The Shrinking of the Israeli Mind

Our great public intellectuals are growing old, and there are no heirs. Or are there?

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

It has been a decade since Prof. Shlomo Sand published his book "Intellectuals, Truth and Power: From the Dreyfus Affair to the Gulf War" (in Hebrew, Am Oved ). Since then, the grim portrait he painted of intellectualism in Israel has only worsened.

"There has been a fracture, there is no doubt about that. The decline in the intellectual's public value is a confirmed fact," he said last month by phone from France.

Credit: Masha Manapov

The concept of the "intellectual" was born in France at the end of the 19th century. A newspaper editor used it to refer to the men of letters who had signed a petition demanding a retrial for Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer suspected of treason. After that, the term took root in French and has since spilled over into other languages, including Hebrew.

France subsequently gave rise, of course, to many intellectuals, up to the present day, though it has not succeeded in replicating the 20th-century golden age of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Michel Foucault.

The "people of the book" also had their intellectuals. Alongside the rabbis, Judaism's traditional intellectuals, thinkers of a different sort founded the Zionist movement. Like other national movements, Zionism needed educated people to shape abstract concepts like "national consciousness" and "collective memory." Back in the day, there were intellectuals like S.Y. Agnon, Haim Brenner and Haim Nahman Bialik, who contributed to the establishment of the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine.

At one time, modern Hebrew literature was still called "the legal heir" to ancient prophecy. The poet-artist, the great intellectual, expressed critical and assertive opinions as historic events occured. He "stood at the gates" and spoke from "the disquietness of his heart." Bialik did this in "The Poems of Wrath and Admonishment," Uri Zvi Grinberg in "The Book of Indictment and Faith" and Natan Alterman in "The Seventh Column."

Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, appreciated the importance of intellectuals. In 1948 he convened a prominent group of them in order to formulate a strategic plan for shaping the national identity. And yet he was also a sharp critic of intellectuals. In 1960 he published a decidedly anti-intellectual letter in the Labor daily Davar, in which he wrote: "And what does it matter if a fine book comes out or a beautiful poem or a captivating play does not come out? Life - if it is rich in content - is more important than the books that try to reflect it. To me, the individual's spiritual elevation is of more consequence than the books ... These young people ... will not slake their thirst on the books of Agnon and Mendele. They will do great things, the books will get written - and if they are tardy in coming, I will not be bored."

And indeed, history has already proved that many fine intellectuals read the map wrong and, for instance, supported British colonialism, German Nazism and Russian Stalinism.

In Israel, as in France, no worthy heirs have arisen to the last century's great intellectuals. Martin Buber and Natan Alterman still have no successors. The last time Israeli soil produced great intellectuals, it brought us David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. However, their generation - never mind that of the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz - is heading into the sunset, and it seems there are no successors on the horizon. If there are, they apparently have not found their way into the public consciousness.

How did it happen that the intellectual, "the world's conscience," the universal thinker, lost his status? Has he consequently also lost his right to exist? Has he too been replaced and swallowed up by Google? Quite a number of Israeli intellectuals have been pondering these questions. There is no lack of immediate suspects: The Internet. Television. Politicians. The economy. The media. You and me.

In his 2000 article "The Betrayal of the Intellectuals," Prof. Yehouda Shenhav, a sociologist, defined the intellectual as "someone who has status in one field (literature, academia, poetry, law, physics ), but expresses his opinion in another political and moral field." An intellectual is someone who has "traversed his field, leaving the familiar vectors and roaming in other fields by virtue of his symbolic capital." A real intellectual, he adds, "is of the peripatetic type, examining, admonishing."

Sand attributes intellectuals' disappearance mainly to the rise of audio-visual media, which has come at the expense of the written word. Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, actors and directors took the place of literary intellectuals. Politicians who saw which way the wind was blowing, realized that their power was determined by how they appear in public and the electronic media; what gets written about them is less important. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu know this very well. "Politics is dependent on visual media and less on intellectuals," Sand remarks.

He too is trying to adapt to an era in which he appears on television, and admits frankly: "I know that my appearances, like the entire medium, are very shallow. My on-screen intellectual messages are completely shallow. I have no doubt about that. I have no illusions."

"We are a society that has traded in its heroes," says Dr. Aminadav Dykman, a literary researcher at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "There are too many non-professionals appearing on TV, quasi-experts, only because they 'come across' well and they tell cute jokes. The autodidact is no longer a hero in our society. It's strange, but in a place that has become so materialistic, people are often prepared to be satisfied with 'second best.' It's easier, it's more convenient and it doesn't require mental effort."

This is especially evident on the commercial TV channels, where intellectual discussion hardly exists. The prevailing assumption among that medium's executives seems to be that the viewer's attention span is limited and therefore overly complex messages will not be received. Any item longer than two minutes will a priori be considered tedious. Any discussion has to be vivacious and lively; its content is less important. Only among the programs on publicly funded Channel 1 are there a few dinosaurs featuring in-depth, old-fashioned discussion.

"There is no longer any serious intellectual discussion in the Israeli media today," says Prof. Moshe Zuckermann, an intellectual historian at Tel Aviv University.

"The discourse has degenerated, and is now completely vacuous. When the prime minister returns to Israel after an idiotic speech of the sort he delivered in Washington [last month], the public's enthusiasm for him only increases, based on what Haaretz reported. No discussion develops, except perhaps in [its] columns by Gideon Levy and Yossi Sarid.

"It used to be that after such a speech they would call me from Army Radio and ask me to explain how this could happen. But such questions haven't been asked for a long time now. Nobody tries to examine the political, ideological or social aspects. Nobody asks why something happens and what it says about our fate," he notes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Zuckermann - one of Israel's outstanding intellectuals - was regularly invited to participate in various TV panel discussions, and published articles in the daily press. He remembers the days when intellectuals took part in political, social, historical and cultural debates. But in the past decade, "debate in Israel has been neutered nearly entirely. The people have been silenced. They tried to strangle them - and they've succeeded," he says.

He found a platform abroad - especially in German-speaking countries - where he is a regular guest and interviewee. Zuckermann's books and articles are about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Holocaust and Israel's relations with Germany, but most of his work has not even been published in Israel.

Prof. Daniel Gutwein, a lecturer in Jewish history at the University of Haifa, attributes the intellectuals' decline to privatization.

"Market forces have pushed aside any discussion about society and what is right for it. Since the market holds the tools to this discussion, it simply doesn't let it take place," says Gutwein. "The market arranges our environment like products in a supermarket, and ensures there is no intellectual discussion. Anyone who tries is condemned to being insignificant, irrelevant or not part of the entertainment lineup.

"The existing platforms enable expression of an opinion, but not having a discussion. Opinions are subject to the rules of the game, which neutralize any intellectual qualities. On television, two minutes are considered too much. The newspapers' opinion pieces have shrunk to 500-word [Hebrew] statements."

Thus, according to Gutwein, "the entire discourse is becoming a protracted verbal altercation, which a priori is not intended to convince the other side by means of valid arguments."

Another factor emasculating intellectual discussion is the constant need for balance - airing the other side's arguments. "Opinions don't have weight anymore. The balance neutralizes them and transforms debate into a tournament devoid of intellectual value. Anyone holding a debate these days is a player in a game - a game that is hollow from the outset."

Gutwein believes that privatization, which has entered politics, "has left us devoid of ideology, path and intentions. These have been replaced by transient stars who brand themselves, sometimes at random. A system like this doesn't need intellectuals and therefore it makes sure they won't be around," says Gutwein.

Translator, poet and publisher Rafi Weichert is an intellectual of another sort. Though he does not hold an academic title, his broad horizons would not embarrass top professors. His poetry publishing house, Keshev Leshira, publishes original poetry, poetry in translation and essays. For years he has been a presence on intellectual platforms around the country, from the high school where he teaches, through the universities and colleges where he lectures, and the events and conferences to which he is frequently invited.

"We are living in a world that is violent - verbally, mentally and militarily," he says. "The more things are intelligent, moderate, measured and proven, the less they reverberate. The more extreme, provocative, metaphorical, laden with historical imagery and bloody they are, the more they are heard. We keep expecting more and more blood and extreme language."

In this world, people of values have been pushed to the margins. "For every 10 interviews with criminals, murderers, rapists or careerists, there is one conversation with an intellectual. The people of values are no longer on the front line. They get awards like 'teacher of the year' or even a Nobel Prize, but then they have to go back to the lab. This is part of the violence and lack of culture in the discourse. Today's headline is immediately pushed to the margins by the next headline."

And it isn't that there aren't any intellectuals, he says. "We have excellent writers, who cling to the language and do their job faithfully, but go find someone willing to interview a young poet. The media outlets look for the oddity. They want sensational stories and biographies but not our opinions on language, culture and literature. It's all a culture of news clips, which are shoved into the archive two days after they are published. There is no discussion, there is no polemic. The day begins with [Army Radio broadcaster] Razi Barkai, and at 1 P.M. they move on to the next topic."

Another guilty party is academia itself, which is not raising a new generation of intellectuals of stature.

"The universities in general and the humanities in particular have been starved by the state, and the supply of intellectuals has dwindled," says Dr. Ran HaCohen of Tel Aviv University. "The number of jobs has plummeted significantly, so new voices with financial security are not arising. People employed on temporary contracts take care not to mark themselves politically. Many have left Israel's universities."

HaCohen also points to another phenomenon - American norms infiltrating Israeli academia. "The universities are nurturing careerism in an almost bureaucratic sense and they are not encouraging socially committed intellectuals. There are fewer and fewer intellectual academics like Yeshayahu Leibowitz," the late professor of chemistry who became a well-known, and often extremely sharp public commentator on matters of religion, politics and philosophy.

"I believe that it's not by chance that Yoram Kaniuk, one of the few writers voicing controversial opinions, is also one of the leaders of the campaign to increase authors' royalties. Israelis are vengeful, and a writer who knows his democratic 'freedom of speech' will hit him in the pocket is likely to watch what he says."

Gutwein mentions another factor: "The universities, which were supposed to create intellectuals, have closed into themselves, and their intellectual discussion now has little relevance. It has become an internal ritual with its own jargon."

Even academia endorses a "very, very blunt anti-intellectualism," says Zuckermann. "Netanyahu wanted to replace the elites and he has succeeded," he says. "Higher education today is more subordinate than ever to the market and practicality. Is it good marketing and how will the audience receive it? In so many cases they have silenced initiatives due to financial considerations."

Sand comments: "The university promotion path neutralizes intellectualism. The research is cautious, and does not break boundaries. To become a professor you have to be cautious, not a trailblazer, and respect those above you."

Weichert adds: "You don't get promoted based on newspaper articles but rather due to your research. You write [academic] articles for 10 years, until you are worn down. Who has time for other things?"

Evidence of academia's weakness is the list of people who left for politics, he says. "Take for example Prof. Avishay Braverman, who revolutionized Ben-Gurion University but left for politics. What could he change there? Or Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami. The best people in the country, brilliant intellectuals, globally esteemed, are mired in the government swamp, unable to move a pawn. They could have been influential within their own four walls or in the kingdom they built, but great moves get stuck due to corruption, ill will and stagnation. The stasis keeps them employed, so why change things?"

The Internet was supposed to be a lifeline for intellectuals, with its unlimited space, uncensored opinions and platform for anyone and everyone to express himself however he chooses. But this is what makes it so problematic: It has too much content, making it difficult to distinguish between an intellectual article and pretenders.

"The tribal bonfire has been extinguished," says Weichert. "There is no longer a central place for intellectuals to speak. The bonfire has been replaced by little sing-along campfires, each with its own conversation. Gone are the days when everyone read Alterman's 'Seventh Column' or Davar and Al Hamishmar [defunct left-leaning newspapers] and watched Haim Yavin on Channel 1. Today there are innumerable channels in a wealth of languages. The media is fractured."

