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.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Deconstructing Peace Now

The excellent writer and blogger Michael Totten, whom I consider a personal friend, is currently writing from Tel Aviv. His latest post narrates his meeting with two Peace Now activists from Kibbutz Shomrat. What they have to say is, to say the least, more than a bit problematic, and points to several essential problems which have kept the Israeli peace movement out of the Israeli mainstream since its inception. Judith has requested a critique, and I happily oblige.
Israel is often thought of, in the West, as an unhinged fanatically right-wing country, like the U.S. on speed. Israel is far more ‘European,’ though, than it is ‘American.’ If Israel were not constantly under fire and constantly embroiled in conflict with eliminationist enemies, Israel would resemble a Jewish France or even Sweden of the Levant. The country was founded by democratic Labor Party socialists, and only rather recently has become more capitalist and complex.
This is not entirely true. Israel has been on the capitalist road since the 1970s, mainly because the socialist model proved incapable of sustaining itself. Israel faced a series of economic crises up to the middle 1980s, when substantial economic liberalization was finally undertaken on a mass scale. Israel's economy, despite its precarious political surroundings, has outdone most of the nations of the European Union over the past two decades. In the abscense of the conflict, I think Israel would be more likely to resemble the likes of Qatar or Dubai - explosively growing economies of the Middle East - than any nation in Europe, with the exception, perhaps, of post-Troubles Ireland.
“Amichai is speaking in the context of Israel,” Yehuda said, “and I can understand that. My feeling goes beyond the spirit of Israeli society only. I see organizations like Hezbollah as a threat to humanity in the same manner, for me, as the settler movement is also a threat. Where you have a nationalism that hooks up with a religious idea, I see only trouble. I’m not willing to discriminate between Jews and Arabs on this score. Not at all.”
This is problematic on two scores, and I say this as a critic of the settler movement. Firstly, Zionism in general is certainly nationalism hooked up with religous ideas or archetypes. Even leftist, Kibbutz movement Zionism clearly takes its sanctification of the land and its ideas of social justice from aspects of the Jewish religion. Secondly, there is an essential and absolute difference between Hezbollah and the settler movement, or even the more extreme religious-national movements such as Kahanism. Namely, Judaism and Zionism are not universalist creeds. Islam and Islamic radicalism are. That is, even at their most extreme, Jewish religious radicals want only the Land of Israel. Islamic radicalism, on the other hand, desires the world. Jewish religious extremism is, in my view, far more dangerous to other Jews than it is to members of other religions and peoples. Judaism's destructive forces tend to be turned inward, against itself. Jihad, on the other hand, is directed both inward and outward, and is thus far more dangerous and, potentially, destructive.
“When there was the Yom Kippur War and the Israeli army was attacked on two fronts we felt that by serving in the army we’re defending our country. But when the intifada broke out and there was the question of masses of Arab women and children throwing stones – that was the war of the rocks – we felt that by serving and trying to oppress the justified anger of the Palestinians from trying to achieve self-determination, that made it much much harder to go into reserve duty. It made us more committed to try to leave both Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. The main goal of the peace movement was to get out of Lebanon and to get out of the Occupied Territories. I was very very active in the struggle to leave Lebanon. I served in Lebanon twice.”
This paragraph points to a particular blindness which has been part and parcel of the Israeli peace movement for many years. Namely, the tendency towards moral absolutism and the concomitant negation of any contrary views as fundamentally immoral. For instance, whether the anger of the Palestinians is justified or not, one must consider the fact that one of the primary motivations of the Palestinian's desire for self-determination is the desire to determine themselves upon the destruction of Israel; or, at the very least, the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state. In the same way, to leave Lebanon is one thing, to leave it in a manner which will not weaken Israel and its detterance capacity is quite another. The Israeli peace movement has never seemed able to understand these contradictions. Thus, perhaps, its tendency to take to the streets rather than the Knesset. The street erases distinctions and emphasizes the reptilian mind of the amorphous mass, for which slogans are solutions and righteous anger an acceptable replacement for the truncated possibilities of political reality.
“In 1967 Israel just blew it,” Yehuda said. “Ben Gurion said to get rid of those territories. No good is going to come out of it. People were overwhelmed with the victory. I don’t think Israel had a choice. Then we ended up with the territories. Nobody forced us to hold onto that and to start a settlement movement there.”
Ben-Gurion was ambivalent regarding the territories. He certainly thought that they should be returned, but only in exchange for a viable peace agreement, and he assumed this would be made with Jordan and Egypt, not with a Palestinian nationalist movement predicated on the rejection of Zionism. Moreover, he was totally opposed to the division of Jerusalem, something which I believe most of the Israeli peace movement supports. I also don't think Israel "blew it" in 1967. The issue of the territories, in my view, has to be understood within a shifting historical context. In the 60s and 70s, the territories, in my view, served as something like Jabotinsky's "Iron Wall", a military bulwark against Arab agression. This was, after all, an era in which Israel did not have peace with any Arab countries and was under constant terrorist attack and diplomatically isolated due to the apartheid policies against her in the United Nations. In my opinion, the retention of the terroritories has outlived that role and is now more a threat to Israel's existence as a Jewish state than a safeguarding of it.
“You guys,” I said “think the recent invasion of Lebanon was a mistake?”

