Social protests – a Zionist success, failure

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-16-11

Just as protesters have been wise to wave the Israeli flag, they should brandish tracts from the Zionist library, demonstrating their wisdom.

Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg

Israel’s social protests reflect two great failures for modern Zionism – and one extraordinary success. The success was demonstrated Sunday night when the Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chose to respond to the protests, and Professor Manuel Trajtenberg of Tel Aviv University visited a Tel Aviv tent city. As a regular reader of the western media, I know what should have happened. I have been reading for years about how violent, sick and racist Israeli society is. Reading how the New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen, among others, eagerly linked the “Israeli summer” with “the Arab Spring” and the European riots, I expected the belligerent Israelis to pummel the professor, mobbing him, maybe robbing him too, British style, if they did not kill him.

Instead, the professor and the protesters exchanged views peacefully. “I can only help you do it,” Trajentberg said, acknowledging the protesters’ power.

The journalistic rush to globalize all these protests overlooked the Israeli exception. Israeli crowds, while passionate, have been peaceful. This civility is a Zionist achievement.

Israel remains an intimate and connected collective. People know one another, engage with one another, feel accountable to one another. Even Tel Aviv often has a small-town-feel. The protests – and the government response – feel familial, with the family of protesters including Beduin, Palestinians and Druse, not just Jews.

Israel’s Zionist founders were utopian; they dreamed of social perfection. Nevertheless, Israel’s creation resulted from pragmatism balancing out utopianism.

The society of Ein Breira, we have no choice, brought to fruition the movement of Im Tirzu Ein Zo Aggadah, Theodor Herzl’s saying that if you will it, it is not a dream.

The bad news for modern Zionism is that these protests took place at all. The Zionist founders, be they capitalists like Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or socialists like A.D. Gordon and Ber Borochov, shared a commitment to the dignity of all individuals. Today’s widening gap between rich and poor would have dismayed them. Today’s social pathologies would have shocked them. And today’s political paralysis, material excess and cultural passivity would have appalled them.

The early Zionists were can-do idealists, committed to building a better world, not just retreating into consumption cocoons or wallowing in self-pity.

This, therefore, is the devastating news for Zionism – that so few of the social protesters or media commentators see either the Zionist movement or Zionist ideology as helpful in achieving the social change the protesters demand. Just as Diaspora Zionists must learn that Zionism is about more than defending Israel when it’s attacked, Israeli Zionists must learn that Zionism is about perfecting the state, not just establishing it. Alas now, Zionism risks irrelevance in Israel, its great achievement.

Of course, in many ways this is a twenty-first century socioeconomic conundrum, far beyond nineteenthcentury Zionist theorizing. All western democracies struggle with what Americans call the work force’s Walmartization.

Since the 1830s, the American democratic miracle, which culminated in the post-World War II creation of the first mass middle-class civilization, relied on thriving factories and corporations paying respectable wages. This social pyramid brought cultural and political stability too. Modern hi-tech economies use part-time workers and cheap labor, resulting in economic and political instability. At the same time, consumerism and libertine selfishness have undermined cultural values and collective commitment.

In the twentieth century, socialism and communism failed even more spectacularly than did untrammeled capitalism, usually yielding flaccid economies and burdensome bureaucracies. Sometimes, totalitarian dictatorships resulted.

The cautionary tales must be remembered as we seek a more equitable distribution, a more humane capitalism.

Zionism can help by offering a collectivist counterweight rooted in nationalism and individual dignity rather than socialism or welfare statism. Israel can lead the world in pioneering new social solutions rooted in an enduring love of freedom, appreciation of markets and a sense of collective responsibility.

Thanks to Zionism, Israel already has its share of humane capitalists. Reading author Saul Singer’s latest writings, it becomes clear that the co-author of Start-Up Nation wants Israel to be a Values Nation, believing that the same ingenuity that made Israel a hi-tech center can make it a model society. Listening to developer David Azrieli, it emerges that this master builder invested in Israel when others would not because he believed in Israelis’ potential, and his entrepreneurial Zionism is about normalizing the country economically without sacrificing core values.

Watching the hi-tech guru Yossi Vardi pour resources and love into the Bialik- Rogozin School in Tel Aviv for children of migrant workers, it appears that there are many ways for those who have succeeded to reinvest in the community.

Traditional Zionism may not have the recipe for the twenty-first century that capitalist democracies need, but a Zionist sensibility can shape the Third-Way approach Professor Trajtenberg wants to help the protesters find. Zionism is about a sense of responsibility for one another. Zionism is about seeking social justice. Zionism is about instilling meaning, idealism and ethics into individual lives and the collective national enterprise. Zionism is about trying to perfect the Jewish state, not just establish it. Zionism is about bringing the best of Jewish values and the best of Western ideas into the altneuland, the old new land. And Zionism is about pioneering creative, cutting-edge solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Just as the protesters have been wise to wave the Israeli flag, demonstrating their patriotism, they should brandish some tracts from the Zionist library, demonstrating their wisdom.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman research fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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