Zuckermann, too, does not pin great hopes on the Internet. "There's a surplus of blogs, and nowadays anyone can launch one, which means no one can create spaces that bring together groups. The worship of heterogeneity has weakened political discussion and has caused it to lose direction," he says, adding, "The Internet doesn't have a real public sphere. People aren't going out into the streets because they are online all the time, on their little blogs. This does not translate into real political activity."

Prof. Joseph Agassi, a philosopher, disagrees. "I'm a big disciple of technology. There are many people who would never write anything if it were not for e-mail. People tend to forget that the alternative to watching television or surfing the Internet is not a concert, but rather rampaging in the streets and drawing knives in nightclubs. Enough with the intellectual snobbery."

Sand, too, is aware of the Web's advantages: "The Internet brings the written word back onto the playing field and could give rise to a new kind of intellectual, somewhere in the expanses of the blogs."

Beyond the immediate suspects, other more complex processes are also at work. Prof. Zuckermann says the fall of the intellectuals is related to the collapse of the Oslo process and the outbreak of the second intifada.

"At that time a large part of the Zionist left made an about-face to the right. 'The sobering,' as they called it - a shock reaction to the events. Ever since then the left has hardly any framework to express itself. There currently is no social left worthy of the name, apart from a few individuals. No one is addressing social problems, poverty, labor migrants, commercialization or social gaps."

Prof. Gutwein blames this on postmodernism. "It eliminated the hierarchies, promoted relativism and filled the public arena with endless noise. There is no longer a place for reasoned opinion because everything is of equal value. It's hard to conduct any real discussion this way," he says. "When everything is possible, intellectual discussion becomes superfluous. It becomes a statement, another opinion that can't be implemented."

Weichert has other, simpler explanations: "The intellectuals haven't disappeared; they've simply gotten tired. People like A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, Haim Gouri and Asa Kasher - they're elderly people who for decades contributed, attended demonstrations, waved placards and wrote. It's their right to get tired - it's part of the biological and psychological mechanism."

And some of them simply don't have time. "Intellectuals need free time. Both material and mental. But nowadays people are tired and worn out. They need to work hard to earn a living and make it through everyday life. Who has time for political activity? A person who works 12 hours a day - when will he have his say? Where will he find the time to come to the news studio at 5 P.M. or write a reaction to the news?

"How can one be an intellectual when you don't have the money to buy an apartment? Do you know how many Israel Prize winners are living in key money or rented apartments? A person has been giving all his life, has won all the prizes, has written himself to death - and doesn't have an elevator. This is a shame and a disgrace. In places like Sweden, Denmark and Germany, they would be looked after."

Tel Aviv's Resling Press, which was established in 2000, publishes about 40 nonfiction books a year, most of them by and about intellectuals. One of its most recent books was a Hebrew translation of the late Edward Said's "Representations of the Intellectual." In the book, Said asks "whether there can be anything like an independent, autonomous, functioning intellectual, one who is not beholden to, and therefore constrained by, his or her affiliations with universities that pay salaries, political parties that demand loyalty to a party, think tanks that while they offer freedom to do research perhaps more subtly compromise judgment and restrain the critical voice." In Israel 2011, it appears the answer is no.

However, intellectual discussion about the condition of intellectuals indicates there are some bright spots within the gloom. The future could yet surprise.

"Take Kafka, for example," says Weichert. "During his lifetime he was known only by a very, very small circle of intellectuals. He sat in little Prague and wrote what he wrote and never imagined that in the 21st century they would still be quarreling over his will. I am certain that like Amos Oz in Arad, there are currently people who will become important sitting in quite a number of places in Israel. I discover them when they send me manuscripts and I do everything to let them have an impact. Some of them are working very quietly. In a world of cruise missiles, planes and wars, they do not pretend to compete with the external noise and choose to work in an intimate, quiet and deep place."

Bialik wrote: "There are still hidden cities in the Diaspora." Maybe this is true today. Perhaps the next intellectual is hiding out on Menachem Begin Street in Carmiel.



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