What might become of Israel, if its secular population continues to Americanize? In discussions with friends, we’ve talked about similar moments in history with cultures as deeply-rooted and long-lasting as Judaism.
One example is worth mentioning.
When Commodore Perry showed up to Japan’s shores in 1853 with impressive warships and advanced technology, Japan made a decision that took it from endangered to emboldened: It modernized after more than two centuries of isolation and internal warfare. It believed that it could adapt western technology to eastern values.
For almost 90 years, their project was successful, however terrible some of their actions. They maintained loyalty to the state and family, adhered to Samurai discipline, and kept their militarism without falling into the nihilism that was entering the western world.
And then they lost World War II.
The neutered Japan of today is unrecognizable relative to stories of that era. Its people are not militaristic. Literally, they are impotent: Pornography’s prevalence means Japanese males rarely have sex. Its birth rate has plummeted. Roughly half a million refuse to work, be educated, or enter training (called NEETs). The economy has limped along for 20 years. Dare I say it out loud? The only thing that could change their circumstances, it seems to me, is — war. Re-militarizing in the name of an existential danger. Japan needs purpose.
So does Israel. The question is how to articulate that purpose — how, and in what ways, to mobilize that potency.
Currently, Israel is following the Japanese path. Born of a similarly old culture, its people, too, spent millennia in tension with itself and the peoples around it. The Jews, like the Japanese, do better when they suffer. The Jews, like the Japanese, cobbled themselves together out of multiple cultures (in Japan’s case, multiple daimyos), militarizing themselves against existential dangers. Out of this came a strength and discipline that validated itself in the Yom Kippur War, a war won only because of the quality of its soldiers.
But Israel has had almost total control of their circumstances for over thirty years. In that time, Israel has encountered, enabled, and sometimes invented new enemies. It took the offensive in the Lebanon War, contributing to a situation that has left Iranian proxies on its border. As it ensured peace with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria (until 2011), it has progressively marginalized Palestinians and its Arab population. Now Iran is cited as an existential threat.
These external wars and actions — and the population’s belief in their necessity — have kept Israeli nationalism cohesive (for the majority Jewish population). And its people, born of Kibbutzim and thousand-year dreams, have traditionally seen the material world as a means to an end. Tikkun Olam has traditionally shielded the Jews from falling into hedonism and meaninglessness.
That might be changing.
Israeli military technology is growing ever-more advanced, giving the population freedom of mobility and interest outside its borders. To that end, Israelis admire America, and Americanism. Its secular population freely adopts American trends. And, to the frustration of its government, it is experiencing a brain drain.
Its saving grace, currently, is the strong family nucleus and military draft — the two institutions that ensure Israelis stay connected and feel belonging. And both are in long-term danger in different ways, something to discuss in future posts.
But with the advent of Americanism, and the growing specialization of its military force, Israel needs a new place to put its potency. In this writer’s ideal world, that means mandatory constructive projects — projects that create national cohesion in ways that are beyond simply defending borders or annexing them. I worry that, given Israel’s national dialogue and dramatic inner tensions, it won’t be able to express its potency in constructive, helpful ways. I worry that Tikkun Olam won’t find a home in the minds of future Israelis.
Maybe someone needs to sound the alarm, lest a future tyrant take advantage of the inclination towards American nihilism, and turn Israel into an all-out warlike power — or quietly enable the flimsiness and impotence that comes from not being comfortable with a healthy striving, conflict, and yearning, as belongs to the Jewish tradition.
Now that we Jews have found a home, in short, how do we keep it?