Critical Currents: Revive the square

The Israel of 2005 is a far cry from the Israel of 1995 that Yitzhak Rabin knew, experienced and led.

The Israel of 2005 is a far cry from the Israel of 1995 that Yitzhak Rabin knew, experienced and led. A decade after his assassination, numerous symposia and conferences are being convened to assess everything from his person and legacy to his impact and even his murder. And while experts and participants speculate interminably about what would have been if he were here now, it might be more instructive to ask what he would have thought if he were. Israel owes its slain prime minister a reckoning 10 years after that terrible Saturday night. Yitzhak Rabin would hardly recognize Israel today. Not only has the country grown enormously, it has changed in many ways. The political arena is chaotic, the social scene is fragmented, and the public ethos is almost unrecognizable. Above all, there is something fundamentally different about the spirit of the people. Israeli politics has always been contentious. Since 1967 - and most decidedly after 1973 - it has been defined by deep divisions on issues of peace and security. The Oslo Accords magnified these schisms; Rabin paid for them with his life. The fiery passion that characterized debates on the shape of Israel and the nature of relations with its neighbors is now the preserve of dwindling numbers on the political fringes. The vast majority of Israelis are content to accept disengagement while remaining aloof from party squabbles that have little bearing on their daily concerns. Ideological polarization is no longer the mark of Israeli politics; it has given way to an unstable instrumentality. Israel's social order is by its very composition heterogeneous. It became even more so during the Rabin years with the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union. Contemporary Israeli society, however, is far more fragmented than ever. Sectarian interests (heavily politicized in the aftermath of the abysmal experiment with the direct election of the prime minister) have replaced the sense of social solidarity that in the past provided the essential adhesive for Israel's multiculturalism. Social diversity is compounded by growing inequality. Israel's productive middle classes, along with its trademark modesty, are being crushed between a thin layer of outrageously ostentatious homegrown and imported oligarchs and an expanding underclass comprising over a quarter of the population (and 50% of the country's children). An ethic of unbridled privatization which leaves too many citizens unprotected has become a poor substitute for the state's communal responsibilities. THE PUBLIC domain is unraveling in the process. Lawlessness - often exalted in the name of a purportedly higher good - is on the rise. Corruption is rampant. Violence has infiltrated homes, schools, roads and entertainment centers. As individuals fend for themselves and groups turn inward in search of solace, normative atomization prevails. The roots of the current malaise were evident in Rabin's day. They have been consolidated and spread under the aegis of his successors. But clearly something else has happened, something that cannot be attributed solely to the recurrence of the violent conflict with the Palestinians or summarily dismissed as a byproduct of ongoing insecurity. This deeper, more elusive, intrinsically alarming change can be found in the collective mind-set of the Israeli people. From an involved, tenacious, alive and energetic public, many Israelis have fallen into a troubling lethargy. Others have undergone a visible loss of faith. The feeling that there is little of value in the common sphere is widespread. Its outward symptoms are well known: less interest in current events, lower participation in public life, fewer demands for social justice, more preoccupation with charity. Its concrete manifestations are also everywhere apparent, vividly demonstrated by the new culture of escapism (both religious and secular), as well as the pervasive search for personal meaning either at home or abroad. In stark contrast to the vitality that traditionally enveloped Israelis even in periods of immense distress, there is today too much listlessness, passivity, fatalism, detachment. People are content to complain as the country moves from one scandal to another and mini-crises abound; they are not inclined to take action. Even in the most crucial realm of the quest for a resolution of the conflict, where most Israelis fervently hope for closure, immobility appears to be the norm. People are willing to accept improvements (hence the overriding support for the Gaza pullback); they are less likely to initiate steps for a just settlement. This latter-day defeatism is the antithesis of the Rabin vision of informed progress. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was hardly the cause for these (and other) changes in the climate and conduct of Israeli life. It was, however, a critical turning point and, in retrospect, undoubtedly a catalyst. Now, 10 years after his death, it can sadly be said that Israel has failed him. The best memorial that Israelis can construct to his memory is to rekindle the spark that guided their first sabra leader: to actively regain control of their destiny, to reengage. Tomorrow night they can take the first step by filling and thereby revitalizing the square where he was killed just 10 years ago.