Startup Nation's Moral Values Are in Decline, and It's Not Just About the Occupation

When the coronavirus emergency lifts, Israel will still be suffering from a democratic culture in deep trouble. Only a humanistic revolution in education and in public discourse can halt the deterioration

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Prime Minister Netanyahu laying the cornerstone for Mobileye’s development center in Jerusalem, 2019.
Prime Minister Netanyahu laying the cornerstone for Mobileye’s development center in Jerusalem, 2019.Credit: Amit Shabi
Amit Varshizky
Amit Varshizky

The assault on the judicial branch in Israel and the attempt to derail the legislative branch under the auspices of the coronavirus crisis; the undermining of individual rights by invocation of a “state of emergency”; the bending of the Basic Laws under the guise of creating a unity government; and the anemic public and media response to these developments – all this shows how enfeebled Israel’s democratic immune system has become.

The morning after the end of the pandemic, Israeli society will have to cope not only with old problems (annexation, yes or no, for example), but also with new challenges that will demand a reexamination of its basic values and necessitate decisions about its future character.

Despite the hope that the crisis will have a beneficial and sobering influence, history shows that collective anxieties heighten the urge for an authoritative form of government, and that epidemics are liable to intensify social alienation and strengthen the tendency toward collective separatism. Thus, without a revamping of basic values, erosion of the foundations of democracy is likely to intensify.

Those who wish to preserve Israeli democracy need to adopt a new method of struggle and to internalize the fact that the battle for democracy must not be fought solely on the political and legislative fronts, but also – and perhaps primarily – in the realms of education and culture, in the struggle over public consciousness and inculcation of values.

An allegation frequently voiced by left-wing circles and by the parliamentary opposition in this country is that the occupation, now nearly 53 years old, is the principal cause of Israeli society’s moral corruption, spreading violence and deterioration of humanistic and democratic values. Indeed, the occupation’s ruinous impact and its contribution to the rising level of violence within Israel are indisputable. In all fairness, though, it must be said that this is not a sufficient explanation: Actually, the occupation could just as easily have sharpened the public’s moral instincts and engendered a broad civil protest movement, as has been the case in other liberal democracies with a colonialist past.

Global processes – the rise of a populist right in the West and strengthening of nationalist, racist and ethnocentric sentiments – are evidence that the deep transformations Israeli society is undergoing have parallels abroad, though these are for the most part unconnected to Israel’s geopolitical situation or its protracted conflict. Economic globalization, the decline of the middle classes worldwide, and the search by large publics for certainty and security by means of a return to insular and exclusive national identities that impart a sense of intimate partnership and stability – these are significant factors in the regression from universal, cosmopolitan values.

However, underlying these developments, both in Israel and globally, is a deep shift in values and collective mentality that generally eludes the social scientists, the economists and the media people who follow such processes. Indeed, in numberless discussions and analyses of this situation, one word always seems to be missing: “culture.” Or should we say: the decline of culture and of the ethos of humanistic education upon which it rests.

The reason for this is, simply, that historical processes are most readily characterized in terms of an overt causal connection between a rapid sequence of events – rather than in light of a shift in consciousness and unquantifiable, unmeasurable, in-depth processes occurring in the abstract realm of normative cultural discourse and ultimately fomenting ethical and behavioral changes in society.

American intellectuals of the likes of Allan Bloom, Martha Nussbaum and Andrew Delbanco have long since characterized the crisis of Western democracies as a crisis of values, one that stems from the neglect of humanistic education and its calcification in academia. However, this subject rarely arises in public discourse in Israel – perhaps only in closed academic discussions, which remain the exclusive preserve of experts with vested interests.

Schism of values

The tendencies toward moral degeneration, brutalization and disintegration of solidarity in Israeli society are directly linked to the loss of prestige of the humanities in the school system, higher education and among the broader public. We are looking not at a cause-and-effect relationship but at symptoms of the same ailment, which is as global as it is local: the “neo-liberalization” of intellectual life and culture; and the subordination of education at all levels and the moral-normative discourse to the ideology of the “free” market and the utilitarian logic of the “bottom line.”

Whereas in other Western countries this process is somewhat curbed by the presence of a humanistic tradition and something of a consensus around universal democratic values – in Israel, demographic and cultural factors, and the inherent tension between religion and state, have engendered a public consciousness that sanctifies applied, “practical” technological education, and scorns all learning that is perceived as nonproductive in terms of the labor market.

As such, the education system constitutes an assembly line, churning out people who can be astonishingly knowledgeable in the technological, economic and legal-formalistic realms, but total ignoramuses when it comes to the realm of human beings. It makes for people who are emotionally hollow and ethically obtuse – technocrats of applied knowledge who lack the slightest aptitude for critical thinking and moral judgment.

