades about the threats to their sovereign State. But even if we understand the origins and the attraction of this narrative, we need not embrace its hegemony over the discourse. It is perhaps time to consider the fallout of this preoccupation. What has the national conversation missed by being so focused on crisis? Who have we alienated? What have we lost?

Click here to continue reading

Dr. Tal Becker is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, an International Associate at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a member of the Hartman Institute's Engaging Israel Project.

No comments: