Fascism Just Isn't Fun Enough for Israelis

There's no problem for Israel to be Jewish and democratic simultaneously, so long as the two terms remain empty of content

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A Lake Kinneret beach is filled with trash during the Passover holiday.
Passover, at Lake Kinneret. We can identify a whole gamut of species: incidental Judaism, semi-anarchic Judaism, Judaism of Mizrahi pop music, New Age Judaism, pothead Judaism. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Boaz Izraeli

Jewish and democratic – that’s ostensibly the source of the problem, of the paradox. You can’t be both a cat and a dog. But the current era, which is a time of miracles and wonders, is raising the possibility that you can be both, that there’s no real contradiction there. To continue to insist that these are two different, conflicting things that don’t go together – a Jewish state and a democratic state – is simply not to go with the flow. Everyone who does do that, however, knows that in the sort of Zen Buddhist void in which Israel is floating, no hard and fast meaning is actually attributed to the terms themselves. All is diffuse, amorphous, inchoate – it’s all fun. People who go with the flow know that this dilemma is a thing of the past and that now the State of Israel and its citizens have no problem being democratic and Jewish in the same breath, or being anything else that they may want to be, for that matter. Each of these terms has undergone a dazzling process of flexibility, while becoming empty of content. No contradiction is conceivable between nothing and zilch.

One of the peculiar things about the democratic frame of mind is the belief in dialogue, a cornerstone of democratic culture. Dialogue is not a tool for getting somewhere, not a means; it is not intended to lead a conversation to a conclusion, an agreement – or, heaven forbid, an action: It is the end in itself. It’s good to dialogue, one can dialogue forever. One can wallow in dialogue, turn it into the be-all and end-all. The belief in dialogue exists in both political camps. The flexibility offered by the democratic mindset allows everyone to join in.

When a right-winger, Itamar Ben-Gvir, say, talks about democracy, he is referring to one thing; for Stav Shaffir, the term will have a different meaning. But what they have in common is that strange, professed love for “democracy.” When a character like Ben-Gvir aspires to come across as a democrat, even just rhetorically, there is reason to consider the nature of the term. Even those rabbis who enjoy annoying Haaretz readers with remarks about gays and women – even they know how to declaim the praises of democracy when the need arises. Every one of them can mobilize democracy to his side and flaunt it in whatever direction is appropriate. In circumstances like these, the term “democracy” resembles a stage prop that’s available to every actor; with that prop in his hand he is entitled to deliver whatever monologue he pleases. To each person, their own democracy.

It appears that even science itself grasps now that it would be nice to project some sort of democratic openness “to dialogue.” The Ramot Yam middle school, in Mikhmoret, decided this year to adopt a comprehensive, scientific-humanistic curriculum initiated by Bill Gates’ foundation about 10 years ago. The chapter on the Big Bang drew an angry reaction from some religious students, who saw it as inconsistent with the beliefs on which they were raised. “I have no intention of teaching a truth that will replace your truth,” the teacher quickly explained. “There is enough room for several points of view: Each person can decide which to adopt.”

In a democracy, it’s essential to foster in the citizen the feeling that he is a partner to governmental processes and decisions, that he too has a say, that he has rights, that things are not one-sided. Modern capitalism is skilled at creating a similar feeling in the consumer, as though he decides what and when and where to buy; that he is master of his “habits of consumption” and “lifestyle.” It’s clear that those two feelings, in two not-unconnected realms, are illusions. Which is of course a necessity for a modern, orderly, democratic regime.

The social-justice protest spectacle of 2011 was a fine manifestation of a democratic frame of mind. No one can deny that there was a protest here. A genuine protest (“an authentic one,” as the media, embracing the events, emphasized repeatedly). Masses of people took to the street. Truly took to it. Took to it together, marched shoulder to shoulder, in cities the length and breadth of the country. The ardent young people who initiated the protest were indeed truly ardent young people, the way ardent young people are supposed to be. And there were police and a few arrests and clubs and bruises. In moderation.