They both laughed.

“I think that if you ask most Israelis today in retrospect,” Amichai said, “looking at the results after the month, a large majority thinks it was a mistake.”
This isn't entirely true. As far as I can tell from basic observaton, the general feeling here is not that the invasion was a mistake, but rather that it was badly executed and the military-political leadership missed an excellent opportunity to deal Hezbollah a serious military blow. The frustration here is immense, but it is not with the concept of invading Lebanon; rather it is with the Olmert government'a failure of leadership.
“What do you think Israel should have done instead at the beginning?” I said.

“Knowing Hezbollah,” Yehuda said, “there would have been ample opportunities to launch a strike. If the army would have been better prepared, and if the civilian population would have been prepared. What were these people thinking? What were the circumstances that led people into this kind of train of thought that they thought they could get away with this kind of activity being so ill-prepared. Some kind of hubris that goes way beyond, I mean, this is, from my point of view, this whole war and the results thereof have weakened Israel a great deal. And it almost certainly dictates a second round.”
I agree that the military-political leadership was unprepared for the war. However, I think the general population was well ahead of the leadership and was prepared for the war and also for casualties. I agree that Israel has been weakened by the government's failure and there will be a next round, however, no member of the peace movement has the right to stand aside and claim from a distance that Israel suffers from hubris. If anything, it was the hubris of the peace movement, believing we could leave Lebanon in a pathetic fashion, without an agreement and without the hope of international enforcement, wash our hands of the whole situation and not face serious problems down the road. This is one of the more offensive aspects of the Israeli left in general - you can see it most clearly in their reaction to the failure of Oslo - they tend to make irresponsible and moralistic demands and then, when they are enacted, absolve themselves of all responsibility for the results. I think this is one of the reasons that the peace movement has never managed to gain traction among the majority of Israelis, they are simply refuse to be held accountable for their mistakes. Perhaps this is another reason the movement prefers the streets to the ballot box.
“I think my criticism of the Israeli government from the very beginning of leaving the Occupied Territories…was not trying to strengthen the moderates. If Israel would have made gestures of support to Abu Mazen and tried to strengthen the moderate wing and engage with him and give the Gaza Strip back to him rather than not have any negotiations with him, I mean, I cannot understand the logic of that. I mean, they strengthened the radicals who have the glory of kicking the Israelis out of the Gaza Strip. Or out of Southern Lebanon. That’s a stupid way of going about it.”

“But if the moderates are strengthened,” I said, “the radicals haven’t gone anywhere. They still have their Kassem rockets. What do you do with these guys? I mean, you can’t just take rocket hits.”

