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Jewish Political Thought

The Jewish State: The Next Fifty Years

Daniel J. Elazar

The good news is that Israel enters its second half-century of statehood in an excellent position for continuing its progress toward economic and security success, despite the problematics of the peace process. The bad news is that conceptually, Israel is woefully unprepared to confront the next fifty years conceptually, both with regard to the Jewishness of the Jewish state and with regard to its "stateness" in an era of globalization.

Technologically, Israel is advancing well into the twenty-first century. Conceptually, most of the framework of Israeli thinking is still stuck in the nineteenth. At best, some segments of the younger generations are beginning to question it. This is particularly true with regard to Israelis' understanding of statehood today, the role of a small economy in a globalized world, and the relationship between religion, state, and society, especially for the state of the Jewish People. These happen to be the three most critical spheres for any state and most particularly the Jewish state.

When I speak of "Israel" or "Israelis," I refer to the community of opinion-molders in the state including those people in its governing establishments and its academic and intellectual leaders. The ordinary people usually are far wiser in such matters although easily misled by the former. I would not want to suggest that their thinking takes the form of a commitment to a well-developed ideology. Rather, it is what has become the conventional wisdom which they have absorbed and accepted from the world around them as filtered through their perceptions of that world. It is one that remains basically unquestioned, to inform their thinking and most particularly their policy decisions and evaluations.

In their understanding of the state, Israelis of today remain very close to their Zionist origins, probably in ways that would surprise many of them. Zionism was born out of late nineteenth century Central and Eastern European understandings of statehood which combined the Westphalian understanding of state sovereignty with the "mittle European" understanding of ethnic nationalism into a superficially attractive but particularly problematic theory of statehood. The Westphalian view of state sovereignty involved three central ideas: one, that sovereignty meant that a state could unilaterally decide on its actions and on its fate; the second, that in order for a state to be able to do so, it would have to be sufficiently centralized so that there would be only one ultimate center of power governing a homogeneous population, all of whom see the nation-state as their primary focus of loyalty, and the economic self-sufficiency to enable the state to pursue its political goals unimpeded.

Whereas in the original states of Western Europe, national homogeneity had to be achieved either through the suppression, expulsion, or physical extermination of minorities, in Central and Eastern Europe the prior existence of strong nationality groups meant that statism was linked to the demands of ethno-national majorities and placed local national minorities in serious jeopardy. The Jewish people, as a minority heavily concentrated in those regions, were victims in Europe which led those who were concerned with Jewish survival to take two steps: one, they embraced the ideology of statism in its Central and Eastern European form, and, two, they organized to replant a Jewish state in the ancient Jewish homeland. They began to implement those steps in the last third of the nineteenth century, establishing at that point a fragment of European civilization in the Middle East. Today everyone of those original understandings has been rendered obsolete by reality and must be modified to meet the new realities of our times.

As a fragment, the Jews brought with them the major elements of the regnant European understandings of the world, not only in matters of statism and nationalism but also in matters of religion, economics, politics, high culture, etc. As in the case of other new societies established by mother countries in overseas territories, while European civilization moved on, the fragments either remained frozen or changed within the new contexts that they imposed on their society. Thus, a hundred years later, Israelis are just beginning to emerge from their socialist beginnings and to move toward a market economy. They have yet to come out of the forms of religious-secular polarization of characteristics of the late nineteenth century. Their politics remains mostly frozen in the patterns of a century ago. Their universities have acquired reputations throughout the academic world as the last bastions of the Germanic university tradition of that period.

To make the point more specifically:

In an era of ever-increasing globalized interdependence when the US and Japan separated by 8,000 of ocean, are interdependently still seeking solutions to the problems of war and peace with our immediate neighbors through physical, separation and territorial partition rather than through constitutionalized cooperation among Israel and its closest neighbors.

In an era in which the market economy has triumphed over all forms of command and control economies, we are still hesitant about finding our way out of our state-dominated economic system into a system capable of competing in the global market.

In an era of increased religious pluralism but in which the state has a framing and facilitating role, we maintain a backward-moving religious establishment to enforce orthodoxy in the manner of Eastern European shtetl (even religious Sephardim have been suckered into that model by the Lithuanian yeshivot via Shas). We continue our conflicts between hilonim and haredim whereby the most vocal of the former still believe it is desirable to eliminate religion entirely from the public square while the latter still expect state-enforced orthodoxy to prevail sooner or later, instead of developing an indigenous Judaism based on the high level of traditionalism still evident in Israeli society.

In an era in which every nation in the West is looking to its roots to find ways to sustain cultural continuity in a time of radical change, too many Jews in Israel believe that they should take from every culture but their own and as a result have developed one of the most uncultured populations in the world, people who know nothing of their Jewish heritage and nothing of consequence of any other as well, making the ugly Israeli a ubiquitous phenomenon.

In an era of polyglot populations, we still rely upon definitions of who is a Jew that are inspired by anti-semites of the past an unable to account for a growing number of people who claim benefits from the state as Jews or under the Law of Return.

Everywhere in the world "civil society" is a term of promise, used to promote or strengthen democracy locally. In Israel it has become a rallying cry for those who would eliminate the Jewishness of the Jewish state, Israel's raison d'etre.

Even if Israel no longer can or even needs to stand strictly alone, following the prophecy of Balaam, the Moabite prophet, to its furthest logical conclusion, being Jewish still involves being different enough that we need not expect that we will ever conform to everything that becomes popular in the rest of the world. Nor should we. Yet in order to survive in the world we must learn how to adapt to its conditions in one way or another. Certainly we must reexamine the ways in which Israel is to be a Jewish state and find appropriate vehicles for maintaining Israel's Jewishness in a new epoch.

Paradoxically, Israel was established to be a Jewish state but its very establishment marked the beginning of a new epoch in which the old ways of thinking about how to be a Jewish state would no longer apply. Those old ways were primarily organic, based on ethnic or blood ties. Today we are still in the early years of the new epoch and are far from beginning to raise the right questions about how to sustain Israel's Jewishness under new conditions that involve considerably more choice. Instead, Israel's elites are charging after what have become the canons of increasing dubious understanding of liberal democracy, particularly in the American style, ignoring the fact that there are two roads to democracy -- the liberal and the communal -- and that other strong democracies such as Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries have been experimenting -- it seems successfully -- with ways of making communal democracy work in the new age, no less than liberal democracy. The latter is more in keeping with Israel's situation and needs to be developed in this country on appropriate grounds.

Instead of seeking to define the character of Israel's communal democracy and simultaneously forging alliances with the other communal democracies of the world where international cooperation is necessary, some of us are fighting democracy in an effort to return to the shtetl as if that historically brief and generally unpleasant experience was what all Jewish history was about, or repudiating our Jewishness to pursue American-style rootlessness or at least our perceptions of what is American-style without the rootedness in their land that Americans have built for themselves over nearly 400 years.

Israel's next fifty years will depend on the extent to which its people can leave the 1890s and jump a century. The state's successes have obscured these particular failings until now but no longer can do so. If we are to save anything out of this mess, we had better get busy, learning to ask and answer the right questions instead of being hung-up on those of a century ago whose relevance has long been superseded.

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