Growing up in the Israel of the 1960’s meant experiencing a bonding intimacy of idealism grounded in the soil of this newly liberated Jewish homeland. The Holocaust was put behind us, and was perhaps even a taboo for discussion. But the lessons of the Holocaust remained fresh and real to young Israelis.
Self-reliance and sacrifice were the demands of the day. Israel in the early 1960’s was an idealistic society and nobody needed to be lectured on Zionism. Israelis resented anyone’s fulminations on idealistic Zionism, since it was practiced rather than discussed.
In today’s Israel, the leftist post-Zionists no longer see Zionism beyond a topic for discussion. Does it indicate the death of Zionism and an end to the idealism that made several generations of pioneers toil the soil and shed their blood to make the dream of a Jewish State a living reality? Not really!
The State of Israel is a reality cemented in established institutions, rooted in a strong and flourishing civil society that enjoys a free press, the rule of law, and a democratic government. Like all modern states, Israel is no longer a “developing country,” but part of the developed world with an average per capita income of $30,000. Its GNP is larger than that of all its Arab neighbors combined and it exports to other western countries some of the most sophisticated computer technology, optics, electronics, military hardware and software, and the best medical devices that high–tech can produce. While the lives of many of those living in the greater Tel Aviv and Haifa areas may resemble those of western Europeans and Americans, the pioneering spirit can still be found in the communities of Judea, Samaria, Golan, the Negev and Galilee and even in a few Jerusalem neighborhoods.
The intimacy of a small-beleaguered nation of the 1960’s has, in 2008, given way to great material expectations. The streets of Tel Aviv are a testament to such material changes. In the 1960’s, only two out of ten Israelis owned a motor vehicle. Today, it is about 9 out of 10. Israelis own the latest and the best gadgets, and the fashion leaders in New York, LA, Paris, or London can be assured that what’s “hip” in Soho is “cool” in Tel Aviv too.
Veteran Israelis who put their lives on the line in successive wars have sought more comfortable lives for their children. They have reasoned that if their sons and daughters must still depend on arms to preserve their country from attack, at least let them enjoy the luxuries of life. Israelis travel abroad more than virtually any other people per capita. Israelis can be found trekking the far corners of the earth in what has become a rite-of-passage following completion of their compulsory military service.
Perhaps the most critical change has occurred in the hearts and minds of the Israeli political left. In the 1960’s, the moderate socialist-left Mapai party was the unchallenged government of Israel. The media in Israel consisted of the printed press (three independent papers and many party bulletins) and government appointed and funded radio stations (Kol Israel and the military radio Galai Zahal). Television did not exist, and neither, for that matter, did public scrutiny of its politician and public servants.
The government-funded kibbutzim were featured as the preservers of idealism. And the model for “cool” was the tough, rugged, and unpretentious kibbutznik who served in an elite military unit and, when home, wore sandals, khaki shorts, and the kova tembel (the blue pointy hat).
The political-left was the establishment and ran the country politically, economically, and socially. In dealing with the Arabs, the political left (excluding the Israeli Communist party) was uncompromising. An example of which was the Alon Plan (named after Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Alon, a hero of the War of Independence), which proposed, following the Six Days War of June 1967 that Arab towns and villages would be ceded to Jordan in exchange for peace. However, he insisted that all empty areas (with no Arab residents) were needed for security, and should be annexed to Israel. Contrast that with today’s political left that seeks to divest from all of Judea and Samaria despite the fact that the Arab-Palestinians are unwilling to conclude a serious peace agreement.
Yossi Beilin typifies today’s leftist elite in Israel. Beilin believed Yasser Arafat was acting in good faith and, when the 2000 Intifada showed him otherwise, he lost no time in substituting Yasser Arafat with Yasser Abd-Rabbo (one of Arafat advisors) and drafting with him the Geneva Accords, which called on Israel to give up all the communities of Judea and Samaria, the Temple Mount, all of eastern Jerusalem, and compensate Palestinian refugees. No compensation, however, for the nearly one million Jewish refugees forced out of their homes in Arab states was demanded.
Deprived of the pioneering ideals and the kibbutzim (most of which have been privatized) the Israeli political-left has become radical, almost nihilistic regarding the sanctity of the land. The rise of other political forces in Israel including the Likud, with its many Sephardic constituents, robbed the left of its monopoly on power. At the same time, the religious-Zionist pioneers of Judea and Samaria exhibited the true spirit of pioneering Zionism that was once the domain of the political left. The rootedness of the religious-Zionist in the land highlighted the bankruptcy of leftist “idealism.”
The left’s socialism turned out to be a canard when the leftist elites gained control over most of Israel denationalized industries. Bereft of religious beliefs, robbed of the monopoly on power, and bankrupt in terms of ideas, the last domain of the left--its control of the media and culture--became a cudgel against Israel’s territorial integrity and its perceived “enemies,” the Jews of Judea and Samaria.
Israel’s leftist media and cultural elites transformed the social and ethical mores of the 1960’s into boundless hedonism. As far as Israel’s leftist cultural elites are concerned, “the enemy” is Judaism as practiced by most traditional and believing Israeli Jews. The left is on a quest to re-make Israel into “Shenkin Street,” a reference to the leftist elite base in Tel Aviv.
This unbridled hatred of left for the religious community and the rise of corrupt religious parties such as Shas created an unbridgeable divide in Israeli society and broke the consensus that existed in the 1960’s.
At 60, Israel is a middle-aged country - more comfortable materially, more individualized in thinking, and more politically diverse than in its youth. The one area Israel lags dangerously behind in is its cultural authenticity. The Americanization of Israel has had dramatic effects on education, responsibility, idealism and patriotism. But whereas America can survive with the diminution of these values, Israel’s precarious existence in a hostile region cannot.
Israel is still fighting for its existence and that requires a healthy measure of idealism, patriotism and responsibility.
The curriculum of the public schools in Israel, designed by post-Zionist education ministers such as the radical leftist Shulamit Aloni and the current Yuli Tamir (a founder of Peace Now) has left the youth with little appreciation of their heritage and a diminished sense of peoplehood.
A more competent government and a reformed electoral system based on the accountability of each Knesset (Parliament) member to his/her constituents might help strengthen Israel and insure its future viability. An idealistic education minister with the traditional values that most Israelis can identify with might be able to create a new kind of idealism - not the 1960’s variety, but a modern sense of belonging and connectedness to the land Jews have prayed and died for over the past 3060 years.