Israeli society is thus marked by a fundamental schism of values. On the one hand it is a high-tech, hyper-technological empire of entrepreneurship and innovation; and on the other, its dominant features are traditionalism, ethnocentrism, tribalism and messianism. While adopting the scientific and technological achievements of Western culture, it repudiates contemptuously the fundamental values in which that culture is grounded. It is preoccupied with what Jewish German philosopher Max Horkheimer termed “instrumental reason,” which subordinates everything to considerations of efficiency and utilitarianism, but disdains “substantive reason,” which enables a critical, values-based examination of its activity and its deeds.

Critical public discourse has been supplanted by the dogmatic, categorical call for the promotion of “Jewish values”; the place of the critical intellectual and thinker has been taken by the vacuous celeb or the sermonizing rabbi. This is the vision the shapers of Israeli consciousness – notably Benjamin Netanyahu and the education ministers from Likud, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi – have repeatedly put forward in recent years.

Illustration by Roei Regev. Based on a Jewish National Fund poster designed by Otte Wallish.

Therein lies the essence of the transition from the rhetoric of an “exemplary society” (“hevrat mofet,” in Hebrew) described by the country’s leaders since David Ben-Gurion – to the rhetoric of the “Start-up Nation,” of drip irrigation and innovative companies, that emanates from Benjamin Netanyahu and the new national right and is regularly seasoned with biblical quotations about the Jewish people’s divine mission.

But this is not only a matter of rhetoric: The reform in mathematics teaching introduced by Education Minister Naftali Bennett (and furthered by his successor, Rabbi Rafi Peretz) alongside the inculcation of “Jewish values” – whose sole purpose is political-ideological indoctrination – are the concrete expressions of this worldview, which sanctifies practical knowledge side-by-side with religious and ethnocentric values.

The result is the emergence of a new type Israeli who, in addition to being an ignorant conformist, also lacks basic civic skills – at least according to Western democratic criteria – and whose consciousness is subservient only to “practical” considerations of cost vs. benefit. Such people see the world through a utilitarian prism, and the immediate result is the dehumanization of the weakened Other, whether Palestinians, refugees, the disabled or the elderly.

Decency is for losers

The fact of our daily lives being in thrall to unfettered “free” competition has given rise to a mindset of Darwinist struggle, in which human interaction as a whole is subjected to the logic of cold power, material accomplishments and immediate interest. It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of the public – which grasps the concept of “us” as an expansion of “self” – prefers the use of force over dialogue and negotiation. Little wonder, then, that the public is drawn to populist, instant solutions and disdainfully rejects any possibility of a lengthy, gradual process of discussion and compromise.

This very shift in values is evident in the profile of Israel’s elected representatives, who largely reflect the face of the society. This explains why, for example, the majority of the public prefers a “strong” leader over one who displays a moral backbone, and views the manipulative politician or the wheeler-dealer functionary as the quintessential “success story.” No wonder, then, that the public debate over a morally tainted prime minister revolved around legal procedures and his ability to carry out his duty (while also managing his legal defense), instead of focusing on his flagrant moral disability.

In the neoliberal (and postmodern) era, morality is for the weak; adherence to values of truth, decency and integrity is perceived as no more than the weapon of losers who are incapable of succeeding in the cruel game of realpolitik and seek to prettify their failures with lofty words.

The education system churns people who are emotionally hollow and ethically obtuse – technocrats of applied knowledge who lack the slightest aptitude for critical thinking and moral judgment.

It’s not adherence to the truth as a fact that is being deplored here as a weakness: What is under assault is nothing less than the sanctification of truth as an underlying principle of human interaction. Hence, the growing judicialization of the public domain in Israel – because without the norms necessitating a values-based dialogue, every issue of breach of trust or harm to the public interest becomes a matter for adjudication.

The logic of the market also dictates the behavior, in practice, of politicians and shapers of policy in our time. Instead of a leadership fired up by a mission to serve the public interest, which aims to realize a particular worldview or a distinctive ideological vision – we get power politics managed by spin masters and image wizards who are adept at adjusting the message to the “demands of the market” and to the “target audience,” based on public opinion surveys. Democracy is thus voided of content and becomes a tool for mass control and maneuver.

Façade in place of substance

These developments have impinged on every sphere of life: culture, art, the media, the judicial system, the schools and academia. Israel boasts one of the world’s highest percentages of university and college graduates, but most of them are incapable of engaging in critical or abstract thinking, which is a precondition for sustaining an independent worldview and for morality-based decision-making. This is the most convenient environment for populist, nationalist and racist messages to take hold in – messages which, by appealing to the emotions and positing a schismatic world of good versus bad, or the sons of light versus the sons of darkness, are always easier to digest and have a powerful psychological attraction.

Neoliberalism has enlisted the rhetoric of individual freedoms to foster an extreme individualist ethos that impels people to act according to one criterion only: personal benefit. The “what’s in it for me” ethos is not only guaranteed to produce an alienated society in which unremitting suspicion is the behavioral norm: It is also a platform for the emergence of a narcissistic, escapist, insensitive culture that is occupied with self-pleasure and self-worship and is incapable or unwilling to accommodate criticism or to look inward.

