We are accustomed to thinking about society as government and politics, business and civic society. Classically these are considered to be three sectors. In recent years, there has been a fourth added which is a hybrid of business and civic society which is now focused on impact investing. Since the outbreak of social unrest in response to the government’s attempt at judicial reform, a fifth sector has emerged.
A combination of civic society players, business and ex-military elites and the mega-success of the Start-Up Nation have all combined to mount a vigorous, and so far, successful public campaign against Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s best-laid plans, which he has been working on since before entering the Knesset over a decade and a half ago.
However, if this emerging sector wants longer-term success, it will have to develop a deeper set of ideas and guiding principles, combining its already strong sense of universal values with values rooted in Israel’s lived existence. In some ways, this may present a more complicated challenge.
Awakening the giant
One of the remarkable aspects of the civil uprising against the current government is the emergence of players who have hitherto not taken a meaningful or active role in politics. There is an entire sector of Israeli society and the Israeli economy which is populated by entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, bankers and lawyers, many of whom also share very similar sociological backgrounds. This includes where they grew up, the units they served (and continue to serve) in the army, the universities they attended and now the hi-tech ecosystem.
Some call it Medinat Tel Aviv (the State of Tel Aviv). Many have assumed that this ecosystem has more loyalty toward Silicon Valley, the editorial stance of The New York Times, and post-modern ideas than Israel and Zionism. It would seem they were mistaken, however.
Akiva Bigman pointed out on the Mida website of current affairs and opinion, that Netanyahu radically underestimated the response of the Start-Up Nation, the military reserves and the academic and economic elites.
The anti-reform movement is backed by Israeli money and elite army organizational and tactical skills. It has proven that there is a powerful and visceral patriotism to the country and its democratic principles; this crisis has even attracted many who have never attended a political rally before. It has galvanized thousands into action that few can remember since the first Lebanon war.
If this political campaign is to become a more substantive event in Israel’s political and social history, it will have to be about much more than the legal reforms.
Illiberal roots of liberalism
Harvard professor James Simpson specializes in the Middle Ages and Reformation. In Permanent Revolution, he narrates the history of our modern liberties and how modern liberalism has illiberal roots. While those roots may be largely invisible, they remain relevant to today’s societal crisis. We may consider liberalism a permanent feature of Western society, but it is more fragile than it appears – and complacency is dangerous. More subtly, the more fundamentalist roots of liberalism remain at odds with it.
Simpson claims that “liberalism is not a worldview” and points out a fundamental weakness – “progressivist liberals stand in danger of damaging the good of liberalism by claiming impossibly excellent standards for liberalism.” He calls it hollow with no “salvation story” and although people criticize it for being hollow, he remarks that this should not be leveled as a criticism, because this is what it’s supposed to be: A second-order belief system, which is merely a tool for managing first-order belief systems. In short, it is a way of keeping first-order debates from becoming violent, as they used to be in the past.
Liberalism is a set of universalist ideas and as such remains abstract and lacking in passion to inspire the masses. It looks weak compared to real first-order belief systems, like religion, socialism or other specific ideologies or “isms.” Israel’s new Fifth Sector will ultimately require a salvation element in its revitalized identity.
‘Our cart is overflowing’
The anti-reform protest movement, itself not a cohesive camp, but an amalgam of groups with varying agendas, published a special Passover Haggadah, which included all the traditional parts with special topical additions. One such addition was from David Grossman, multiple prize-winning author and father of fallen soldier, Uri. Grossman is an icon of Israeli society who is politically active in the peace movement.
He relates to Simpson’s comment about a liberal desire for the perfect society: “Albeit we are not the Herzliyan utopia of Altneuland, nor the wonderful humanistic vision of the Declaration of Independence…” In spite of that, Grossman writes that their “cart is full and overflowing,” an allusion to the meeting between David Ben-Gurion and the father of Israel haredism, the Chazon Ish, when the rabbi referred to secular society as the empty cart, and religious society as the full cart, thus insinuating that the latter should have societal preference and seniority.
Grossman is not the only member of the protest movement to have made this reference. Shira Eting, the 19th female graduate of the IAF pilot training course is a former fighter-helicopter pilot. She continues to volunteer as a reservist in the air force alongside her job as a venture capital professional at one of Israel’s leading funds.
In a speech to the weekly Kaplan protest rally, she called loudly: “The liberal camp is awakening. Our cart is full of values, liberty, equal rights – irrespective of religion, race or sex,” paraphrasing Israel’s Declaration of Independence. She continued: “Our cart is full of love for the land,” in response to the trope that the liberal camp in Israel is unattached from the land and suffers a lack of patriotism.
From universal to particular
In both cases, there is a weighting to the universal values of equality and liberty. While their patriotism and love for the country is obvious, it is not clearly defined. For the time being at least, the passion of defending Israel from the threat of a post-liberal democracy, or even the threat to democracy itself, is enough to illustrate that patriotism, but in Simpson’s terms, this remains a second-order argument. The Left in Israel has largely abandoned the argument over which the first-order belief system should lead Israeli society, having been uniquely molded by it.
Universal ideas struggle to generate mass movement appeal; indeed the Left was much more powerful when it was passionate about the idea of peace in the New Middle East. A more specific definition of the love of the land (in addition to military service, paying taxes and working in hi-tech) is now required, because liberalism, per se, is not enough.
The awakening of the Fifth Sector in response to the perceived danger of the current Netanyahu government, with its highly nationalistic and ultra-Orthodox partners will only go so far – unless its leaders develop a political and social manifesto that moves beyond core liberal values of equality before the law. Such values include tolerance of minorities and the protection of their rights; respect for liberty and privacy of conscience.
Without it, those with a more fervent religious and nationalistic passion will win the day.
The writer is founding partner of Goldrock Capital and founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He is a former chair of Gesher, World Bnei Akiva and the Coalition for Haredi Employment.