Does Israel Need a Culture War? Part One

Does Israel Need a Culture War?

The answer seems self-evident. Two answers, actually.

(Expletive deleted) No.

And, “Thanks, we already have one.”

Indeed, we do. Within the Jewish sector:

Orthodox against secular.

Haredim against everybody.

Haredim against each other.

Ashkenaz against Mizrachi.

Mizrachi against Ashkenaz.

Ethiopians against their treatment.

Russians, against whatever they’re against.

“Redemption of The Land” brigades against the “Peace Now or Maybe Someday” types.

Men against women. Women against men.

And beyond the intramural:

Jewish Israelis (some) against Arab Israelis.

Jewish Israelis generally against a Diaspora that still hasn’t learned how to shut up and follow orders.

And – lest we forget – Israel against the other six billion-plus of our species: a complex adversarial relationship that requires, simultaneously, dwelling apart from (aka shunning and being shunned), enlightening, and “standing up to “ . . .

As though political or spiritual apartheid were some sort of joy; as though the world has any use for our moral posturings; and as though there were nothing better to do with the world than defy and pretend to defy it.

All this adds up to a Culture War? Absolutely positively. In fact, when you think about it, the Jewish people may have invented Culture Wars. Flash back to the Maccabees. Or backer still to Ezra and Nehemiah. Or maybe Josiah, or Moses. Clearly, however computed, we’ve been in the Culture Wars business for millennia, and it’s not going to stop any time soon.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a new kind of Culture War.

One that resonates with what America’s going through.

Not least of all because Israel’s future, perhaps Israel’s fate, depends on it.

That Jews invented agenda-driven cultural strife back in late antiquity, when diversity and tolerance were the norms, is certainly arguable. The term itself originated in 19th century Germany, with Bismarck’s Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church. It became common in the United States during the 1980s and was canonized by sociologist James Davison Hunter in his 1991 book, Culture Wars. Professor Hunter pretty much established the genre of analyses of “competing visions.” That genre had a pretty good run, ten years or so, then vanished until recently. Now it’s back again, big-time.

Or, would it be more accurate to say, the Culture War of decades prior has metastasized into something new and potentially far more destructive?

America’s current Culture War matters to Israel, and not simply because support or abhorrence of the Jewish State/Zionist Entity has become a “key terrain” issue: a relatively minor locale on which vital battles are fought. America’s current Culture War matters because, in many ways, it impacts and parallels Israel’s.

Somebody (John Kenneth Galbraith, I believe) once remarked that one of the advantages of living on the same planet as the United States was knowing what maladies you’ll be suffering in a few years. True, America’s Benevolent Hegemony as the World’s Sole Cultural Superpower ain’t what it was. But in the present context, it still matters muchly.

Now, modern Culture Wars aren’t nearly as simple as Ezra & Nehemiah telling the local Yids to trash their shikse wives or else, and we’ll rebuild the Temple all by ourselves, thank-you; or the Maccabees slicing up their less than acceptably ardent co-religionists; or even the made-for-YouTube spectacles, 21st century politico-religious snuff films, provided by ISIS et al. Traditionally, American-style Culture Wars require certain civilized preconditions.

Among them:

A minimum of physical and economic security. When you’re fighting for survival, culture’s not exactly Job One.

Mass literacy, mass media.

Sufficient social and cultural complexity to provide lots of people with lots of grievances, from real to real-enough to delightfully-fantasized to purely fictive and ludicrous, but also great fun. The things and people we love to hate: always in inexhaustible supply.

An “official” adversary culture. For centuries now, “serious” Western culture, from art and music to literature, philosophy and religion, has been adversarial, against the status quo and those who benefit from it.

Youth. It’s fascinating how, historically, people have classified the various phases of human life, especially as life expectancy has increased. “Youth” may now extend into middle age, those decades that, until recently, few survived to enjoy.

Age. Aging populations whose values are set by a tandem of youth and “adversarial” culture, often of the for-profit, corporate variety – we’ll come back to this. For now:

America’s ongoing Culture War began in the 1950s. The country was sufficiently prosperous, literate, and mass-mediated, and the Communist threat sufficiently manageable, that people could indulge a variety of dissatisfactions with themselves, each other, and their country. In this sense, the turmoil of the 1960s and the cynical denouement of the 1970s were logical outgrowths of prior malaises. Three items worth noting en passant as possibly relevant to Israel:

Anti-Vietnam protest actually lengthened the war, as supporting the war became a way of opposing the people who were against the war.

The Great Divorce Explosion of the 1970s was a two-generation affair: young people composting their “training marriages” while their parents gave up on their own.

Political protest became psychologized. As issues multiplied and grew ever more intractable, what you protested about came to matter less than that you did it. The payoffs were self-esteem and (sometimes) new personal relationships and growth, not real-world change.

And so it ran from sixties to nineties America, with a break for a few years on both sides of the millennium. And now it’s back again, albeit in a far more deadly form.

And Israel’s part of it now. A big part.

Next: America’s Current Nasty Disarray and Why It Matters to Israel

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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