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Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics


A Changing Israel:
What It Suggests for the Future


Daniel J. Elazar


It has been nearly twenty years since Israel and the Jewish people entered into a new generation of political change, economic prosperity, and a peace process. In that time Israel has changed from an embattled state whose Zionist vision was basically unquestioned and whose people, or at least the Jews among them, were tied together by a solidarity long-since lost in the West, to a state in which half the population or more is ready to take great risks for peace while the other half remains strongly fearful of the consequences; where individualism has become rampant; and where all of the country's main institutions have been undergoing transformation as a result of changing conditions. Israel has ceased to be isolated in the world. The new world popular culture has penetrated into almost every corner of Israeli society, replacing the old Zionist-Jewish culture upon which the state's life had been based, and Israeli institutions are becoming more like others in the West.

There is every reason to believe that these changes will continue over the next generation. However, what is even more important is that not all accept these changes as good. Hence, the cleavages in Israeli society which at one time concerned matters considered either temporary and passing such as the cleavage between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, or tolerable within the context of Jewish culture, such as between secular and religious, are now becoming the kind of cleavages that lead to deep and lasting conflict.

Looking at the many trends with regard to Israel's changing environment, we find that they group themselves into four categories.

  1. Normalization of Israel and its people;

  2. Globalization of their society and economy;
  3. Postmodernization of their expectations, aspirations, and norms; and
  4. The peace process and its dividends.

In addition, there are the constraints on the foregoing that exist and are likely to remain.

1. Normalization: In 1968 I wrote a paper called "Israel: From Ideological to Territorial Democracy," in which I advanced the thesis that Israel, like every other new society, now that it was finishing its initial pioneering period and moving toward a second generation of statehood, would soon begin to move from being an ideological state to being one whose people were tied to it not by the ideology that had motivated their fathers and mothers to come and settle but by their ties to place, the country as a whole, their localities, the scenery, the region, the local culture and habits. This has now substantially come about as it has in every new society in modern times beginning with the Puritans in New England. We can expect more movement in this direction and we cannot expect the old ideologies to capture the majority of Israelis as they once might have.

This means that Israelis' expectations will be less tied to the ideologies that brought their forefathers to the Land of Israel and more to what "normal" people want in "normal" places; that is to say, personal success, health and happiness for themselves and their families, a chance to succeed in what they choose to do with their lives. They will be less interested in communal goals and more in individual ones, at least private and personal ones for themselves and their families. Their goals will be less ideologically Zionist or even Jewish and will become more conventional; that is to say, "like all the nations."

Zionism itself was founded on two strands: one which sought Jewish renewal through a return to the land, and the other which sought normalization. The two could live together as long as Zionism and Israel were in their pioneering stages and, in addition, were under siege. But now that the siege appears to be ending, the tensions between the two come out in the open and, as with most people in most places, most Israeli Jews seek normalization and only a minority continue with their Zionist, Jewish, communal, and ideological goals.

The consequences of this are to go after those "pleasures" and opportunities that everyone else does in the world or at least everyone who is considered "modern," "progressive," "Western" seems to do. Moreover, the old ideological instrumentalities are in decline. This is true of the kibbutz and this is true of Judaism. Any program that seeks to improve Israel and life within it must make choices between how much it wants to foster this normalization and how much it will try to foster older or newer versions of older Zionist and Jewish norms and goals.

Some organizations for improvement simply seek "normal improvements." The Society for the Protection of Nature, for example, seeks nothing much that is not on the agenda of nature protection in societies anywhere. The only difference between it and a nature society in Australia, for example, will be that in Israel there is more concern with preserving archeological remains as well as natural environments.

Others such as Gush Emunim exist primarily to advance the older ideological and communal goals, but still others like the proliferation of new style Jewish learning centers in Jerusalem, may try to find some new synthesis.

2. This situation is further complicated by globalization that is bringing Israel to be fully part of the world scene in every or virtually every respect. Jews have always been heavily involved in the world scene. Indeed, unlike Icelanders or Laplanders or Amish, Jews always have insisted on preserving their Jewishness while being on the center of the world stage.

The Land of Israel itself is a kind of metaphor of the Jewish character in this respect. Most of it is drained by the Jordan River which flows into the Dead Sea, a body of water that has no outlet, thus leaving the land self-contained, but the land is located right at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa with all the intercontinental connections of the Old World passing through it so that it could not ever be isolated. That is the classic Jewish situation: self-contained but right in the center of things.

