Israel: The Last Hurrah

Jerusalem, early April, before Golda Meir’s resignation

No historical struggle, no cultural revival has been more deliberate and self-conscious than that of the Jews in Israel. They are fanatics about individual liberty and personal independence—often to a point of being impudent and undisciplined—and in bearing immense burdens they have evolved a comparatively sophisticated egalitarian spirit. No doubt Israel is and had to be a “free society”; but it has become a very poor democracy.

The Jewish settlement in Israel—the “Yishuv”—was carried to statehood by clumsy and often contrived political institutions that have never been overhauled. The authority of these institutions is crumbling as the fervid appeal of the Zionist movement continues to fade for the “new” Israeli public, mainly young, native born, and reluctant to accept ideological conformity. The older leaders have already used up most of the large reserve of prestige upon which they have long been feeding. But the recent discrediting of Israel’s leadership, particularly acute since the October war, may ironically prove to be a great advance for Israeli political life, which has consistently been demeaned by despotism, however benevolent or self-sacrificing.

For David Ben-Gurion, Jewish political construction depended on a cohesive, organized, and visionary labor movement. Nationalism implied the creation of such national facts as Jewish industry, Hebrew language, and housing; and these required both direction and cooperation. Guided by this strategy, the socialist leaders who in 1920 organized the Jewish workers of Palestine into the super labor federation called the Histadrut brought the labor movement and, not just coincidentally, the entire Jewish community here to political, economic, and military pre-eminence. But these people never had much time or inclination to ponder how their own power would or ought to be checked. They were the stepchildren of Russian revolutionary movements and themselves presided over conspiratorial, subversive, and underground groups; when it came to conflicts with the Arabs, the British, or intrigues with their allies in fighting the Nazis, orders had to be given and followed.

The socialist parties, to their credit, maintained a lively dissenting spirit, but Israel’s veteran Labor leaders have spent most of their lives flaunting or fighting legal (Turkish, then British) authority and doing what was politically expedient (“ein brera“) for the sake of their single-minded dream. That’s the stuff of which revolutions are made; but the revolutionary leaders have understandably clung to arbitrary and paternal and conspiratorial practices when dealing with the new problems raised by success.

For Israel, at least, the “revolution” ended in October. The traditional political system has been badly crippled, and now appears to be merely superimposed upon a much changed and troubled society. In the euphoria that followed the 1967 war, the Labor Alignment was opportunistically patched together from tired factions of the Labor establishment that had been bitterly contending with each other for years. These old conflicts have become much worse since the October war and are now paralyzing the Israeli government. Although some of these disputes are by no means irrelevant to…

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