Critical Currents: Turned off, and tuned out

The dominant mood in the country is one of collective depression, if not despair.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Israel is now in the midst of a multifaceted crisis which, unless halted, may lead to complete paralysis and ultimately to breakdown. Virtually every aspect of life in the country is in an advanced state of disrepair. Lack of direction, mismanagement, socioeconomic distress, insecurity and ethical ambiguity are apparent everywhere. But the way most Israelis are coping with the almost breakneck pace of bad news is to creatively disengage from their surroundings. Various forms of exit are fast replacing the noted propensity of Israelis to raise their voice in protest. The basic contours of the present condition are cumulative and all too familiar. On the policy front, unbridled privatization (demonstrated once again this week by the mega-sale of the state-owned Oil Refineries Ltd. to a tiny group of local investors) continues to nurture social inequality, while diplomatic stalemate (vide the disappointing Rice-Olmert-Abbas meeting) is rapidly foreclosing prospects for any diplomatic horizon. Confidence in decision-makers is at an all-time low. Their drive for power has suppressed their sense of responsibility. The majority of skilled and devoted public servants is obscured as a cloud of misconduct and corruption envelops too many leaders - past, present and future. Key institutions - including not only the IDF, the police and the presidency, but also local authorities, educational and health services and the government itself - are suffering from gross mismanagement. Lack of confidence in state authorities is rampant. The high levels of alienation threaten to deepen already endemic problems of governance. Social solidarity (endangered by the schisms between Arabs and Jews, rich and poor, newcomers and veterans, women and men, periphery and center further intensified on the home front during the second Lebanese war) is reaching a breaking point. It is not easily rebuilt in a climate which rewards extreme individualism, justifies cutbacks in state-supported services and promotes power politics. Most notably, the dominant mood is one of collective depression, if not despair. It is no longer possible to ignore the heavy weight that constant and diverse shocks have placed on the national public. The quiescent reaction to these far from uplifting developments is deafening. Instead of flooding the streets after the Lebanese fiasco, the Katsav scandal, the Ramon embarrassment, the Olmert investigations, the poverty reports and the ongoing diplomatic rejectionism, the response of the typically vociferous Israeli polity has been unusually muted. In fact, Israelis have begun to adopt four main coping mechanisms common in dysfunctional states in other parts of the world.
  • The first strategy, the domain of salaried workers, focuses on belt-tightening. People in the contracting middle class are learning to make do with less, while watching a tiny group of super-rich expand its assets often at their expense. This suffer-manage mode, passive by definition, leaves little time and energy for public protest. It plays into the hands of unresponsive leaders and perpetuates official inaction.
  • The second, far more assertive, strategy is one of physical escape. This is the option of choice of the young, strong or adventurous. In the last decade, Israel has increased the export of its most precious domestic commodity - its brainpower - at an alarming rate. The potential contribution of those relocating to Europe and North America not only to Israel's economy but also to its social fabric is inestimable. The loss of these human resources is irretrievable.
  • The third strategy, in many respects the most pernicious, is the parallel one. Out of frustration if not desperation, a growing number of Israelis are gravitating into the gray arena of the informal economy, services and even protection in order to make do and, possibly, improve their lot. Some of these mechanisms are both legal and refreshing: the expansion of civil society, community engendered welfare networks, supplementary educational programs, health cooperatives, environmental protection initiatives. Others are much more insidious: the proliferation of organized crime and with it loan-sharking, women-trafficking, infiltration of power structures, rising lawlessness. The spread of parallel systems undermines regime capacities and may assail Israel's already fragile democracy.
  • The fourth strategy is one of withdrawal. Groups and individuals are engaging in a subtle yet perceptible form of internal exile. The superficial symptoms of this type of coping are ubiquitous: People have stopped reading newspapers, listening to the news, discussing politics, going to the polls. At a deeper level, they are searching for personal, religious or communal meaning devoid of attachment to the state. In seemingly simple, yet extremely profound, ways they are physically present but otherwise totally absent. The implications of these trends are not difficult to decipher. Prolonged uncertainty is breeding not only fatigue, but also a more embracing threat of internal implosion. It is possible to avert further deterioration. To do so, however, a conscious plan for reengagement has to be set in motion. This process must be based on the recognition that there is no one single panacea to the current malaise. A steady hand on the rudder, clearly, is important. So, too, is the creation of a rigorous set of checks and balances to ensure greater institutional efficacy and probity. Above all, some hope for a better future is essential to reactivate Israel's fundamentally vibrant citizenry. Putting in place a set of vigorous socially sensitive policies domestically and launching a serious peace initiative with Israel's neighbors can go a long way toward providing that promise which invites renewed involvement.