A few days ago, a group of activists involved in Israel’s social protest movement who call themselves “The Laboratory” gathered in my home. The Laboratory has some 30 participants and its purpose is to learn about Israel’s economic and social structures.
I sat down and looked at the astonishingly young and serious faces. The meeting started with a disagreement: they had come to hear me lecture, but I refused. Their struggle, I argued, should not be a war between data-wielding experts, for three reasons:
1) Numbers can always be countered with other numbers. Experts are not the only ones who determine a political struggle: legitimacy can also be conferred by widespread, popular distress.
2) Numbers and formal knowledge do not matter for yet another reason. No-one knows better than the people whose lives are an ongoing struggle what the difficulties of their lives are. Never give up on the force of your testimony.
3) In political conflicts, what truly matters is not knowledge but three cardinal virtues: clarity of vision, courage, and determination.
Of courage and determination these impressive young people have aplenty. But the clarity of their vision faces two major obstacles.
The first is general to all of us. We, the citizens of Israel, have developed a malaise in our relationship to our country, and what makes this malaise all the more acute is our difficulty in giving it a name. The unease we feel is much larger than over-arching capitalism, or how hard it is to make ends meet, or to find an apartment to rent or even to share the national burden of military service.
It is the entire relationship to our leaders and to our institutions that has come undone. Why? Because we have slowly adjusted ourselves to the massive decay of our sense of justice.
We, the Jews of Israel, have become the military lords and masters of a whole people, dispossessing them of their sovereignty and human rights. An increasing number of politicians and government officials think that to defend peace and human rights is to be an extreme left-winger. We have become adjusted to the incomprehensibly outrageous injustice that privileges the ultra-Orthodox to the detriment of non-orthodox and non-religious Jews. We have become adjusted to the fact that 20 percent of the population of a democratic state lives on its margins. We have become adjusted to the fact that racism has become a proxy for patriotic feelings. We have become adjusted to the fact that not all the wars in which our sons will die are just, necessary or unavoidable.
We have become adjusted to the fact that an unprecedented, astounding figure of 400,000 people could march in the streets and cities of Israel in the summer of 2011, and that with the self-satisfied cynicism that characterizes them, Israeli politicians have done nothing to respond to the demands of these citizens. We have become adjusted to the fact that the same Israeli citizen, who sacrifices himself to his country more than any other citizen in the world, is systematically ignored by the people governing him.
And, worst of all, we have lost the capacity to see how profoundly shocking the situation has become, because we have adjusted to so many inequities of so many different shapes and kinds that a moral language to evaluate this situation is slowly disappearing. This unease has no name because it is beyond "inequality," "occupation," or "racism." It is about a deep and massive corrosion of the very meaning of what it means to be a citizen of Israel today.
There is another reason why the clarity of vision of these young people is muddled. Many of them still have the dream that Israel will miraculously overcome the internal divisions and the hatred that have been carefully constructed, fueled and nourished by government policies. These young people dream to erase the distinctions between the right and the left. But I have something unpopular to tell them: only the left can save this country. What I mean by this is a universalist kind of left that has been only weakly implemented here.
I am not saying this because I am an arrogant left-winger (or at least not only). Historically, the main difference between the left and the right is exactly this one: the left is universalist by definition and its universalism intends to overcome the social divisions fueled by particular identities (e.g. religion or ethnicity) and by sectorial economic interests. The right, on the other, hand thrives on divisions based on religion and ethnicity, on economic inequalities, on the suspicion of foreigners, on the vision that the world is brutal and dangerous. The right ceaselessly promotes the war of all against all. Historically, only the left promoted the vision of a common good based on a universalist vision of human beings, on human rights and on social justice. Without a universalist vocabulary, we do not even know how to think of justice, and it is the left, not the right, which has provided this vocabulary. It is time the left calls off the bluff of the so-called patriotic right: only the left has the power both to heal and unify this nation, because only the left can offer a broad social covenant.
When the young people left my living-room after two hours of discussions, I had one of those kitsch thoughts I have not had in a long time. “These are the people for whom and because of whom I came to Israel some 20 years ago,” I told myself. They struck me as being the only responsible adults in our national room because, far more than our politicians, they worry about the viability and future of this country. But if we are to have a collective future, it can only be through the clarity and strength of the moral vision of the universalist left.
Eva Illouz's latest book is entitled Why Love Hurts: A sociological Explanation. She teaches sociology and is a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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