Writing laments for Israeli society is not hard. Declining educational achievements, youth violence, hedonism, materialism, and corrupt politicians all provide ample material for those wishing to up-date Lamentations. Over the last twenty years, I’ve probably written as many such lamentations as anybody.
But every once in a while, it is worth acknowledging Israel’s achievements as well. Over the last century it would be difficult to name one advance in any area of human endeavor coming from 22 Arab nations. By contrast, Israeli researchers make hundreds of lifesaving medical advances every year. The Israeli economy remains one of the industrialized world’s most robust, despite last summer’s war and the continued threats to Israel’s existence.
But I have something deeper and more fundamental in mind. The pintele Yid is still more easily discerned among Jews in Israel than among their secular counterparts in the Diaspora.
Western society today is characterized by a loss of belief in G-d, indeed by deep skepticism about all transcendent value. Those who advocate an ever-expanding recognition of individual rights in their own societies nevertheless show a remarkable tolerance for societies that deny all such rights to their own members – e.g., feminists who turn a blind eye to the subjugation of women in Islamic society.
Viewing all values as relative, Western elites attribute no special value to their own societies, certainly none that would justify defending those societies against external threat. Towards their own societies they offer a morally absolutist critique; towards the enemies of those societies an attitude of laissez-faire. The immediate reflex of Western intellectuals to external threat is first denial of the threat and then appeasement. Anti-militarism is dominant, and the resort to force to defend one’s way of life beyond the pale.
When it comes to childbearing, the general attitude is: Why bother? As a result, the current birthrate in every Western country besides the United States and Israel is well below replacement level. These countries are in a process of self-annihilation. Pope Benedict XVI, correctly observed last week that Europe is losing faith in its own future and “seems to be going down a road which could lead it to take its leave from history.”
These phenomena are not unconnected. They are a direct result of the loss of belief. In the prevalent Western view, man is a pleasure-seeking animal whose life has no purpose outside itself and ends with death. That view is not only inimical to religious belief, but to patriotism and all sense of duty. If life is nothing more than the sum of its pleasures, war, with its attendant possibility of death, is always an irrational choice unless the threat is demonstrably immediate and unavoidable.
If death is the end of everything and one has no stake in the future through children, why worry about the future. Certainly to sacrifice oneself for someone else’s future, or so that one’s nation or values might prevail is nonsense.
Sad to say, these attitudes not only characterize Western intellectuals today, but Jewry in the Diaspora. Indeed Jews play a lead role in promoting these attitudes. John Kerry’s infamous, but highly revealing gaffe, in which he suggested that military service is the price one pays for being stupid — i.e., only a dummy would put his life on the line for his country.-revealed a pervasive attitude on the Left where opposition to any use of military force is automatic. And that is where most of American Jewry dwells politically.
Non-Orthodox American Jewry has basically signed off on its own future. American Jewish women have the second lowest birthrate of any group of Caucasians in America – and it is well below replacement level.
Secular Israelis share their Diaspora cousins loss of religious belief, and to a large extent their lack of interest in matters Jewish (though, contrary to the propaganda of the American Reform and Conservative movements, secular Israelis observe far more religious ritual than do most non-Orthodox American Jews.) But the consequences of that lack of belief have not yet hit in the same way. In particular, Israeli Jews have not yet concluded that there is nothing worth fighting for in the world.
Despite living with far more insecurity than their Diaspora cousins, they have not given up on the future. The birthrate for Israeli Jewish women – 2.75 children per women – is by far the highest among those in the advanced industrial world, and it is rising. (That figure is only partially explained by the high birthrates in the religious population.)
In international polls, Israelis express the highest levels of love for their country. Those sentiments have been repeatedly backed by actions. At the outset of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and again at the beginning of last summer’s war in Lebanon, the number of reservists who reported for combat exceeded the number who were summoned. And the majority of these were men who bid farewell to wives and children before reporting. In every interview with wounded soldiers last summer, the first words out of their mouth were of their intention to quickly rejoin their buddies in the field.
Israeli society, like American, is driven by sharp divisions. But increasingly America seems to be divided into two different countries – Blue states and Red states. American politics are increasingly fueled by barely concealed hatred. Red America and Blue America pour as much scorn and contempt on one another as the English and the French.
Army service in Israel provides a degree of societal cohesion and shared experience increasingly lacking in America, where those who serve and those who don’t form distinct social classes.
The ever present threats to our existence in Israel force us to live in the real world, not some theory driven fantasyland. The New York Times, the Bible of American Jewry, felt it necessary to expose Bush administration efforts to monitor terrorist money transfers and phone calls. No Israeli paper would have done so. An 80-year grandmother from Iowa is as likely to be selected for special screening as a visiting Saudi student at American airports; at Ben-Gurion Airport the common sense observation that Arabs and foreigners are more likely to want to blow up or hijack a plane than Israeli Jews still rules.
Why do I choose now to sing these praises of Israeli society? Because no matter how long the distance, a society which still recognizes a collective identity larger than the individual, in which concepts of duty and sacrifice still exist, which entertains the possibility of values worth fighting and dying for, which can overcome its own selfishness to bring new life into the world is still one step closer to finding its way back to Hashem than one in which these qualities are absent.