Monday, August 28, 2006

Rule of the Mediocre?

Eitan Haber, a former confidant and advisor of Yitzhak Rabin, has written a scathing article at YNet excoriating Israel's leadership for its wartime failures and blasting Israeli society in general. Some of the article is clearly partisan nonsense, but Haber makes some important points. I don't think the piece can be ignored by anyone concerned for Israel's future.
A national commission of inquiry, if and when it is established, will examine why sandwiches and food rations did not reach the soldiers in Lebanon, where did the water supplies go, and who decided to attack Bint Jbeil in broad daylight.

These are important questions that call for real answers, but they will not explain a far more profound process that the Israeli society has undergone, whose first symptom - and it is only the first - was presently revealed in the war in Lebanon.

We are democratic, are we not? Hence we have sanctified the "popular culture" for years. We rejoiced when the "people" finally made it to the top.

Questions such as, "Are we a democracy?" or "If democracy is the rule of the people and its choice, why not let the 'people' rule?" were answered in Bint Jbail, Ita al-Sha'ab, the military sections of our cemeteries, civil cemeteries, and packed bomb-shelters. The rule of the mediocre brought us where we are today.

We know: this is arrogant, condescending, uptown writing, but as God is our witness - it is not so. Many condescending snobs could be classified as "popular," and all we can do is cry over the lowly who made it to top, and over those who died, and those who are yet to die.
This is an ancient argument. It is at least as old as Plato's Republic and has not changed much over the millenia. It is the simple argument that democracy tends towards the lowest common denominator and, ultimately, rule of the mob. A rule that destroys the talented and the explemplary and rewards demagogury, corruption, and "the rule of the mediocre". I'm not sure what Haber is suggesting here, perhaps a return to the de facto one party rule of Israel's pre-1977 Labor governments, something which would likely not produce the results he desires. One of the many reasons for Labor's ultimate fall was the rise of mediocre and untalented party hacks as a result of Labor's domination, a phenomenon which many believed contributed to Israel's failures in the Yom Kippur War. However, Haber has indirectly hit on something important. It is, I think, less a political than a cultural/economic issue. The problem is not Israeli democracy but Israeli globalization. Israel is probably one of the most globalized economies and cultures in the world. There is little or no opposition to globalization in Israel and, to a great degree, the Israeli fetish for acceptance by the international community has become synonymous with globalized capitalism. This is a quite understandable product of the desire to throw off the seige mentality that formed older generations of Israeli culture and embrace the wider world. I am not an anti-globalist per se, but there have clearly been major and, in some cases, negative cultural developments as a result of it. Haber describes them quite well.
For many years, for an entire generation, we cultivated and sanctified the rule of the mediocre and the nation of hedonists that lagged behind it. No one (almost) bothered to look back. They were all looking forward, at the governing seat and mainly at the wallet, seeking to make money, lots of money, in the shortest possible time, as long as we can, as long as the party is in power.
This is not an inaccurate critique, though it is conciously couched in hysterical rhetoric. The cult of money has certainly made great strides in Israel, and while this has had positive effects, such as making Israel's economy one of the world's most energetic, it has nonetheless had an egregious effect on many aspects of Israeli culture. There is no doubt that there is a hedonistic aspect to Israeli culture which is at odds with Israel's precarious military and political surroundings. Moreover, the replacement of Zionist ideals with the ideals of global capitalism is immensely problematic. For better or worse, Zionism is not a materialist ideology. No one came to the Land of Israel to make money. A system which reduces everything down to its relative monetary value is a threat to Zionism as much as it is a threat to any other non-materialist ideology. It is often surprising how many of Israel's most intensly Zionist leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu springs most immediately to mind, do not understand this problem. Zionism and global capitalism will always be at odds. There is, for instance, no discernable reason for Hebrew to be our national language if the only determinative value is economic growth. Hebrew is essential to Zionism, but it has no value whatsoever in a purely materialist culture. Even more threatening, what is the point of serving in the army or even maintaining an army, at great expense to the economy, in the name of protecting a Jewish state whose Jewish character is totally irrelevent to its economic potential? Put simply, there is none. This is, perhaps, the meeting point of "post-Zionism" and globalization, and it is not unthinkable to see post-Zionism, despite its ostensibly leftist pedigree, as an essential step in Israel's renunciation of Zionism in the name of globalized mediocrity. When McDonald's becomes more recognizable than Herzl's photograph, we are in trouble. One does not have to be a socialist to understand this.

Ultimately, we are facing another in a long line of conflicts between the particularism of Judaism and the universalist values with which this particularism must constantly contend. In the past, Judaism has always managed to maintain a dynamic paradox between its particularism and the universal. Nonetheless, this paradox cannot be effected if the conflict remains unacknowledged and unspoken. Haber, perhaps inadvertantly, has hit on a real problem. To begin to speak of it openly and honestly, and across ideological lines, is essential.