Now, however, that is changing as a result of world changes impinging upon Israel and Israelis' desires to be part of those world changes. What was once involvement with the world while preserving separation is for many becoming merger with the world culture. We can find some precedents for this in Jewish history, but world culture has never been so universal and powerful as now because of the new technologies and the annihilation of space that is part of the contemporary scene.

Today, it is much harder to preserve a separate pocket without great sacrifice than it once was. The arrival of cable TV and the latest communications methods have made this merger with world culture an almost inevitable process unless people chose to resist it. In addition, Israel has looked forward to its merger with the world economy in order to prosper and become part of things, which Israelis were prevented from doing because of the siege and the reluctance of the rest of the world to fully accept Israel as a partner since that meant risking their ties with Arab partners who had needed oil reserves and other advantages.

Even Israeli Jews who want to resist merger with world culture generation are pleased with Israel's merger into the world economy, although the consequences of this will be as great. For example, after 1948 Israel had to become almost self-sufficient in the manufacture or production of most goods during its first generation and its economy boomed on that basis, but prices were high because markets were small. Now that Israel is open to the world market, those local industries are being undercut by cheaper goods of equal or better quality from elsewhere. Israel must find its market niche instead of trying for self-sufficiency. This is driving old firms out of business or into merger with multinational firms subject to all the local vagaries that that produces as multinationals move their chess pieces across the world board.

It also means that as Israel succeeds in this, there is more need for low-level workers in the kind of positions that Israeli Jews once filled in great part out of ideological belief, that this was required for "the normalization of the Jewish people," but which their children will no longer fill, thereby requiring "foreign guest workers." For the last generation, Palestinians have fulfilled that role, but increasingly, Israel has begun to import foreign workers to do so, partly because of security fears stemming from the employment of Palestinians, and partly because in the short run it seems to be cheaper or better in some way. Thus Romanians, Thais, Filipinos, and Nigerians are either brought in or sneak into Israel to find work and do so, generating a whole new set of problems that Israeli society has not even begun to contemplate.

Globalization also means accepting global political expectations with regard to peace, the definition of happiness, and the definition of human rights and democracy. The penchant for liberalism among modern Jews, which was not absent from the Zionist movement, easily lends itself to accepting these political expectations. In practice these have mixed consequences since, implemented in a certain way, they strike at the kind of communal and ideological concerns of both Zionism and Judaism and have contributed to the intensification of the cultural struggle within Israel, the tension between religious and nonreligious, and the tension between tradition and what has come to be considered "normal" or "conventional" in the postmodern world.

3. Postmodernization: For Israelis as for others, principally this has involved, first and foremost, accepting the canons of postmodern life and belief; that is to say, radical individualism as opposed to the acceptance of communal norms and responsibilities, the relativism of values rather than the existence of eternal truths, the almost exclusive emphasis on rights without regard to obligations, the advancement of the right to life to the foremost position over and above any other considerations which gives every individual life an entitlement to certain "goods" or "benefits" from society as a whole.

Postmodernization also means the weakening of the state structures of the modern epoch, the diminution of political sovereignty for all states, and the growth of interdependence that is being constitutionalized as well as placing very real limitations on what individual states can do. The state is becoming more a vehicle for providing services to those who live within it than a vehicle for achieving the special collective goals of its citizenry.

This also means the weakening of high culture as all culture is evaluated as equal because taste is considered relative and democratization means that people and behavior of what once was considered low taste cannot be denigrated in any way on behalf of what once was considered of higher taste. Moreover, this is accompanied by the elimination of all taboos. Any subject can not only be discussed, but virtually any action other than the direct destruction of life is to be accepted as a matter of personal preference.

All of this leads to a weakening of boundaries of every kind: territorial boundaries between states or other political entities; cultural, national, or racial boundaries between groups; the boundaries between what is good or bad, permitted or forbidden. In some cases this weakening of boundaries has brought the world to a better state. In others, it has become life-threatening.

