Oren Safdie

Experience: The New Liability

In business and the professional world, experience has always been an asset. Whether it be the number of years you’ve practiced in a field, or just the amount of time you’ve come face to face with challenging situations, clients gain comfort from knowing that they’re putting their trust is someone who’s been tested. Politics have not complied by these rules recently, as we’ve seen with the election of a President who previously served only two years in the Senate, and never worked a day in the private sector. In fact, one could make the argument that President Obama’s lack of record contributed to his electability. Mitt Romney, by contrast, has had a plethora of experience, as a Governor, a successful businessman, and an adept organizer of the Salt Lake City winter Olympics. Yet all these endeavors have only opened him up to criticism, allowing his opponents to highlight his failures, without being obliged to put them into context with his successes.

In Israel, experience has also shown recent signs of being a liability. In the past, Israeli leaders won the public’s trust with military lore, or climbing through the ranks of the government. There was often an emphasis on choosing someone who had been tested on the battlefield, or at least the Knesset floor – no small feat of its own. Yet today, two of Israel’s most accomplished leaders, Ehud Barak and Bibi Netanyahu, have had to endure scathing criticism at every turn by political pundits and journalists who accuse them of being compromised by their experience, even leading to charges that they have become “Messianic” and out of touch with reality.

A lot of this is consistent with what some might attribute to attention grabbing headlines in an era of media saturation, but the demonization of experience – and the notion that it negatively impacts a person’s decision making process – has been used as a weapon in Israel before, going back to the years following the founding of the country. It was the early 1950s, when a new wave of Jewish Arab immigrants came to Israel, sometimes referred to as “Operation Magic Carpet.” Almost over night, the political landscape was shaken up, and a government that was monopolized by mostly European Jews suddenly had to contend with a substantial electorate that was free-market oriented, and held more cautious views regarding negotiating with Arab leaders. Living under harsh regimes and enduring years of discrimination had hardened them to a certain reality, but rather than see these experiences as potential foresight, these Sephardim were chided by their opponents for being out of touch. Some sociologists even called it a syndrome by which these darker skinned Jews – (more closely resembling their Arab counterparts) – were overcompensating in order to prove their loyalty to Israel. Many whispered behind closed doors that these new immigrants’ lacked of formal education, prevented them from making a reasonable judgment.

For the most part, such riffs simmered below the surface; bubbling up from time to time, but always put in check once the country went to war or faced wave after wave of Intafadas. More recently, however, as Israel has entered a prolonged stretch of (relative) quiet, the blame game for the impasse in the peace process has once again heated up.

Aside from the actual leaders themselves, the target this time happens to also be one of Israel’s more recent group of immigrants: those pesky Russians. Although by no means a homogenous voting block, who have shown some flexibility in shifting alliances between right and left leaning parties, the new immigrants have undoubtedly taken a harder line in the past few years. It wouldn’t be a stretch to surmise that this had something to do with their own experiences of growing up under Soviet dictatorship, along with the fact that the Palestinian rejected numerous peace treaties before resporting to violence – not to mention the missiles raining down on their country once they unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon – yet the new sociological thinking by their opponents has twisted this experience into a liability, and branded them as the main cause – even by Bill Clinton – for why there isn’t peace in the Middle East. (And that’s despite, how Israelis love to boast about the new brain power that has been injected into Israeli society since these new immigrants made Aliya.)

But perhaps the most audacious – even arrogant – example of one group delegitimizing another based on the notion that experience clouds their views, comes from a large portion of the North American Jewish community, who criticize the Israeli electorate (as a whole) for not seeing the picture the way they want them to. Somehow, they’ve come to believe that by living 5000 miles away, in the safety of their Manhattan apartments or suburban New England homes, they somehow possess a clearer vision on how Israel should behave – (if only to save it from itself) – than the people who have to live there everyday with the threat of war hanging over their heads. It’s as if these philosophers actually believe that theoretical study of a situation carries more weight than the actual experience of living in it. And the only way they are able to argue such a case (without looking totally hypocritical), is by demonizing experience. So, suddenly, the Holocaust is no longer a historic lesson by which Jews should summon the words, “Never Again”, but instead it has become an albatross that causes acute paranoia, a skewed vision of reality, and justification to vote for Barack Obama just one more time.

About the Author
Oren Safdie is a playwright and screenwriter. He's also written articles for Dwell, Metropolis, The Forward, The Jerusalem Post, Canadian Jewish News and The New Republic. His play FALSE SOLUTION opens at La MaMa ETC in New York June 13, 2013