I was recently invited to talk to Hamidrasha’s Nifgashim B’Shvil Israel, a group that is hiking the Israel National Trail as a meaningful way to commemorate the 73 IDF victims of the fatal 1997 helicopter collision over moshav She’ar Yashuv. As the group’s website says, it is “a unique way to meet, to have direct dialog, and to discuss basic questions about Israeli society and Jewish heritage – while hiking.”
We met in the pine forest on the outskirts of Kibbutz Ramot Menashe. The 300-strong group was extremely varied: men, women and children, young adults and the elderly, religious and secular – a sampling of the entire range of ingredients in the “Israeli salad.” Despite the 15 kilometers the group had hiked that day, they were remarkably alert and attentive. I shared with them some of my musings over the past few years about Israeli society, and asked for reactions from these people who were seeking common denominators for Israeli society.
In the spirit of Passover, I framed the discussion as a series of questions:
What are we really? Does the group called “citizens of the State of Israel” constitute a “compound” or a “mixture”?
Is what we are creating here, on this tiny strip of land in the heart of the Middle East, really a unique substance called “Israeli”? Or is our society perhaps only a mixture of people with shared experiences, language, rules, government institutions, threats and history?
And from here I wondered: What are the most meaningful common denominators that connect the citizens of Israel and in what direction are these common denominators moving? I proposed four primary common denominators: religion, enemies, army and culture:
I grew up in kibbutz whose founders rejected the “religion of God” – the religion that had defined their ancestors as a people for thousands of years. Because humans are unable to live lives totally devoid of some kind of belief system, they adopted other “religions”: the religion of labor and the religion of the land and nature. The famous ceremony for the Omer (first wheat harvest) at Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan is an example of the combination of the religion of labor with the religion of the land. At the Omer ceremony, held the day after the Seder Night, the reapers, dressed in Biblical-style finery, go out to the rustling fields of golden wheat with song and dance, and harvest the first ripe grain.
The precise, rhythmic swinging of scythes in unison, the stirring dancing, the choir singing the beloved song Shibolet BaSadeh (Stalks of Grain in the Field), the smell of the field as it is reaped, the sun setting in the west, the sound of horses galloping to bring the torch bears to light the burning banner “Raise This Omer” at the climax of the ceremony… All this creates a form of religious ecstasy in a pioneering community that rejected their ancestors’ God of exile and created another in its place.
The Omer ceremony has been celebrated at Ramat Yochanan for the last 67 years, but it is clear that the religion of labor and land does not have as strong roots as the religion that was rejected by its founders. Only a century has passed, a mere moment in the history of the Jewish people, yet this religion is already slowly slipping into the history books and onto the archive shelves. Followers of the religion of labor, in the kibbutz in particular and in Israeli society in general, are disappearing. The fields and orchards are gradually being converted into shopping malls and roads, the creative kibbutz ceremonies for the Shabbat and Festivals are becoming a thing of the past, and kibbutz society–apart from a few islands of hold-outs who want to prove it is possible to do things differently–no longer seeks to climb barricades and smash conventions, but instead has become just one more way to achieve a bourgeois life.
But even in the most extreme of those kibbutzim, God was never entirely absent. A second-generation member of my kibbutz once told me how, as a child, when he felt stressed and lonely he would secretly turn to his mother’s Bible and leaf through it, reading a few verses to himself like a personal prayer. There is no prayer more genuine than that!
In contrast to the religion of labor and land, which finds itself in retreat as Israel enters its seventh decade, the religion of God is experiencing a re-awakening, although not necessarily in its traditional forms. In prayer halls in Jerusalem, in Jewish Identity Circles in the kibbutz, in newly established synagogues in Tel Aviv, in study centers across the country, the religion of God expresses itself in different ways today, but it has the same object and source of strength: a higher power, the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah—the religion of the Jews.
In 1930, the poet Bialik wrote: “One can reformulate and restyle the festivals to a certain extent, but one cannot create something from nothing… Celebrate the festivals of our ancestors and add to them something of your own… those who do not find meaning in the festivals and holy days have empty, non-spiritual souls… ”(Mimekhah Eilekhah – Sefer haShabbat, page 251).
I believe that Israel must preserve and develop the religion of Israel in order to keep together. “Israeli-ness” alone will not be strong enough glue for the long term. The religion of labor and land is in decline, a bare 100 years after its birth. It turns out that “Israeli-ness” alone cannot replace the religion of Israel.
Enemies and cohesion
Michael, a friend from Canada, recently asked me a difficult question: “Sagi, what do you think is the biggest challenge for Israel?” I replied straight away: “The biggest challenge for us is internal cohesion. If Jews are united, nothing can defeat us. But when we are divided, our future is in great danger.” Michael thought a while, and then asked: “And what is the greatest threat to Israel?” I needed a few moments, and then I said. “The biggest threat hanging over us is if in the future our enemies become united.” “What’s the difference between those two things—the challenge and the threat?” said Michael. “The challenge depends mostly on us,” I answered, “and the threat depends mostly on others.”
