A New York Minute
A Rabbi's World
The Nosh Pit
A New York Minute
All She Wrote
The Nosh Pit
A Rabbi's World
Just outside of Ashkelon, on a huge expanse of land in Kiryat Gat, Intel, the U.S. computer chip giant, is building the single largest foreign investment in Israel’s history. Rising from the ground now at a quickening pace, Intel’s “Fab-18” plant will cost $1.6 billion to build. It will employ at least 1,500 people. And it is expected to generate about $1 billion per year in revenue once it opens, some time next year.
When it was launched in 1995, Fab-18 embodied the bold expectations many held for an Israeli economic breakthrough sparked in no small part by Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s peace process.
Now, though the peace process is on a long downward spiral, Intel’s commitment to the project is undimmed. And the plant has become a centerpiece of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s quite different contention: that with high-tech, Israel’s entry into the 21st century need not depend on the peace process. As he told the Israeli paper Haaretz last August, “The sector that’s most exempt from the issue of political instability is precisely high-tech, because the competition for human resources there is so fierce. It is without constraints.”
Accordingly, under Netanyahu’s guidance, Israel has pursued an industrial policy of grants and credits heavily favoring this economic sector. And high-tech, in turn, has produced almost all the new jobs in Israel and accounted entirely for the increase in Israel’s industrial exports in the first half of 1997.
Still, Israel’s economy overall today is in a serious slump, with a sharp decline in gross domestic product and a serious increase in unemployment.
As the peace process has ground to a halt, the debate over its role in Israel’s lunge toward the 21st century has only intensified. Many blame the current economic slump at least in part on the retreat of the peace process.
Both sides, however, may be missing the broader significance of this plant and others like it: With or without the peace process, they portend a seismic change in Israel’s fundamental character as it heads towards its next 50 years. The transformation these new enterprises herald is not just economic, but social and cultural as well.
The globalization of industry and investment, high technology, the information economy and the kind of educated and open society necessary to find a place in it — all these challenge Israel in quite a different way than its previous struggle. And the changes they bring will affect the peace process at least as much as the peace process affects them.
As an elite computer chip fabrication plant, for example, Fab-18 will bring the most developed technology in Intel’s arsenal to Israel. And it will offer top salaries to the high-level engineers and technicians required to staff it. That’s great news for Israel, which simply must hold on to this talented sector of its labor pool if it is to compete successfully in the 21st century.
But with its high pay for this technological elite, Fab-18 may also contribute to a trend that has made the relatively egalitarian country shaped by Israel’s founders into a country with among the most unequal distributions of wealth in the Western world, after the United States.
For a country that, unlike the United States, still depends heavily on a strong sense of shared fate and solidarity for its basic survival, this has implications far beyond mere distribution of wealth. Increasingly, Israel is moving towards becoming two separate societies: one, highly educated, prosperous, open to the outside world, individualistic, materialistic and largely (though not exclusively) secular in its preoccupations; the other, poorly educated, low-paid, broadly traditional, insular, communally oriented and more hostile to the outside world.
This division, and how the country addresses it, will determine Israel’s basic cultural orientation as it moves into the 21st century.
It was Jean-Paul Satre who coined the slogan, “Existence precedes essence.” And on the eve of Israel’s 50th anniversary, this maxim hits home with unexpected import: To a large extent, Israel’s first 50 years were about the struggle for its existence. The next 50 promise to be a struggle over its essence — the actual character of the society that has fought so hard — and well — for its own survival.
It is a long deferred struggle. In 1948, as hostile Arab armies gathered around a much smaller territory, everyone from Meir Vilner, the head of Israel’s Communist Party, to Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin, a leader of the stauchly Orthodox, anti-Zionist group Agudat Israel, papered over diametrically opposed conceptions of the what new state should be in order to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Even with the Arab armies at the gates, a key sticking point that caused no end of conflict was the Orthodox parties’ insistence on including a reference in the text to the signatories’ “trust in Almighty God.” Signers from some of the socialist and Communist parties vowed absolute resistance to this reference. Finally, it was agreed the document would simply declare trust in “Zur Yisrael,” the Rock of Israel.
Given such basic, irreconcilable views of the new state’s nature, it might seem unsurprising that when the state’s founders convened a broad-based assembly to draft a constitution for the new country, that body never succeeded in producing one. Instead, it simply converted itself into the country’s first Knesset, or parliament, and began passing laws.
But there was an even more fundamental reason all sides eschewed defining the government’s powers and limits, and the rights of its citizens in legally binding terms. Many of the revolutionaries of this era — left, right and religious — never regarded representative democracy — the division and limitation of government powers, the right to information and the rights of the individual — as primary values.
In this era of nation building with sparse resources amid hostile forces in the wake of the Holocaust, the paramount social value was discipline. And the system of government the founders adopted almost whole from the pre-state period of struggle combined the formal trappings of democracy — a plurality of parties, universal suffrage and a respect for the basic rules of political conflict — with the imperative of mobilizing all society’s forces to achieve the goal of constructing and consolidating the state.
