The theory of `social capital', espoused by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who is scheduled to deliver a guest lecture tonight at the School of Public Administration and Policy at Tel Aviv University, has captivated not only Americans but also some Israelis, particularly those from the social sciences. And why not? Putnam, a former special advisor to President Clinton and now an advisor to Tony Blair, managed to formulate a brilliant theory that describes the distressing alienation and loneliness of millions of Americans in clear and reasoned terms.
Our forefathers, explains Putnam, grew up during World War II, which gave birth to the most beautiful expression of civic solidarity. They united around a common goal, and were ready to give everything to society - money, blood and time. Moreover, 50-60 years ago, the family was at the center and functioned in a small and warm community. Everyone knew everyone. Neighbors called each other by their first names. Doors were left open and not locked. Now, those who once bowled in a group, bowl alone, those who met their friends in church or the Rotary Club or scouts are at home, protected by sophisticated alarms, watching the computer screen or the TV screen, and the casts in TV reality shows are his only friends. "But when you are sick," says Putnam, "they won't bring you chicken soup."
Putnam's use of the term `social capital' is not, as some of his colleagues say, a convenient dressing for an economic term, but serves to persuade the disciplines of fundamentalist market economics that it is best to avoid smashing social networks. He really and truly believes what he managed to prove in his field research: that strong social networks improve the quality of life and even contribute to growth. A person who is protected, working in a supportive environment, is healthier, more trusting, and more capable of giving to society and the state. Putnam also doesn't wallow in the conservative image of community. The research students he quotes indeed prove that neighborhoods where the residents know each other have lower crime rates compared to neighborhoods where the residents are constantly changing and don't feel any commitment toward each other, the community or their city. He's not wrong either in his description of the old American solidarity and how it is crumbling.
However, it is precisely there that Putnam's theory runs into problems and its application fails in Israeli society. The person who first coined the term `social capital' was sociologist James Coleman, who examined - of all places - Israel at the end of the 1940s.
Coleman represents a certain view of the little yeshiva fighting for its survival and independence, and examines it according to American criteria thrilled by its own pioneering culture - fighting for its borders - that came to extreme expression in the ethos of the Wild West.
Obviously from that point of view he reaches the conclusion that Israel is the place to find the most wonderful solidarity. Coleman is not alone. A handful of veteran Israelis still long for those difficult days, when the small coins had holes, and we ate gray steaks, but we were all in it together and everyone knew everyone.
Putnam has surely heard during his brief stay here these kinds of sighs from his Israeli colleagues. Israeli society is crumbling, they tell him. It is difficult to find a common denominator that unites us all, they bemoan, it's every man for himself, charitable groups cook soup for the poor, Haredi volunteers collect pieces of bodies, there are superficial commercial TV and corrupt politicians, and in general nobody to count on. Putnam's admirers will probably ask him to help the Israeli government, the way he helps Tony Blair, who is looking for quick solutions to similar problems in his country.
But Putnam won't discover what his colleagues won't tell him. That the old solidarity, the one that, in his eyes, provided that strength of civil spirit, is here, right nearby, a short drive away in an armored vehicle. There, in the settlements, is the "old Israel", united around a common denominator, enlisted in the struggle against the neighbors, closed off by high fences and defending themselves violently, and with a well-connected network of all the sorts Putnam wants to renew: schools, convoys accompanied by soldiers, the pre-army prep schools, the hesder yeshivas, the welfare services and the synagogue communities, even the journals. They all know each other, and even if they don't have absolute trust in the government, they are closer to it and better connected with it than any other group in the population.
That's how social capital is distributed in Israel, because that is the way the governments all wanted it and that's how the majority voted. And as long as that is the situation, no women's group, youth movement, or NPO will be able to revive the lost solidarity, and certainly will not be able to weave a new social network. And that's the failure, for in his research Putnam proves the correlation between social capital and democracy and enlightened values. And here, right in front of his very eyes, is a strange case that proves the absolute opposite.
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