In the past few weeks we have been exposed to a video clip on television produced by the Culture and Sports Ministry, showing joyous citizens expressing their pride in the achievements of the state, which is about to turn 70. I must say that this clip embarrasses me every time I see it, which is very frequently since one cannot avoid it, no matter what channel one is watching.
The clip shows a young woman who announces that she has just registered a startup, two young women who have just won Olympic medals, an elderly farmer bragging about his exports of cherry tomatoes (incidentally, Israel is an insignificant exporter of tomatoes on a global scale, and export figures are constantly dropping), a mixed group (gender-wise and ethnic) of soldiers marching, a prancing group of young religious men (no women, of course) bringing a new Torah scroll to a synagogue, an elderly couple announcing that they paved roads and dried swamps, and an employee of a department of public works popping up from manhole with a hardhat on, stating: “We have built a state!” At the end everyone stands in some town square, shouting “Yesh!”
This sort of thing is childish, and would have been tolerable in the first two decades of the state’s existence. It is not that there is no reason to express pride and even astonishment at the achievements of the State of Israel during its first 70 years of existence – on the contrary – but simply that the choice of reasons in the video is rather pathetic, and mostly befitting a third world country.
In addition, the choice of a distinctly urban, bourgeois couple to depict the pioneers who “paved roads and drained swamps” is either the result of ignorance on the part of those who created the clip, or a deliberate attempt to erase the true identity of those who paved roads and drained swamps during the period of the British Mandate, who did so for ideological reasons. Today the paving of roads and difficult, life-threatening jobs (like construction) are performed by foreign workers from Asia and Eastern Europe. The ideal of Avodah Ivrit (Jewish labor) is dead.
There is certainly much to be proud of and astonished at in our state. The mere fact that a very heterogeneous people, the overwhelming majority of whom had been scattered throughout the globe for 2,000 years, survived, both as individuals and as a people, despite discrimination, pogroms and the Holocaust, managed to create a viable, functioning, modern state, with a rich, revived language and an endless list of wondrous achievements is nothing less than a miracle. The fact that the state is far from perfect does not diminish this miraculousness.
Even though Israel has had a large variety of governments, headed by a large variety of prime ministers, it is certainly admirable how all of them have managed to navigate the ship of state safely through very stormy waters. Not everyone believed this would be possible, given the fact that Israel is probably the only state in the world that has faced threats to its mere existence since its foundation. But up to the present all our prime ministers and governments have managed to navigate us safely through the dangers. Up to the present.
It is also astonishing how a people, most of whose members came from states that were neither democratic nor progressive, and who disagree at the deepest level about what should be done and how, set up a democracy, which under very difficult circumstances has managed to continue to exist as such, and function relatively well.
And then there is the achievement of a pluralistic society, given the basically intolerant and conservative nature of many sections of the Jewish people.
Certainly there are many faults in the Israeli pluralism – especially when it comes to the near monopoly of Orthodox Judaism in our society, and the prevalent non-egalitarian, xenophobic approach to Arabs and other peoples (especially if they happen to be black).
Given the fact that in the early years of the state the elites were almost exclusively secular Ashkenazi socialists and liberals (who, incidentally, lay down the foundations of the state and ran it for its first two decades of its existence), women’s equality was said to be an ideal but was in fact hardly a reality, and society was predominantly conservative in its approach to gays and other “others” – we have certainly made amazing progress.
We live in a reality in which right-wingers and all the various Orthodox religious groups are in power, Mizrahim are progressively attaining their rightful place in society and the history of the state, women are gradually breaking more and more glass ceilings (despite a rearguard action by some religious forces), while gays are no longer forced to remain in the closet, even though they are still denied various basic rights. Unfortunately, the old elites are under constant attack by the current government, and are frequently accused of lack of patriotism and even treason (especially if they dare to be human right activists), but they are putting up a brave fight.
The Knesset reflects both the positive and negative aspects of the Israeli democracy and its pluralism. I am frequently amazed at how despite some highly problematic Knesset members, who demonstrate open disdain for democracy and pluralism, and despite the current government’s efforts to replace our system of liberal democracy with the dictatorship of an illiberal majority – all in the name of “governability” but largely the result of our prime minister’s insatiable desire to remain in power at any cost – somehow the Knesset manages to ward off the dangers. Sometimes it does so on the basis of common sense and basic decency, at other times with the backing of the Supreme Court, and the “gatekeepers.”
Hopefully when Israel celebrates its 80th anniversary we shall still be able to take pride in the sagacious leadership of our state, its impressive achievements, its democracy and its pluralism. Hopefully Israel will also be a little more humane than it is today.