Israel’s social protests reflect two great failures for modern Zionism – and one extraordinary success. The success was demonstrated Sunday night when the economist Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed to respond to the protests, Professor Manuel Trajtenberg of Tel Aviv University, visited a Tel Aviv tent city. As a regular reader of the Western media, I know what should have happened. I have been reading for years about how violent, sick and racist Israeli society is. Reading how the New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen, among others, eagerly linked the “Israeli Summer” with “the Arab Spring” and the European riots, I expected these belligerent Israelis to pummel the professor, mobbing him, maybe robbing him too, British-style, even if they did not kill him. Instead, the professor and the protestors exchanged views peacefully and productively. "I can only help you do it," Trajentberg said, acknowledging the protestors’ people power.
The journalistic rush to globalize all these protests overlooked the Israeli exception. Israel’s crowds, while passionate, have been peaceful. This civility is a Zionist achievement.
Israel remains an intimate and connected collective. People know one another, engage with one another, feel accountable to one another. Even Tel Aviv often has a small-town-feel amid its commotion. The protests – and the government response – feel familial, with the family of protestors including Bedouins, Palestinians, and Druze, not just Jews.
Israel’s Zionist founders were utopian, they dreamed of social perfection. Nevertheless, Israel’s creation resulted from pragmatism balancing out utopianism. The society of “Ein Breira,” we have no choice, brought to fruition the movement of “Eem Tirzu Ein Zo Aggadah,” Theodor Herzl’s saying, if you will it, it is not a dream.
The bad news for modern Zionism is that these protests took place at all. The Zionist founders, be they capitalists like Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or socialists like A.D. Gordon and Ber Borochov, shared a common commitment to the dignity of all individuals. Today’s widening gap between the rich and the poor would have dismayed them. Today’s social pathologies would have shocked them. And today’s political paralysis, material excess and cultural passivity would have appalled them. The early Zionists were can-do idealists, committed to building a better world, not just retreating into consumption cocoons or wallowing in impotent self-pity.
This, therefore, is the devastating news for Zionism – that so few of the social protestors or media commentators see either the Zionist movement or Zionist ideology as helpful tools in achieving the social change the protestors demand and many Israelis recognize is overdue. Just as Diaspora Zionists must learn that Zionism is about more than defending Israel when attacked, Israeli Zionists must learn that Zionism is about perfecting the state not just establishing it. Alas now, Zionism risks irrelevance in Israel, its great achievement.
Of course, in many ways this is a twenty-first century socioeconomic conundrum, far beyond nineteenth-century Zionist theorizing. All Western democracies struggle with what Americans call the work force’s Walmartization. Since the 1830s, the American democratic miracle, which culminated in the post-World War II creation of the first mass middle-class civilization, relied on thriving factories and growing corporations paying respectable wages so that the masses could prosper. This social pyramid, with a flourishing base, facilitated cultural and political stability too. Modern high tech economies use part-time workers and cheap labor, resulting in economic and political instability. At the same time, consumerism and libertine selfishness have undermined cultural values and collective commitments, adding cultural instability to the mix.
In the twentieth century, socialism and Communism failed even more spectacularly than did untrammeled capitalism, usually yielding flaccid economies and burdensome bureaucracies. Sometimes, oppressive totalitarian dictatorships resulted. The cautionary tales must be remembered as we seek a more equitable distribution, a more humane, temperate capitalism.
Zionism can help by offering a collectivist counterweight rooted in nationalism and individual dignity rather than in socialism or welfare statism. Israel can lead the world in pioneering new social solutions suited to today, rooted in an enduring love of freedom, appreciation of markets and a sense of collective responsibility.
Thanks to Zionism, Israel already has its share of humane capitalists. Reading the author Saul Singer’s latest writings, it becomes clear that the co-author of “Start-Up Nation” wants Israel to be a Values Nation, believing that the same ingenuity that made Israel a high-tech center can make Israel a model society. Listening to the developer David Azrieli, it emerges that this master builder invested in Israel when others would not because he believed in Israelis’ potential, and his entrepreneurial Zionism is about normalizing the country economically without sacrificing core values. Watching the high tech guru Yossi Vardi pour resources and love into the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv for children of migrant workers, it appears that there are many ways for those who have succeeded financially to reinvest in the community.
Traditional Zionism may not have the recipe for the twenty-first century solution capitalist democracies need, but a Zionist sensibility can shape the Third Way approach Professor Trajtenberg wants to help the protestors find. Zionism is about a sense of responsibility for one another. Zionism is about seeking social justice. Zionism is about instilling meaning, idealism, and ethics into individual lives and the collective national enterprise. Zionism is about trying to perfect the Jewish state not just establish it. Zionism is about bringing the best of Jewish values and the best of Western ideas into the altneuland, the old-new land. And Zionism is about pioneering clever, creative, cutting-edge solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
Just as the protestors have been wise to wave the Israeli flag all about, demonstrating their patriotism, they should brandish some tracts from the Zionist library, demonstrating their wisdom and honing their collective, constructive Western-Jewish vision.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”