Perhaps it is time to compare less and focus more on Israel itself
As Israel turns 68, public discussions about Israeli society seem to be all too often dominated by comparisons between present-day Israel and other countries in the past. Take for example the comparison of Israel to a crusader state. As David Ohana showed, in Israel’s early years, this comparison was expressed by Israel’s Arab opponents, and was also a source of concern for Israeli intellectuals. For the latter, research into crusader history was motivated both by a desire to distance the Zionist project from this medieval Christian invasion, and to learn from the ‘mistakes’ of the crusades. At the same time, there were also Israelis in the 1950 and 1960s who promoted a native Canaanite identity.
In addition to Ohana’s focus on intellectuals, in the domain of mainstream Israeli cultural institutions, there was an investment in comparing modern-day Israel with Second Temple Judea. Primary examples include the Maccabees and the Masada rebels. Several decades later, Israel today is often compared to South Africa, or to the United Stated during the Civil War, or even, among some ultra-orthodox Jewish groups, to Tsarist Russia and its forced conscription of Jewish boys.
While all such comparisons attempt to criticize a particular aspect or phenomenon within Israeli society, they seem to me to tell far more about those who invoke them. A case in point is the common comparison between Israel and pre-WWII Germany, as recently expressed by a high-ranking IDF officer. The constant evocation of the political precariousness of pre-war Germany shows the degree to which Israeli society is still traumatized by WWII and the Shoah. In other words, Israel is compared to the short-lived Wiemar republic not because of the similarities between the two states, be they as they may, but because of the memory of what happened after the Weimar’s collapse.
For any comparison that is suggested, there are many alternatives which may be just as fitting. For instance, instead of repeating the comparison with Wiemar, one could compare contemporary Israeli society to the declining Athenian democracy during the Peloponnesian Wars. Similarly, rather than South African apartheid, Israel’s critics could make the comparison to French-occupied Algeria. And rather than Tsarist Russia, Israel could also be compared to King Solomon’s biblical kingdom. Did Solomon not recruit thousands of his subjects for public works, a move which later led to the political split of Biblical Israel into two separate kingdoms? (See Kings I, 5:27-29; 12:18-19.) Finally, how often is the 1947 partition of British-occupied India invoked in discussions about Israel/Palestine?
Ultimately, however, the problem is not with this or that choice of a past state or historic empire to which contemporary Israel is compared, but rather the comparison itself. What might lie behind many of these comparisons, I think, is a form of escapism. Instead of looking directly at the problems of contemporary Israel, with attention to nuance and complexity, external comparisons can be harmful in that they turn our gaze away from reality. Side by side with the exciting developments of the last 68 years, many of the issues that have accompanied Israel from its beginnings have not been resolved. These issues are social, cultural, economic, and spiritual, and most are a combination of the above. Rather than look to problems that other societies have faced, let us focus more on the specificities of what Israel is facing today.