Israel is just now moving into these aspects of postmodernization, but is doing so rapidly and those who have opted for these canons of postmodern life and belief seem to feel very threatened and angry at those who stand for other or older ways of life that require the acceptance of obligation, the belief in norms that have intrinsic value rather than values that are relative, and the maintenance of boundaries in life. The practical ways in which this is beginning to play itself out is not only the difference between the pub culture of Tel Aviv and the ideologically-driven settlements in the territories, but also in the fact that Jews no longer maintain even the boundaries of marriage between themselves and non-Jews and their non-Jewish partners are accepted as immigrants to Israel under the Law of Return, thereby bringing in a new non-Jewish population that does not have its own strict separate identity as does the Arab population but are themselves parts of or aspire to be part of the universal world culture, which makes it easier for them to live with their Jewish partners who are also expected and probably do share those aspirations. Or, on another plane, it makes it impossible for the state to distinguish between the entitlements of Jewish citizens and others based upon obligations and performance; i.e., more benefits if one does military service than if one does not.

4. The Peace Process: All of the foregoing have affected Israel and Israelis in any case, but they are all being exacerbated or hastened by the peace process which has made it possible for Israeli Jews, who have hitherto viewed themselves as under siege, to relax and partake of these changes. Peace will bring greater Israeli involvement with their neighbors and their neighbors greater involvement with Israelis, both of which will lend support to the process of normalization and make it more difficult to maintain old ideologies and commitments in old separations. Peace will also weaken the desire to maintain those separations and indeed heighten the desire to become part of the neighborhood, as it were.

This will have a whole host of practical consequences. This has consequences ranging from an increase in crime as borders become more permeable and there is greater contact between Israeli criminal elements and those in neighboring countries, to greater intermarriage of Jews and non-Jews, to the introduction of forms of behavior almost completely absent from Israel in the past, whether with regard to drunkenness, violent crime, or in the observance of Christmas, which has been noted as growing among Jews in Israel in recent years. The spread of these "vices" in Israel reminds one of the United States of seventy years ago when the mass media promoted them as "sophisticated." While in the United States, the mass media had to promote drinking, smoking, and looser sexual behavior as "sophisticated," in Israel, imitation of the non-Jews in almost every respect is considered by certain groups as more sophisticated.

5. These trends are both restrained and exacerbated by certain constants or what seem to be constants in Jewish life within the Israeli situation. The strong tendency to universalism in Jewish culture is an exacerbating force, just as the equally strong tendency to parochialism among some Jews may be a retardant. The clash of the two or, even better, the clash of the distortions of the two is a major producer of tension and conflict in Israeli society. The Jewish cultural penchant for doing things in extremes through the mobilization and expenditure of great energy also leads to an exacerbation of all these tendencies and the opposition to them. The tenseness that has been noted among Jews, at times described as neurosis, adds fuel to this situation.

The same kind of limitations of the Land of Israel, its location, its lack of natural resources, its limited size and limited opportunities, are also constant. They affect the way Jews will respond to the changes around them. There seems to be no question that in the long run only ideological commitment -- Jewish, Zionist, or the equivalent -- has kept and keeps many Jews in Israel despite greater individual opportunities elsewhere. The weakening of those commitments is likely to ease the process of emigration or rather yerida. On the other hand, in the postmodern epoch this is not necessarily a once and for all act, but may involve moving back and forth under differing circumstances at different stages in one's life.

On the other hand, the culture of Israel's neighbors has proved to be unappealing to many Israeli Jews. It serves as some barrier to the pursuit of normalization as integration in the immediate region, though it may bring those same Jews to look for normalization as integration into the cultures of others further away, e.g. Europe or the USA.

All of the foregoing should provide a context for talking about specific trends. For example, growth and population in this country and the contraction of usable space for Jewish travel undoubtedly exacerbates the traffic situation and traffic accidents. These are further exacerbated by the introduction of drunk driving for the first time on the Israeli scene by non-Jews who have a tradition of drinking, e.g., the Russians, or by the spread of drinking among Israelis in the name of sophistication. The elements of tension in Jewish culture may also stimulate driving habits that lead in the same direction.

This is but one rather prosaic example of a situation that can provide endless examples. For Israelis and for world Jewry, this is an entirely new situation that we have not even begun to explore or reckon with, but which we must. We do not have the luxury to choose whether we want to or not because the situation is upon us and will grow in its impact.

One thing in the Jews' favor in reckoning with this situation is that when Jews sit down and think about a problem "talk it up," so to speak they tend to find the directions that they should take and even some of the actions. We do not require a hierarchy to give us instruction, but can, using our own heritage and resources, find the way to move forward.

For those of us who seek to remain distinctively Jewish even as we participate in the world in the active Jewish manner that we have known in the past, the road is doubly difficult. But, knowing the resources that we Jews can bring to bear on the problem, we can be at least qualifiedly optimistic that with the right combination of good sense and Divine assistance, we will be able to do so.


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