The Promising Land
Israel: Politics And People.
by Leonard J. Fein.
Little, Brown. 338 pp. $6.95.
Israel's brief history as a state has been attended by the successive exposition and demolishment of an astonishing number of myths concerning its nature and purpose. Each of these myths arose out of a partial view of reality, and was unmade as the prism shifted to reveal another side of the truth. No sooner had the heroic figure of Ari Ben-Canaan stalked from the pages of Exodus than the task of deglorifying and humanizing the new Hebrew man had to be undertaken. Just at the moment that the kibbutz had earned its place as that rara avis, a successful experiment in Utopia, its admirers found that its position had become marginal; instead of a return to the soil, industry was now seen to hold the key to the future. In the economy generally, rapid growth projected a near-kaleidoscopic image. Only a few years separated a regime of austerity, relying on foreign aid, from a Wirtschaftswunder casting off a bright glow of prosperity. More recently, over-expansion was followed by a recession which later was dubbed mitun—voluntary restraint.
Small wonder, then, that most books on Israel, regardless of their intrinsic merit, have enjoyed but a brief vogue: the particular myth—or segment of reality—which they expound is too soon overtaken by events. Nor should we expect Professor Fein's study, the bulk of which was written before last year's crisis, to have escaped these limitations. Indeed, some basic features of the situation have changed so drastically that this book, which was intended to be an analysis-in-depth of the current scene, has become instead a survey of Israel's politics at a particular point in its development. Thus, Fein's frame of reference is the “political culture” which, at the time he explored it, was in a state of transition: with Eshkol's succession to the premiership, Israel seemed to have left behind the phase of military consolidation and could devote itself to strengthening its economy and achieving its foreign policy goals through diplomacy. The 1967 crisis abruptly changed all that, and it also precipitated a new mood in the political system as a whole. Where in the past a standard response of the system to outside pressure had been factionalism and fragmentation, the crisis of June 1967 brought forth, at least temporarily, the opposite, namely consensus and coalescence.
Yet in spite of these time-induced handicaps, Fein's account achieves a rare level of interest and readability; above all, by having something genuinely new to say, it brilliantly clears the hurdle of banality on which so many books on Israel have stumbled. For example: in order to describe the spectrum of opinion in Israel on the issue of Jewishness, Fein sets up a continuum of “identity-intensity” which ranges from “Judaists,”1 for whom Israel is God's promise and the Bible its Law, through “normalizers” who would make Israel a nation like all the nations, to “pure Jews” for whom statehood is merely a legal status for the fact of Jewish peoplehood. As for the Judaists' theological stance, he cites the hope that the more moderate groups among the Orthodox will eventually come to resemble the Christian Democratic parties of Europe, while the extreme Judaists will become an Amish-like, exotic but impotent subculture.
At the same time, Fein acknowledges, the state has tended to blur the distinction between “Israeliness” and Jewishness, pre-empting and incorporating ties of people-hood and transferring them to the nation. “Partly for this reason,” he says, “it is no longer clear what being a Jew means that being an Israeli does not. . . . For the secular, Jewishness has less and less independent meaning.”
As to the much discussed inter-generational conflict, Professor Fein concludes, with two surveys as a basis, that even before the war and the splendid showing by Israel's youth this conflict was far less virulent than had been believed. The sabra “expresso generation,” in spite of its different cultural tastes, agreed to a remarkable extent with the older generation's values and political orientations. The worst charge of the older group against the sabra was bitzuism: “getting things done” without reference to an ideological framework.
Fein classifies the Israeli population into traditionals, transitionals, and moderns, but he also cites data showing a rising curve of secondary school attendance as well as a declining birth rate among the immigrant groups. These trends would indicate that his categories are subject to almost instantaneous change. He points out that “traditionals” are lagging in political socialization and place a low value on the institutions of democratic politics. But it would have been near-miraculous if the complex party structure bequeathed to the state by the Zionist movement had, in addition to its other functions, also proved itself to be an efficient instrument of political socialization. Contrary to the widely held notion, Israelis in general neither feel passionately about, nor are they actively involved in, party politics; the system is run by seasoned professionals. The elaborate ritual they practice resembles more often a minuet than a hora; yet whatever its rhythm, it is too intricate for most newcomers to follow, much less to participate in. But how many first-generation immigrants, for that matter, are politically socialized in any society?
In his thoughtful postscript on the Six-Day War and its aftermath, Professor Fein offers some evidence that the myth of the “Second Israel” (the immigrant population from Asia and Africa) may have spent itself; but even before the war experience had acted, in Mr. Eshkol's phrase, as a “furnace in which a united nation was tempered,” it had not been convincingly demonstrated that the integration process was inordinately slow. True, the cultural gap between oldtimers and newcomers was being perpetuated by physical separateness. But this was due more to the deliberate policy of concentrating newcomers in “development towns,” away from established centers of population, than to any organic hitch in the predictably gradual acculturation of a diversified non-European population to predominantly European patterns. The regional settlement areas which Fein mentions as an antidote to separateness have been the exception rather than the rule.
But there is a “Third Israel” which remains an intractable reality—Israel's Arab population. Fein first outlines the situation as he found it before the war: mounting concern with the Arabs' high rate of natural increase coupled with public inattention to the real problems of majority-minority relations. Then victory sharpened the issue: continued control of the occupied areas with their Arab population places the Jewish character of the state in question far more quickly and effectively than does the fact of a lagging Jewish birth rate.
In what was originally the final chapter of his book, Professor Fein laments the loss of the utopian vision in Israel and even evokes a sense of tragedy by comparing the generation which conceived that vision with the figure of Moses, who never entered his promised land. It is perhaps natural that outsiders should still regret what most Israelis have long accepted as ineluctable: the phenomenon by which autonomous national existence gives rise to a dynamic of its own which is only marginally propelled by the ideology of the founders. This is hardly the stuff of tragedy, and Fein in effect acknowledges as much. But in his postscript he sees the Six-Day War as marking Israel's emergence from adolescence into maturity: “It had managed a psychological feat hardly less impressive than the victory itself; in the area where it had most at stake, and where it had traditionally been least able to affect its own destiny, it had taken complete charge. . . . Israel could, after all, stand on its own two feet, without dependency on others, and shape its own future. The adolescence was over.” Indeed, it is when choices are made in maturity that there is room for tragedy. It would be tragic if, having performed its Jewish role with success and resourcefulness, Israel's efforts to find a place in its multi-national environment were to fail; or if the Jewish ethic were to impede full recognition of the poly-ethnic character of Israel's population, or of its potential for bridge-building to the area and to the Third World beyond. The brief but fearful vision of an Israel facing imminent destruction was shattered, happily, on June 6, 1967; it would be tragic if the myth of Israel as a juggernaut were to take its place into the indeterminate future.
1 Fein's choice of the term is not a happy one. Israelis use it to refer disparagingly to adherents of the American Council for Judaism.