A spirit of change hovered in the air. Everyone seemed supportive. The prime minister and his cabinet, teachers and tilers, clerks and editors, even businesspeople and bank owners. They all supported the right of these young people to launch a colorful protest in public – thereby illustrating and reminding us of the fact that we live in a free and democratic regime, that this is not North Korea; that we are not being forced here to lower our heads and recite the praises of the “beloved leader”; that people here can go out in their thousands with a megaphone and complain about our leader, as loudly as possible, in the light of day, on the main streets of the country, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. And now, after we’ve received reinforcement of the belief that we are a free, democratic society, we can put that Woodstock in storage and continue without any change. That seems to have been the protest movement’s only importance.

Among the worried contingent of lovers of democracy there is, as everyone knows, the fear of a turn to fascism in Israel. Somehow, in the current state of affairs, that fear appears to be exaggerated and to derive from the fondness left-wingers have for situations involving panic, despair and the tearing out of hair. A leader with his back to the wall, a battery of novices acting as his gofers and a public that’s in part comatose – it’s a pretty good combination, but not enough to make the transition from our familiar political present to the genuine pressure chamber of fascism. There aren’t enough clients for that in Israeli society.

The level of political emotion does in fact recall a grandstand of overwrought, out-of-control soccer fans, but even those who are certain of the justness and greatness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu don’t seem to be about to don brown shirts and grab clubs to beat up their neighbors any time soon. That takes effort. It takes indoctrination. And it’s just not fun. If fascism is generated here, it will have to be fun. Otherwise there won’t be too many jumping on that bandwagon. We can apparently count on healthy Israeli dumbness, the fondness for pleasure, with an I-deserve-it and it’s-my-right sort of attitude, to be able to preserve at least the pretense of democracy – and that’s no small thing.

Democracy as an idea is, of course, a splendid achievement. But there is no longer a need to see a link between it, as it’s manifested in reality, and progressiveness of any sort. In the age of mass democracy – in politics and in culture, as such – the connection is apparently the opposite.

Under the influence of the gamer-like expansion of the democratic sentiment, Judaism in Israel is also undergoing a process of dementia and dissolution. If in the past, diversity within that framework consisted primarily of two camps, national-religious and ultra-Orthodox – now we can identify a whole gamut of species: incidental Judaism, semi-anarchic Judaism, emotional Judaism, secular Judaism (a creative term in and of itself), beneficent Judaism, Judaism of Mizrahi pop and of melancholy songs (see under: Shuli Rand, Ishay Ribo and others), receiving-the-Sabbath Judaism, conservative-hedgehog Judaism, New Age Judaism, pothead Judaism, feminist Judaism, “affinity for tradition” Judaism, trance Judaism in Uman, queer Judaism, Judaism of religious poets, Judaism fused with Hinduism/Shamanism, my-father’s-house Judaism – almost as many types as the number of Jewish people living here. “Everyone and their own Judaism,” as we find on the website of one of the religious studies institutes that seeks to draw the secular public closer to the esoterica of Judaism, no matter how or which, as long as they taste of the delicacy.

One of the more interesting – some may say repulsive – rings in this circus is that of musical-prayer Judaism. Singer Amir Dadon personifies this well, along with many others. The lyrics of his tender yet potent songs describe the torments of the path, the temptation to leave it, the “abundance” that awaits you in your “true home,” the journey to the Great Light. Somehow, it’s a strange sight: a young man who looks as though he just woke up, with a stubbly face and an unruly yet charming mop of hair, with nothing that indicates that he’s religious, gazing skyward and singing-shouting with creepy fervor: “When will I learn how to choose as I should / To believe, to see that all is good.”

This genre is blossoming. The pioneer may have been Shuli Rand, inventor of the formula for a very particular type of schmaltz that smacks of a groaning, intimate, narcissistic Judaism. True, this can be seen as a sort of local version of Christian American pop/rock, but whereas that music is saliently a niche product and appeals to a fairly small group – in Israel (based on tens of millions of YouTube hits), the public at large is enthusiastically drawn to this merchandise.

After all, in the end we all live on the scale “between the sacred and the profane,” there is no other place. And the distance to one pole or the other is either large or small – every person according to how they feel. The truth is that there really are no poles: a growing number of voices from here and from there as well are claiming that “secular” and “religious” are no longer valid categories. There you go – the end of an era. Now, in the new era, free of moldy old definitions, we are, it turns out, simply Jews. And even if for most of us that means nothing – never mind. It’s all for the best.

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