Why Israel's Left and Right Are Both Wrong

It's time to eliminate the tacit agreement that says political assets are under the control of the right, while the left controls assets of culture and the mind.

Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik
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A protest in Haifa University, 2013.
A protest in Haifa University, 2013.Credit: Rami Chelouche
Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik

This would never happen under the rule of Zionist Union. Under the enlightened Herzog-Livni government, the members of the Israel Prize judges’ panels will be appointed on time and lawfully. We’re not likely to see Arab MKs in that civilized government, but Jewish prodigies, from the left and the right, will go on exalting and extolling one another uninterruptedly, and awarding one another scholarships and prizes without favoritism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing nationalist and a man of letters, did Israel’s political culture a good turn by revealing his approach to the essence of the relations between the rule of mind and the rule of might, when he intervened in the appointment process of some of the Israel Prize judges. Lo, the sky has not fallen, and the institution of the prestigious prize will withstand the resignation of a few excellent members from the judges’ panels, and even the withdrawal of the candidacies of a number of fine and worthy potential prize recipients.

The process of Israel’s transformation into a nationalistic, apartheid state is gathering momentum. The time has come to stop supporting the imaginary partition that Israelis have erected in their heads between liberal, progressive, Hebrew culture and thuggish, clerical, Zionist civilization. Once more, we are constrained to look back in anger at the ultra-German past of the Israeli present, and to try and glean from it why the struggle for the values of science and culture in the name of excellence and objectivity doesn’t advance by one iota the struggle for progress and the values of liberal democracy.

In his seminal work “The Civilizing Process,” Norbert Elias discusses the German obsession to distinguish between culture and civilization. Whereas the term “civilization” was grasped as an external, superficial façade of human existence, the term “culture” achieved hegemonic status as constituting the substance of the German collective consciousness.

Various historical explanations were offered for this distinction between culture and civilization. The principal one was that it reflected the need of the German middle class to compensate itself, as early as the 18th century, for an absence of political representation and for a feeling of humiliation and lack of freedom, by engendering an apolitical, even antipolitical cultural sphere.

The term “culture,” as differentiated from “civilization,” was perceived in the German language as a signifier of uncompromising striving for the good, the right and the beautiful, and as an antithesis to politics, which was identified with ambivalence, superficiality and temporality.

German idealism, which glorified metaphysics and the inner mental sphere, along with the classic literature that was produced in Weimar – indirectly legitimized the turn of the Central European individual from the political and social sphere toward the private and cultural sphere.

The more that German politics deteriorated to new lows, the greater grew the worship of Goethe and Schiller and the German state, which were meant to express the nation’s true cultural pulse. Whereas the other Europeans made do with “civilization,” the “German psyche” was subjected to a distinctive process of acculturation, which included the adoption of a viewpoint that held politics in contempt.

Naturally, the Jews who lived in the commonwealth of German culture had a special interest in preferring art over reality, and in identifying with the tradition that ensured belonging and partnership even to those whose civil rights were late to arrive.

Under Nazi rule, the assets of German culture underwent a process of racial classification and mapping. Many of the achievements of German culture and science were anathematized as products of the “Jewish spirit” and were burned in the city squares.

We are now accustomed to seeing National Socialism as the absolute opposite of culture. But it’s worth recalling that even the grotesque aestheticism of the fascist state did not forgo the dichotomy between culture and civilization, and between the rule of mind and the rule of might. On the contrary, German and Italian fascism enthralled British and French statesmen and intellectuals, who perceived themselves as aesthetes and as lovers of poetry. Many of them viewed Hitler’s war as a “war of culture.”

In 1939, in a conversation with the British ambassador, Hitler told his interlocutor that he was tired of politics and that as soon as he finished carrying out his plan for Germany, he would go back to his oil paintings.

In the wake of the tremendous civilizational explosion generated by the catastrophe of European Jewry, the Republic of West Germany forsook the attempt to exclude politics from the boundaries of scientific and cultural discourse. Not so in Israel, where for the past half-century, tacit agreement has existed that the political assets are under the control of the right, while the assets of culture and the mind are entrusted to the left. Accordingly, the right wing can only exult in a Haaretz headline that cries out in horror, “Concern that Israel Prize for Literature will be canceled.”

Soon enough, an all-clear siren will be sounded throughout bookland, and the wall of consciousness that Zionist civilization erected between the rule of mind and the rule of might will be rehabilitated.

Isn’t it time that the Israeli left stopped collaborating with this perverse status quo, which places Israel’s continued existence at risk?

Eran Rolnik is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and historian. He is the author of “Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity” (Karnac Books, 2012).

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