Terra Incognita: Neither Athens nor Sparta

Recent comparisons of Israel to these failed Greek city-states are sorely lacking.

There is a lot of talk these days, as there has been since the beginning of Zionism, about the future of Israel, the people, the state and the land. Inevitably it devolves into two central questions: What kind of Jew are you and which Jewish culture is the State of Israel supposed to live up to? The answers are more diverse than the question.
Some will say they are Josephus, the polyglot patriot turned memorializer of his people’s travails. Some wish themselves to be the Zealots and some the martyrs, others the prophets. Inevitably the gap between who you believe you are and what the “state” has become is always great; it is never grasping its potential.
For some reason recently the question of Israel’s future has come to be seen in Greek terms. Is Israel Athens or Sparta? Gadi Taub in Yediot Aharonot claimed in 2009 that the settlers love of the land “turned the Judaism of the settlers into an armed Sparta that replaced the spirit with materialism and the moral heritage of Israel’s prophets with Joshua bin Nun’s sword.”
Influential columnist Eitan Haber, also in Yediot, claimed in a January article that by building fences around Israel “we are seeing the establishment of the new, modern-day Sparta here; yet we so much wanted to be like Athens.”
Leonard Fein in the Forward countered that while Israel has many Spartan attributes, it is also Athenian, in some of its culture and in its hi-tech industry. His example of its Athenianess was, oddly, the fact that some Greek works have been translated into Hebrew – “These are as purely Athenian achievements as can be.”
Really? Of all the things said about the Athenians, it’s not clear they were great translators, perhaps he is confusing them with the medieval European monks.
The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi joined the fray in July when he noted, “There is Athens and Sparta. Athens for peace and Sparta for wartime. Israel has been at war for 60 years, but it is still not Sparta; it is Athens. This is great, this is amazing.”
A Muslim Web site called Albalagh.net includes an article entitled “Israel and Sparta,” claiming that both sought to invade and enslave their neighbors: “Since Israelis and Spartans constantly feared a revolt by their oppressed peoples, both societies were militaristic and had citizen armies.”
PERHAPS IT’S worth taking a step back and reminding ourselves who the Athenians and Spartans were. Classical Sparta was founded sometime around 800 BCE and rose to fame in 480 BCE when 300 of its legendary soldiers died in battle against a Persian army 1,000 times as large. As an oligarchy ruled by kings and a few elders, Sparta became a land power, relying on a small elite citizenry of trained warriors who were forbidden to work. Women enjoyed a high level of semi-equality, owning many of the estates. Spartans didn’t build great monuments and had no real wealth. They defeated Athens in the famous Peloponnesian War and subsequently declined, mostly due to low birth rates, until the town became a mere tourist attraction for the Romans.
Athens by contrast was the city of semi-democracy from the sixth century BCE. A great sea power, Athenians shunned their women, who had few rights, and were prone to all sorts of internal strife and dissension.
They were great builders and philosophers. But they relied on money to field their armies and build their fleets, when their treasury was empty, their empire declined and the city fell to foreigners.
Every child raised in the West was, until recently, educated to admire these city states, the one a great military society of self-sacrifice, the other a progenitor of culture and democracy. Israel too, therefore, has been asked to liken itself to one or the other. And we supposedly see aspects of both here. The endless histrionics of the fringe-left, its cultural boycotts, its weird comparisons of hiding foreign worker children to hiding children during the Holocaust, or the Turkish hate-flotilla to the Exodus.
Who can forget all the recent congratulations of the feigned courage of Ilana Hammerman, who claims that she is breaking some taboo by eating Arabic food in Hebron or taking Palestinian girls to the beach in Tel Aviv? The professors who line up to condemn student organizations like Im Tirtzu for supposedly threatening democracy do so in the name of preserving Athenian Israel.
And what of the Spartan Israel? Is it the settlers in their caravans shunning gold but walking the land? Or is it the kibbutzim who still hold on to the myths of old, that they are producing agricultural products and going to the best army units, when in fact less and less of them go to the army and more and more of those agricultural products exist only because of state subsidies? Surely the demographics of the kibbutz are not so different than Sparta.
The truth is that Israel is neither and nor should it aspire to the failures that befell these Greek city-states. Who wants the internal strife of Athens, the self-doubt, the treachery of Alcibiades (its greatest general), and the weird admiration that so many Athenians had, cowering behind their Long Walls (built to connect their city to the sea), for the Spartans? And who wants the Spartan way of life, the spurning of work, the endless Adonis complex, the low birth rates and reliance on a class of semislaves to support society? Israel could aspire to much more than the current Athenian Europe, and more than simplistic and ultimately fatal Spartanism. But even while aspiring to more we could do well to learn from their past failures.
It was Athens that built walls around itself, and when its military failed, its walls could not save it from the internal coups that followed.
It was Sparta that invested so much in its army only to have it humiliated at Sphacteria in 425 BCE by Athenians who were barely schooled in war. Echoes of the recent problems faced by Israel in Lebanon or aboard the Turkish flotilla? Much can be learned in this history and less of it aspired to.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.