“No,” Amichai said. “You can’t. You have to strike back. You have to strike back.”
Again, we see that the peace movement bases itself on an essential contradiction. On the one hand, strengthen the moderates. On the other hand, strike back, which weakens the moderates. This is not to mention the fact that any moderate strengthened by Israel is immediately going to be seen as a sell out in the pocket of the Israelis. And again, we see the abdication of responsibility. To a great degree, Hezbollah got the "glory" of kicking Israel out because of the peace movement's constant assertion that the occupation of Southern Lebanon was fundamentally immoral and had to be ended whatever the political consequences. The same in regards to Hamas and Gaza. This is not a reflection on the rectitude of these withdrawals, but one does have a right to demand some recognition of obvious consequences from those who presume to deal seriously with politics and war. It is easy to critique. It is much harder to admit to consequences. I supported the Gaza withdrawal. I believe this withdrawal did embolden both Hamas and Hezbollah and - in the short term - damaged Israel's detterance. There is nothing particularly difficult in admitting to the consequences of one's positions. However, there is something immensely dangerous in the hermetic tendencies of those who cannot, and will not, admit any such thing. Until the Israel peace movement can come down from the dream palace of infallibility it has built for itself, it will continue to be isolated in the impotence of the streets and the comfort of facile sureties.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


I suppose the time has come to write something about the aftermath. Suffice it to say, I am not happy. I stopped posting during the war out of something like frustration married to depression. There did not seem to be much point in opining while scouring the newspapers to see if any of my friends were included in the casualty lists. Thus far, thank God, only one has been wounded, and not critically. This, of course, included the guilt of feeling glad that none of my friends were killed while other's friends were... War is a schizophrenic experience...

No one here thinks this is over and no one here thinks that the war reached a satisfactory ending. Personally, I feel we were very badly led. Olmert announced goals which he did not have the political will to accomplish. The army relied far too heavily on air power at the beginning of the war and did not move quickly enough to use ground forces. When the army did use ground forces, it did so piecemeal and not in force. More than anything else, the war went on far too long. It should have been finished with overwhelming force and as quickly as possible. This did not happen because of Israel's "Lebanon syndrome", the fear of reinacting the war of 1982 and subsequent occupation. This led to the situation in which Olmert declared military goals which he could not achieve without a massive ground invasion. As a result, he shifted his strategy to a political one. In the end, he accepted a cease fire which is unlikely to hold and has given Hezbollah time to rearm. It also places a UNIFIL force in control of the south which may or may not deal with Hezbollah effectively. If they do, Olmert can claim some kind of a victory. If they do not, and this is the most likely scenario, Olmert will have to face total military and political failure and, of course, another war.

In my opinion, the political leadership is running behind the general sentiment of the Israeli people. The general population was prepared for a major war, including a ground invasion. The leadership miscalculated by believing the opposite: that the Israeli people wanted an effective response that did not include a major ground invasion. In the end, this led to the war being long and costly without achieving any major strategic objectives. The government ended up with the worst of both worlds.

Of course, some diplomatic ground has been gained. Hezbollah has taken the lion's share of the blame for the violence and the "international community" (a dubious collective at best) has taken some measure of responsibility for enforcing its own resolutions regarding the disarmament of Hezbollah. These are all just words, however, and it is likely that Israel will soon have to act, rather than talk, in order to safeguard its national security. I think it is very likely that, when the dust settles, it will likely be a new and more rightwing government which undertakes this task.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Nature Balances Itself

The great anti-Chomskyite Vidal-Naquet may have left us, but nature (or the irony inherent in history) appears to be trying to rectify the imbalance. Mass murdering totalitarian dictator and Chomskyite hero Fidel Castro is apparently gravely ill and has ceded power to his brother, Raul. So much for direct democracy. Chomsky is no doubt deeply saddened, his worst fear, a free Cuba, may soon be a reality. Viva Cuba libre! Viva la counterrevolution!