Natan Kohn-Magnus
Natan Kohn-Magnus

Upheaval in Israel

Those who know me have probably heard me praise the writings of Jared Diamond. I’ve lost count of the number of times my wife has made fun of me for referencing his work. The geography professor at UCLA was made famous for his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, but he has written many more books which I have avidly read. Diamond’s latest book, “Upheaval” (2019), follows this theme, diving into a detailed comparative analysis of how various nations dealt with crises (past and present). His analyses details twelve common factors which characterize a nation’s response (or lack-thereof) to a given crisis. They are:

  1. National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something
  3. Building a fence by delineating the national problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and financial help from other nations
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems
  6. National identity
  7. Honest national self-appraisal
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises
  9. Dealing with national failure
  10. Situation-specific national flexibility
  11. National core values
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints

Diamond’s analysis examines historical crises faced by Finland, Japan, Germany, Chile, and Indonesia, as well as contemporary crises facing the United States, Japan, and the global community. While reading his book I began wondering how his 12 criteria may be applicable to my own surroundings. “Upheaval” does mention individual/personal crises in the beginning of his book, but I thought it would be interesting and relevant to attempt to apply these factors to Israel, the country I live in and love. The modern Israeli state’s history may aptly be described as one seventy-three-year long series of crises – from an intractable conflict leading to never-ending wars (including the latest round in a never-ending tit-for-tat with Hamas where we seem to always pick up where we left off), to the current political instability, the Covid-19 pandemic, the tragedy at Har Meron, and the fraying of Israeli society at the hands of increasing tribalism and polarization. For brevity’s sake I grouped these factors into broad themes which I then attempt to connect to the Israeli experience.

Help from the Outside, Geopolitical constraints, Other nations as Models, Historical Experience

Jewish history is replete with examples of previous crises, from exile (twice) through persecution in the diaspora and culminating in the Nazi holocaust (although the Jewish people and Israeli nation-state are not interchangeable terms, nevertheless one influences the other). Indeed, it was the scourge of antisemitism which convinced Theodor Herzl of the need for the Jewish people to establish their own homeland in a modern nation state.

Israel has always had a tenuous relationship between reliance on international and outside support and the proclaimed need to be self-sufficient and autonomous, especially when it comes to matters of security. Indeed, the country may well not have come into existence were it not for that fateful United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, and it may not have survived the war which followed were it not for arms shipments from Czechoslovakia. Later Israel received the know-how for its nuclear reactor from France, not to mention billions in aid from the United States. Israel has also enjoyed diplomatic backing from its most powerful ally, from immediate recognition of Israeli independence to continued and predominantly consistent backing of Israel in international fora.

However, Israel’s geopolitical situation remains constrained, as exemplified by the circumstances surrounding the latest round of fighting in Gaza. This was evident in the calls for restraint despite rocket fire that no other nation would tolerate and despite the extreme measures Israel enacted to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties, the intense scrutiny of every Israeli action in the media (in contrast to other conflicts), and in international fora which often lead to immediately categorizing Israel’s actions as “war crimes” or “apartheid” without giving the gravity of such accusations a moment’s thought. Even if these “investigations” are later revised or refuted (as was the case with the infamous Goldstone report) the damage has often been done, as the public internalizes these defamations of Israel and turns them into future political and international pressure against it.

National Identity and Core Values,

Since its founding, Israel has not been able to clarify some core elements of its identity and values, beginning with the basic mantra of Israel being a “Jewish and Democratic state”. Well which is it? How do these two concepts coexist? And more importantly, what happens when they don’t? What role should religion play in state institutions? In the fabric of Israeli society?

Multiple attempts to answer these questions definitively with an Israeli constitution have failed, instead leaving us with ad-hoc basic laws that we essentially define as we go along and as legal events and crises force us to, leading to the considerable controversy surrounding the Israeli supreme court today. Moreover, Israel has not found sustainable or adequate solutions for many civil issues (marriage and divorce, LGBTQ+ rights, religious freedoms, etc).

David Ben-Gurion explicitly evaded tackling a core issue of religion versus state by granting the Haredim in the nascent Israeli state religious autonomy, believing their small proportion of the population made the issue rather negligible. He turned out to be woefully wrong, and now Israeli society has to tackle an undefined relationship with a sector whose goals include both isolationism and institutional power simultaneously.

Self-appraisal, responsibility, flexibility

Over the past years living in Israel I noticed a disturbing trend, namely that politicians and laypeople alike seem to refuse to accept responsibility for their actions or their positions of influence when bad things happen. This was perhaps most outrageously exemplified by the Minister of Public Security, Amir Ohana, in the wake of the Mt. Meron tragedy in which 45 people were stampeded to death. Ohana admirably attempted to display accountability, but by immediately qualifying his statement, saying “I am responsible, but responsibility isn’t equivalent to guilt”, whatever on earth that means”) he essentially sought to escape any personal consequences, which makes his statement ring hollow. His new police chief didn’t even have the guts to make a half-assed statement of accepting responsibility, let alone resign (although he did commit to cooperating with any investigation). One almost can’t blame them for such cowardice in an environment where the concept of accountability simply does not exist. More than a month later, a national commission of inquiry has yet to be established (and was even opposed by many politicians for fear of its findings). This would be amusing if it wasn’t so tragic and if people hadn’t died, and unfortunately more people will die in future avoidable disasters if no one is held accountable when tragedies do occur.

In these instances I can’t help I can’t help but recall when Yitzhak Rabin resigned as prime minister in 1977 for twenty thousand dollars found in a foreign bank account. The very thought of something similar happening today is laughable, and indeed politicians accused of everything from shielding sexual predators to fraud have decried the “witch hunts” against them instead of accepting even a modicum of responsibility. (Yes, there is an assumption of innocence, but there is also the need to restore public trust, as well as a difference between legal and moral/ethical responsibility).

Recognition of Crisis and Self-Appraisal, dealing with national failure

Since its inception Israel has been in a state of crisis and has had to deal with existential issues. Yet, as I elaborate on in a separate post, Israel often neglects and ignores existential or strategic issues until they surface in the form of crises. The Agranat and Winograd commissions established after the Yom Kippur and Second Lebanon war are examples of how only extreme shocks to the “system” to jolt Israelis into demanding answers. But there as of now is no commission to investigate Israel’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more Israelis than the 1948 war of independence, which was marred with failures and inconsistencies, and was only saved by the proverbial vaccine “bell”. Nor does there appear to be any serious attempt to re-examine Israel’s approach vis-à-vis Hamas, or to investigate the Mt. Meron tragedy, let alone to re-examine the precarious relationship between the state and the Haredi (or Arab) populace. Given Israel’s political environment, where evading responsibility is the norm, honest self-appraisal is unlikely to occur in any of these contexts – until we demand it and behave in a way which internalizes Jared Diamond’s twelve factors ourselves[1].

[1] Diamond’s book does list 12 factors that are relevant in personal/individual crises as well.

About the Author
Originally from the United States, Natan came to Israel in 2010. He served in the IDF, recently completed his master's degree in public policy and continues to try and contribute to the country that he loves. He is interested in things, and loves passionate but civil discourse.
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