The failure of Israel’s intellectual class

A former editor of an Israeli newspaper once encouraged US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in 2007 to get the US administration to “rape Israel” into making concessions to Palestinians.

David Broza (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
David Broza
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘A call from Israelis to the Jews of the world,” reads the latest initiative of “500 eminent Israelis.” Among the signatories of the “call” were prominent lawyers such as Michael Sfard, academics Moshe Zuckermann and Yossi Ben-Artzi, as well as musicians such as David Broza. It’s a kind of who’s-who of Israel’s elite, among them former politicians, writers and activists.
There have been many open letters in the past and other lists whereby the same crowd has attached itself to various admonitions begging America, Europe, or a combination of the two to “save Israel from itself.”
The latest letter says that “our best hope for the future – the surest path toward security, peace and prosperity – lies in a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in the establishment of an independent Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel. We call upon Jews around the world to join with Israeli partners for coordinated action to end the occupation and build a new future for the sake of the State of Israel and generations to come.”
You’d think that if people in Israel wanted to change Israel’s policies, the correct address might be the Israeli government. You’d think that perhaps the Palestinians might play a role alongside the Israeli government in creating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in the eyes of large numbers of Israel’s intellectual class, the best way to “solve” problems in Israel – that are largely of Israel’s own making – is to beg people from Los Angeles, New York and London to do it. This cloying, beseeching letter is symbolic of the failure of Israel’s intellectual elite to create a healthy relationship with the State of Israel, and indicates their lack of understanding of their place in that state.
The reason the intellectuals fail in their role in the state is historical. In the early years of Zionism the leading Zionists were from the Diaspora and were most comfortable in the Diaspora. Ottoman Palestine, where they dreamed of creating a state, was seen as a backward and primitive place. Early Israeli intellectuals such as Judah Magnes, a chancellor and president of Hebrew University, became so dismayed with how Israel did not become a binational utopia in 1948 that he left the country, returning to America where he had been born.
Since that time there has always been a feeling in Israel that the intellectual elite have one foot in Israel and one foot abroad.
At one and the same time they say that Israel should not speak for world Jewry, and that world Jewry should put pressure on Israel and foreign governments to get Israel to behave as they see fit. Israel is portrayed as a nasty child, which the Diaspora must discipline. To discipline it, the Diaspora must use its influence over foreign governments. This puts the intellectual class in Israel in the strange and unenviable position of playing on anti-Semitic stereotypes abroad, of encouraging Jewish groups abroad to use “pressure” and “influence” to get Israel to do what they want.
Sometimes the thinkers go right to the top.
A former editor of an Israeli newspaper once encouraged US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in 2007 to get the US administration to “rape Israel” into making concessions to Palestinians.
Explaining how he wanted the country sexually assaulted, he asserted: “I myself have long felt Israel needed more vigorous US intervention in the affairs of the Middle East.”
This mentality, that Israel can only be saved by foreign intervention, is widespread among some in the media and cultural elite. It finds expression in numerous forums. Nathan Thrall, writing at The New York Review of Books, claimed that “[US President Barack] Obama’s final months in power are a unique opportunity to correct the record, and, more important, score an achievement that his successors could scarcely undo.” To this end he claimed that the US president, after eight years of accomplishing little regarding Israel-Palestine issues, could “salvage his legacy.” We’ve heard this before. “If a second term Obama obeys his heart and logic, his moral code and values, and American and world interests... a president who will translate his anger against [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu into pressure on Israel to finally end the occupation,” wrote Gideon Levy on November 8, 2012.
These pathetic, irresponsible and constant Waiting for Gadot-style demands that Israel be “saved from itself” are part of a way of life in which people have abdicated any responsibility for changing Israel from within. This is because Israel’s intellectuals feel estranged from the country as a whole. They wall themselves off behind acceptance committees, insulate themselves within intellectual bubbles, far removed from what’s actually taking place in the country. They’ve come to the conclusion that the country has been “taken from them” by what they see as a parade of horribles; rising numbers of haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and Arabs; the increasing role of the national religious and settlers, poor people and Mizrahim, those they derisively refer to as “Russians”, etc. You can see the insular, often nepotistic side of this primarily white privileged elite just by looking at the lack of diversity among the names of the signatories of the latest “call.” There are few Arabs (I found only one) among this “eminent Israeli” group.
No country can be “saved” by outsiders. The lost cause of these intellectuals, the constant positioning of themselves as canaries in the Zionist goldmine, is a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. America’s government won’t force Israel into making concessions. Only Israelis can do that. The writers complain about “50 years of Israeli occupation,” but Diaspora Jews or governments won’t remove the 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank, only Israelis can do that – and they won’t.
It is unhealthy for a country’s intellectual elite to become detached from everyday life.
We’ve seen this happen in other places, with detrimental results, whether in Europe or states such as Iran, Russia and Turkey. The more the elite are out of touch, the more they hand over the state to the very bogeyman they fear. If they want Israel’s policies to change in the West Bank, they have to convince Israelis. If you don’t believe that, consider the fact that 3,800 American Jews already signed a letter online at saying, “as American Jews who care deeply about the long-term security of Israel, we call on our government to make continued aid conditional on Israeli acceptance of an internationally agreed two-state settlement.”
It’s easy to sign an open letter apparently, but harder to do something concrete. Many in the Diaspora agree with their friends in Israel, and it changes nothing, because they are sending complaints to the wrong address.