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Searching for Meaning

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28 March 2007

I’m about to say a good word about materialism, but first…

If I had to capture the current Israeli mood in two words, they would be “national disenchantment”.  This is the result of a buildup of events that would discourage even the most patriotic of citizens:

       A long list of sex, power, and money scandals among our top political brass (president, prime minister, justice minister, finance minister, chief of police, head of tax authority, and more);

       The meltdown of the myth of military invincibility during the recent Lebanon War;

       The lack of success of any of our sports teams in international competitions (even our usually good basketball team).

 I could cite more, but these alone are sufficient.  One of the most revealing signs of the time was the phone call to his broker made by the former military Chief of Staff to sell off all his stock, moments after he and Olmert had made the decision to launch an all-out assault on Lebanon.  While this act, too, was framed in public discourse as callous, self-centered, and materialistic, in private discourse many Israelis smirked and called it smart.

 Is it any wonder that Israelis have begun to notice that patriotism, integrity, and austerity are only words, and the name of the game is profitability?

 “War is a force that gives us meaning”, writes Chris Hedges in his book of that name, but the Second Lebanon War failed to supply the required meaning for Israel.  All that war supplied was disappointment with the generals and the government’s handling of “home front” needs.  The ongoing conflict with the Palestinians also no longer fills Israel with a sense of meaning (“we are fighting for our lives”), as our media fail to report the death and destruction that now take place behind the Separation Wall – out of sight, out of mind.

 A clear symptom of a breakdown in the patriotic ethos is that more and more young men and women are avoiding military service.  These include both those who openly and courageously refuse to show up for the draft, as well as those who find excuses for not being able to serve, or manage to leave the service before their term is up.  Indeed, recent data indicate that half the age-appropriate Israelis do not begin or complete a full term of service.  And now we confront what Michael Walzer might say is the declining willingness of the citizen to make the ultimate sacrifice for his or her state.

Lack of zeal does not apply to one special group of Israelis:  those messianic settlers who now disdain Israeli law and army in favor of their understanding of God’s Wishes.  For these settlers, the holiness of the Land is now pit against the holiness of the State, and Land takes precedence.  They have formed separatist groups, alienated from and hostile to Israeli society, scattered in settlements throughout the West Bank.  To be clear, the settlers include moderates who would leave cooperatively in the event of a peace agreement, fanatics who would struggle to remain, and the small but growing group of messianists, who reject Israel entirely following the evacuation of Gaza.  The relative size of these three groups is unknown.

What is clear is the broad consensus within Israel that a two-state solution is inevitable, and the sooner the better.  The other issues are in contention – Jerusalem, the refugees, and the precise location of the borders of those states – but the principle of ending the occupation has prevailed.  Ironically, at a time when the Israeli body politic and the moderate Arab states could come together on a deal, we in Israel have ended up with a prime minister with barely enough power to stay in office, let alone negotiate a peace agreement with our neighbors.  We will be lucky if he is replaced by someone no worse.

And thus disenchantment – a loss of patriotic fervor – is making way for simple western materialism.  Perhaps it may come in time to save Israel from itself?

America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.  - Oscar Wilde