Text size

Ninety-nine percent of Israelis were with Ilan Ramon until the end. Last Shabbat they were glued to their television sets open-mouthed and broken-hearted, and saw what the TV screens showed: an appalling personal tragedy, and a great human tragedy, and a symbolic national tragedy. Only 90 hours after the end of a polluted and divisive election campaign, 99 percent of Israelis gathered around a tribal campfire of pain, which is not aggressive or belligerent or occupying. For over 24 hours they felt the pain of space and the pain of the space family and their own pain.

However, 1 percent of Israelis couldn't bear it. One percent of Israelis couldn't bring itself to participate in a common experience of Israeli pain. Therefore, they made a face and said "phooey, patriotism." That's why this same percent sneered and said "gooey schmaltz." What does this collective sentimentality have to do with us. What does this mass identification with a hero who isn't a Palestinian youth or a post-Zionist historian have to do with us.

Ilan Ramon was not a settler. Nor was he Shas. Presumably he embodied many of the values that the enlightened Israeli is interested in disseminating: progress and science and decency and globalization and the pursuit of peace. However, for 1 percent of Israelis, the very fact that Ilan Ramon lived as a blue-and-white patriot made him unworthy. The very fact that Ilan Ramon died a patriot turned his memory into something not entirely desirable. And the poison-producing glands immediately went into action. The corrosive acid of sarcasm was sprayed. The hundredth percentile of Israelis of refined taste went out once again on the attack.

Every sentimental collective event has elements of kitsch. Both in moments of national pride and in moments of national mourning, overstepping the boundaries of good taste is part of the story. That happened after the murder of President John F. Kennedy and after the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That happened at the peace ceremonies and at the fall of the Twin Towers. That happened in the fall of the Columbia as well. However, the basic truth is that a society that is incapable of undergoing a common emotional process is a crippled society. A society that has no common symbols and heroes and values is a society that is not sustainable.

How much truer this is of a democratic immigrant society. As the Americans understand so well, a democratic immigrant society cannot exist without the support of two strong foundations: On the one hand, it has a continuing need to engage in building itself and in formulating its identity, and on the other hand, it must continually engage in self-criticism. On the one hand it has a yearning to repeatedly retell the story of the ethos that unites it, and on the other hand it must always be suspicious of those who try to exploit it. Thus, if the society is working properly, it finds itself rallying around the memory of dead space heroes on the very day on which it aggressively investigates the establishment system that may be responsible for their deaths.

Ninety-nine percent of Israelis instinctively understand this duality. Every day they live the governmental and the anarchic, the collective and the individual, the Zionist and the cynical. Without any difficulty, they feel a deep sense of belonging to their people, while at the same time criticizing their rulers. Without any difficulty, they love their country even when they despise their government.

That's not true of the other Israeli 1 percent. Because this other percent, which considers itself responsible for progress, mistakenly identifies democracy with arrogance, liberalism with alienation, enlightment with subversion. The other percent, which considers itself responsible for good taste, is all theory and criticism. It is wholly involved in taking things apart. And as writer Amos Oz has described more than once, this radical 100th percentile walks around with its post-modern sword drawn, looking for sacred cows. But because there isn't a single sacred cow left in the country, it returns to the slaughtered sacred cows and slaughters them again. And again and again ad nauseam. Makes sure again and again that these poor cows have in fact been killed.

Why was the Left crushed in the 2003 elections? Because of this 1 percent. Because of the top 100th of Israeli radicalism. Because the justified sentiment of opposition to the occupation has become, among that 100th percentile, an unjustified sentiment of turning its back on survival. And because this particular 100th percentile, which has lost its ability to feel blue-and-white, has, in the eyes of the Israeli public, lost the moral authority to lead it. Because on account of this 100th percentile, the Israeli Left is no longer seen as a Harry-Truman-left, but rather as an Edward-Said-left.

A series of urgent tasks confronts Israel today: withstanding a war, rehabilitating the economy, going out into the political arena. But a no less urgent task is to rejuvenate the Left. To rebuild from the ground up an entire ideological culture that has disappointed. To raise from the ruins an entire political civilization that has collapsed. This task cannot be carried out if the radical 100th percentile doesn't begin once again to feel a part of this society and of this place. This task cannot be carried out if the radical 100th percentile doesn't replace alienation with empathy, disgust with brotherhood, arrogance with belonging.