Israel and America: A Citizen Nexus? Part 1

In 1949, Arthur Koestler came out with one of his less well-regarded works. Promise and Fulfillment – his journalistic, anecdotal, in some places pseudo-psychological recounting of Palestine under the Mandate and Israel’s first year.

Koestler was a Zionist, spoke Hebrew, had spent a couple years bumming around Palestine as a young man, and covered part of the War of Independence as a journalist. He knew the territory.

So why did the critics hate the book?

For the usual reason where books about Israel are concerned. It didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear the way they wanted to hear it. Their problem. This book is still very much worth reading. The final frets and prophecies, in particular.

Koestler almost despaired over whether Jews could govern themselves as a modern nation. The ideals, traditions and habits of democratic self-government, he wrote, could not be acquired quickly or easily. Civic virtue took centuries to build, and the Jewish people had been out of that business for twenty centuries, if indeed they were ever in it at all as a group. Koestler hinted that, since the Jewish people had no effective heritage of secular self-governance and citizenship, no civic virtue in the Western sense, the outlook wasn’t cheery.

Koestler was both right and wrong. True, no such heritage existed. Indeed, for many centuries, sages had argued that this was all to the good. Politics and political life detracted from religious devotion, and Jews should be content to live under any regime that permitted them the free exercise thereof. The argument remains potent in some quarters even today.

But Koestler was also wrong. Israel’s pioneers and founders had a model and a tradition: the separate civilization of the shtetl, going its own way within oppression, dealing only as necessary with the oppressors. Indeed, the Jewish Agency of the Mandatory years resembles a shtetl government in many ways. And in many ways, it has carried over.

But can you run a sovereign State on the values of the shtetl, a sovereign State that to this day has no Constitution, in part because the Ultra-Orthodox feared that a Constitution might displace the Torah?

Today, as we’ve been positing, Israel is ruled by a set of interlocking oligarchies, from the ultra-high-tech/globalized to the ultra-Orthodox, that don’t want things changed. Not even for the better. An active, engaged citizenry might change things. But citizenship is not a Jewish value. Zionist zeal and zealotry, of course. Patriotism, indeed. Self-sacrifice when called for: yes, magnificently. And endless, endless, endless talk. But real working secular citizenship?

Not hardly. The discouragements abound. The High Court of Justice decrees that there is no Israeli “nationality.” The protests of a couple summers ago added up to not much more than rock concerts. And the present array of opposition political parties offers little more than some very unfunny jokes masquerading as policy proposals . . . and in these parties, as in all else, Citizens Not Wanted. Members, perhaps. Contributors, certainly. But thinking citizens, motivated to better their nation and their people?

The United States has a similar problem: interlocking oligarchies that don’t want things changed. A Left given to Impotence Chic, a Right given to celebratory paranoia, a center notable primarily for its non-existence. And Citizens Not Wanted. Anywhere.

This problem, lack of an effective citizenry, the two countries share. But with one essential difference. America’s oligarchies, as we’ve been arguing, have de facto written off the American people as producers, consumers, as profitable venues for investment. That’s what the rest of the world is for. Israel’s oligarchies still need people.

So what’s to do?

Perhaps Israel could, by the act and process of strengthening its politically sophisticated and active citizenry, teach America a thing or two. But in order to do so, Israel might need to learn a bit of American history.

A century ago, World War I ended America’s Progressive Era, a couple decades of sometimes frantic, usually fascinating and occasionally effective citizen action. The details are complex. But three empowering factors need mention.

First, it was, by and large, a New Middle Class movement. The old middle class still remained, the prosperous country squires and small-town local business owners. The New Middle Class was urban, educated and more and more employed by large organizations. Unlike the older middle class, they did not feel threatened by bigness. They thought nationally and internationally. But they also understood that corporate power had to controlled and regulated in ways that older forms of property and enterprise did not.

Second, the movement placed an enormous confidence in the combination of governmental power and disinterested expertise. Let the experts – those with the requisite knowledge but no personal stake in the issue – figure out what needed to be done, then get the government to do it.

Finally, the Progressive Movement keyed on morality, a morality that emphasized “selflessness” as civic virtue. The ideal citizen, to them, was urban, educated, a corporate type or a professional, and willing to work for things that did not personally benefit him or her.

Ultimately, the movement burned itself out, as all political movements do. The advent of war completed the job. The legacy is mixed: significant accomplishments but a morality and a technique that could not endure. Nor should it have.

But perhaps, as we watch our governance squirming toward yet another . . . here we go again, lordie, this gets embarrassing to watch. Perhaps Israel might learn something from this long-gone American experience, and from how it might be adapted.

Next time: A Politics of Israeli Morality

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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