Embodying this imperative, Israel’s founders were determined not to permit their hands to be tied by abstract principles, or to allow the executive’s freedom of action to be interfered with. In Zionist parties left, right and religious, few objected philosophically to this vision of polity and society. For all, the needs of the collective trumped those of the individual.
There was also, of course, the problem of the special military regime placed over all Arab citizens of Israel with the state’s founding. This made a credible promulgation of civil rights and liberties to be shared by all Israeli citizens impossible. It was not until 1966 that this military regime over more than 15 percent of the citizenry ended. To this day, basic issues regarding equality for Israeli Arabs — now almost 20 percent of the population — remain unresolved.
Today, Israel remains a Western democracy with one of the weakest parliaments and the strongest executive branches. Unlike Britain or France, for example, no member of parliament can challenge the executive branch with the moral or political authority that comes from representing actual citizens, since Israeli voters do not choose their representative but vote only for the party of their choice.
This leaves the executive branch as Israel’s founders established it in 1948: all-powerful as long as it has the majority. Israel’s recent electoral reform under which Israeli voters now vote directly for the prime minister, and only the prime minister, has only underlined this reality.
But now, paradoxically, the free market values so assiduously nurtured by the current prime minister in projects like Intel’s Fab-18, are promoting an ethos of individualism and a yearning for middle-class normalcy deeply at odds with the communal discipline and collectivist outlook of the government structure he has inherited — not to mention that of his own core constituencies, such as the haredim and West Bank settlers. It is these groups that are in many ways upholding the nation’s historic tradition of self-sacrifice and communal commitment to religious or national goals. It is the emerging economic class being nurtured by Netanyahu that is most at odds with these goals.
The current conflicts over which streets and which shopping malls will be open or closed on Shabbat are proxy skirmishes in this wider battle, not just disputes over feasible logistical arrangements for coexistence.
The battle over recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel is part of this broader struggle, too — but much more serious with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Russians with questionable Jewish status and zero Jewish background. These new arrivals form a huge potential pool to be absorbed into the country’s historic ethos of communal commitment — or its emerging new one of individualism.
Finally, Israel’s decision on where and on how extensively to withdraw from the West Bank is not just a security, or even a political issue for those on either side of the epic divide within Israel. It also promises to deeply forge — or reforge — the nation’s character and direction in many cultural and social areas.
In each of these cases, the players vary. The particular ideologies that animate their views can vary widely as well, making for shifting and sometimes strange bedfellows on each individual issue.
But on one side of each of these rifts is a group that stands broadly for the values of communal commitment, an ideologically mobilized society and a readiness for group sacrifice, whether for religious or patriotic nationalist ideals.
On the other side are people with a strong belief in the primacy of the individual, a tendency to balance self-interest and public interest in reaching a position, a pragmatic approach that considers costs and benefits, and a strong desire for a less ideolgical, more typically middle-class society.
Thus, the ultra-traditionalist religious leader, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, had no problem coming out strongly against the Rabin government’s historic Oslo Accords despite his own frequent exhortation that the West Bank could be sacrificed for the sake of pekuach nefesh, or saving lives. Rabbi Shach passed no judgement on Oslo’s merits in this regard. Instead, getting right to the heart of the matter, he complained, “The goal of this government is that this be a state like every other state. It is of no importance to them if this is Am Yisroel, or simply a free and democratic state without any ties to religion, nor to the past.”
On the other side, Gideon Samet, the veteran columnist for Haaretz blithely abandoned mere security or political analysis of Oslo when he proclaimed, “Thanks be to God” that the agreement with the Palestinians “has broken down the ingredient that was the cement in the wall of our old national identity. ... Madonna and Big Macs are only the most peripheral examples of a ... ‘normalness’ which means, among other things, the end of the terrible fear of everything that is foreign and strange. ... Only those trapped in the old way of thinking will not recognize the benefits.”
Left between these shifting, still-coalescing broad poles are small groups and sectors, still politically insignificant, searching urgently for a Jewish middle way.
One of these small groups, Meimad, a moderate Orthodox party, proposes an approach to Jewish values that would require a radical re-synthesis of the country’s absolutist premises. On the West Bank, the group would, for example, highlight the concept of equally valid, competing values between and among which one must choose — such as land, pekuach nefesh and the moral and social costs of ruling over unwilling strangers.
Similarly, Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem human rights lawyer, counters both those who would dismiss the moral problems underlying some of the state’s most important founding policies and those who would cite these policies to question the state’s legitimacy. Against both he proposes the difficult moral concept of necessary evils.
Israel’s seizure of land from Palestinians who fled or were forced out during the War of Independence, for example, was a “necessary evil that consolidated the survivability of Israel,” said Seidemann.
“It is mistaken to judge those actions by today’s standards — and it is morally wrong to continue as though we are still in the early ‘50s. ... The state of seige militarily, politically and nationally is over.”
It is significant, perhaps, that many of these activists against absolutism are American — at least as significant as the fact that Dr. Baruch Goldstein and Rabbi Meir Kahane were. But their numbers are small. As the curtain raises on the era that will define Israel’s essence, the prospects for their unique outlook may depend on their ability to mediate the dialectic now in motion under Israel’s current prime minister.
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