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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

National Viability and Vitality: The Israeli Case (2) – Ambition & Will

Last week I briefly laid out the list of seven factors underlying national competitiveness and dynamism (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/national-viability-and-vitality-the-israeli-case-1/) – to evaluate what lies in store for Israel in the coming decades. Here I will look in-depth at the first factor: national ambition and will.

If there’s one “iron law” of civilizations is that they rise and fall – and then disappear from history: Babylonia, Assyria, Athens, Rome, Byzantium, Ottomans etc. The Jews (in their various incarnations: Hebrew, Israelite, Judean, Jewish) are one of the very few (perhaps the only) nation/s to have risen from the dead. Thus, in terms of modern nationhood, the State of Israel is a babe in the woods (or at most, an adolescent).

Of course, national (re)birth does not guarantee grandiose ambition; many new states are perfectly happy with their modest lot, merely aspiring to grow steadily and flourish. That was not what Zionism was all about. The early Zionists (Herzl et al) were not merely seeking an independent state for Jews already living in the Promised Land, but rather quite the opposite: the State of Israel was to be a magnet for Jews outside the land who would immigrate and found the new state. And even after the State’s establishment, this ultimate goal held – not merely in theory but in practice, as the country doubled its Jewish population within a very few years and continued to receive large numbers for many years thereafter.

An ambitious political philosophy by itself does not guarantee ambitious dynamism. However, three historical factors came together to virtually guarantee that this is what would indeed occur. First, immigrants (whether pushed out of their original homeland or pulled by the promise of the new land) are always more motivated than the “natives”. A country, therefore, founded on mass “aliyah” almost by definition would be thrust forward by the immigrants’ aspirations to better their lot.

A second aspect had far deeper, historical antecedents: anti-Semitism. For 2000 years, Jews had to develop finely tuned survival instincts. From this difficult situation they evolved the mental habit of improvisation, reinforced by being pushed into commerce and intellectual/educational pursuits – away from the more traditional, conservative landowning and farming mindset. Professional Jewish success is one of the marvels of the late modern era; placing a large number of them together within a state of their own virtually guaranteed that the country would be dynamic, even if its ambitions had not been as high as they were due to the aliyah ethos. In any case, after two millennia of persecution depressing Jewish expression (religious and professional), there followed a veritable explosion of ambitious talent and achievement within their newborn country.

Third and related to this, the trauma of the Holocaust could have worked in two opposing directions: either national paralysis, or determination to never let that happen again. The latter path was taken, here too pushing the state into feverish activity with a will of steel to ensure that such a national catastrophe would not be repeated.

Had the Nazi’s vicious anti-Semitism been followed by the world leaving the Jews alone, perhaps such a national, ambitious will might have slowly lost altitude. However, the opposite happened: the State of Israel found itself in the midst of a Moslem Middle Eastern sea imbued with rabid anti-Semitism leading to endemic warfare against the fledgling state. Israeli Jews had no choice but to reinforce their national will to live, and with it grew ambition to expand.

It is here that the downside of national “ambition” comes into focus. One of the main factors in the demise of historical superpowers is ambitious over-extension – think Alexander of Macedon and the almost immediate collapse of his empire; the Mongols trying to conquer Europe and being forced to retreat; the British Empire expanding well beyond what the “Island” could handle. Israel’s expansion into the administered territories (aka Judea & Samaria) is nowhere near such an overextension territorially or even economically. However, it might well be a “political” over-extension domestically, as it has become arguably the biggest fault line dividing Israeli society.

Here, then, is the central question mark regarding Israeli national ambition: will its territorial aspirations be a force for continued dynamism (as expressed by the settler movement) or a hindrance to continued Israeli growth (given the cleavage unfolding on the issue)? That question will be dealt with in next week’s essay that analyzes the next factor: “unified national identity.”

Overall, though, one can conclude that this first factor – “national ambition and will” – is one of the strongest factors (of the seven) underlying Israel’s continued strength. For now…

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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