There are those who say, “When we have peace and are no longer surrounded by enemies, we will begin to fight among ourselves. Israel’s enemies need only wait quietly and let the Jews destroy each other. ” These words express the concern—a concern that is not totally unfounded—that one day our enemies will stop attacking us and will let us internalize all our fears, bitterness and jealousies and then harm each other. Our most significant social glue is living together on a tiny island in an unstable neighborhood, surrounded by those who wish us ill. But is having enemies in common sufficient to keep Israeli society together? And is this a healthy way to do it?
The Army as a molding and unifying experience
A few weeks ago, my family went for our periodic eye exams at our HMO clinic in Tiberias. Doctors are paid by the number of patients they see, so their time is short—approximately seven minutes per patient. The amount of time and attention the doctor is able to devote is extremely limited, but on this visit our children received exemplary attention.
I was the first one in. “I know you!” I said when I saw the eye doctor. At first he was reluctant to waste precious moments of his limited time with polite greetings. But then we began the well-known Israeli ritual: “Where did you serve in the army, what division… ” We discovered that about 25 years ago I was his instructor in a tank commander’s course… after that, it was a short distance to the personal attention for my children and the battle stories from our shared time serving in the military service.
Even before Israel was established, the paramilitary groups that pre-dated the IDF (Palmach, Haganah, Lechi, and others) were Israel’s melting pot. You went in as a kibbutznik/moshavnik/new immigrant/city dweller/whatever, and came out an Israeli and an army veteran. This does not mean that army service, in which one learns to kill or be killed, is necessarily the best way to unite people from different backgrounds, but that is a topic for another discussion.
The melting pot that is the army is being eroded. Our model of army service is now marching towards the American model, an army in which most of the soldiers are those who want a stable income and a path to social mobility.
The Israel Defense Forces is becoming less and less “the army of the people” in which everyone serves, and more an army that defends the people but in which only some serve. While there will always be Israelis who serve for ideological reasons, wanting to serve their country in a meaningful way, the fear is that the IDF may become predominantly an army of the poorer and less educated, those who feel they have few other ways to advance in society.
If so, what is the alternative to army service as a common denominator and unifier? Can Israel dispense with the social role the army has played in unifying the country since the establishment of the State? Is it possible to create a framework for civilian national service in which every citizen in the country will participate, and during their service will be exposed to and mix with each other?
Culture and way of life
It is difficult to find an accurate definition for “authentic Israeli culture.” The culture that has developed in Israel is a fascinating synthesis of religious heritage, national revival, and facets of many other cultures, plus a smidgen of battle dust, a pinch of landscape, all spiced with nature and wrapped up in the world’s oldest living language.
Government authority was also a central part of Israeli culture. There are many examples, among them the rejection, during Israel’s first 30 years of the culture of immigrants from North Africa, and on the other hand, the one-time ban on playing on official media channels songs that were considered liable to reduce national motivation (the most infamous example being Shir laShalom (Song for Peace).
But in recent years it seems that commercial considerations are more and more determining the direction of Israeli culture—not ideology, but profit. How else can one explain the Israeli public’s addiction to reality programs that show a group of attention-seekers who voluntarily allow themselves to be filmed shut up in a house for three months, with commercials being inserted in between one scene and the next?
During Passover I watched the movie The Hunger Games with my older children. It was too violent for my taste, but my teenagers insisted on watching it. The Hunger Games presents a dystopia centered on an extreme reality program. According to the movie, if today most reality shows harm only our intelligence and waste our time, tomorrow they may have the potential to damage our freedom and our lives.
“Start-Up Nation” or “Built to Last”?
Many years ago, Martin Buber wrote of the kibbutz movement that “the kibbutz is an idea that has not yet failed.” This cautious approach is also appropriate for the questions before us. We are living in a country that is still a work in progress.
If we can draw comparisons with the business world, we seem to be in the “start-up” phase. Start-Up Nation, the best-selling book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, looks at the entrepreneurial talents of Israelis who have turned their country into a hothouse of start-ups. Singer and Senor focus more on the successes and less on the difficulties of start-ups, of which there are many. Jim Collins, in his book of business management Built to Last, explores the secrets of success, not of start-ups, but of established companies that were built on strong and healthy foundations. One of Israel’s difficulties is the challenge of strengthening the qualities that are required to turn Israeli society from “start-up” to “built to last.”
So what really connects us and what is our common denominator, we citizens of the State of Israel? Is Israeli society a compound or a mixture? And when—if ever—will we have completed our “start-up” phase?