The neoliberal individual, who has become accustomed to immediate gratification and instant entertainment served up by a ratings-oriented culture and media, tends to shy away from complex, critical content; he will always prefer a façade over substance and the emotional, entertaining marketing message over the complex theme that requires a serious and profound response. Every invitation to reflective observation or criticism is rejected, whether for lack of interest or due to psychological recoil.

In this way the person holding up the mirror – the journalist, critical artist or “sourpuss” leftist – becomes the most despised enemy. Indeed, why should anyone who’s gotten used to being wooed incessantly by the media and the advertising world – which are out to win his heart through flattery and the force-feeding of his narcissistic needs – bother to cope with an unpleasant reality or unflattering facts, the need to conduct an in-depth discussion or, heaven forbid, to be accountable for his deeds?

Can we truly expect those whose consciousness has been anesthetized by a relentless bombardment of commercial messages and whose judgment has been incapacitated by the consumerist logic of the “wisdom of the masses,” to prefer the role of the rational individual over the feeling of security accorded by joining the herd-like rush into the bosom of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) and by wantonly following an authoritarian leader who’s a master at plucking the psychic chords of the crowd?

Students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In what has become a hallmark of this period, the neoliberal manipulation of the masses fulfills itself in an extreme manner by blurring the boundaries between truth and lie, between reality and fiction. The erosion of judicious awareness and of critical faculties deteriorates easily into a frontal offensive against reality itself, when reality, disinclined to adapt to immediate emotional needs, engenders anxieties deriving from the encounter with an overly complex externality, from the discomfort spurred by doubt and from being called on to exercise independent judgment as part of one’s civic duty in a democracy.

The result? A pressing, almost existential inner need to shatter the mirror, to dub the truth “fake truth” and to label the media that mediates it as generating “fake news.” Hence, also the plethora of “deep state” and other conspiracy theories, of self-victimization narratives and rampant scapegoating. Ignorance is truly intertwined with moral decay.

Death of the spirit

The shifting ground of moral and normative discourse is the result of political, economic and technological developments undergone by the West in recent decades, which have influenced culture and consciousness. However, much of the blame for the decline of the humanist ethos in education and culture lies with academia and those who fashion its intellectual discourse. For under their aegis, higher education regressed from its social and educational function and has subordinated itself to a market model that upholds short-term “profitability” goals.

The roots of the crisis in the humanities were discernible in the second half of the 19th century, with the rise of scientific positivism and the humanities’ willing self-abnegation in the face of the exact sciences – to the point, indeed, where they tried to resemble them. In a lengthy but continuous process, the necessary separation (as dwelt upon by philosopher David Hume) between “facts” and “values,” between objective science and subjective interpretation, was obscured. So much so that today one cannot talk about humanistic research without paying dues to the Moloch of “scientism,” in the form of the framing of research questions, methodology and terminology.

The reorganization of modern academia around principles of expertise and professionalization, borrowed from the realms of bureaucracy and industry, has also brought about the cultivation of meaningless learning, dominated by quibbling and scholastic hairsplitting – none of which contributes one iota to human knowledge. The scientific logic of mapping and describing has thus displaced interpretation (hermeneutics) and turned the humanities into a ludicrous imitation of “science” that has nothing to offer but narrow specialization aimed at a finite group of experts and which categorically avoids the “big questions.”

On the other hand, the dominance of so-called postmodern ideas in academic discourse has bolstered trends of relativism. While the latter did, in fact, undermine the positivist pretensions of the humanities, at the same time it eliminated the possibility of any statement of meaning or value.

While adopting the scientific and technological achievements of Western culture, Israeli society repudiates contemptuously the fundamental values in which that culture is grounded.

The notion that relativism creates an opening for an egalitarian, pluralistic, tolerant approach turned out, paradoxically, to have the opposite implications: In the name of the promise of moral “neutrality” and political correctness, relativism gave rise to a conceptual “dictatorship” that flees from taking any principled position and forgoes the quest for the good and the worthy.

In this spirit, even today any approach that deviates from this conceptual line is automatically tagged “conservative” or “reactionary”; however, the sad truth is that the adoption of postmodern relativism has only distanced the liberal-democratic camp from the original, true liberal values, which enshrined human reason as the means to form a better, more just world.

Effectively, the knights of the liberal left and human rights have sawed off the branch they were sitting on and voluntarily disarmed themselves of the conceptual weapon that was to serve them in their struggle against the new nationalist, antidemocratic forces. These developments also led to the abandonment of the humanist ideal that calls for the self-formation of the individual, and to the neglect of the humanities’ mission as inculcator of an all-inclusive outlook on the world.

A whole human being

Since ancient Greece, and more emphatically in the modern era, humanistic education was perceived as a means to shape a whole human being – intellectually, spiritually and morally. The study of philosophy was intended to foster critical thinking; knowledge of history was intended to broaden the human experience; literature and the arts helped cultivate sensitivity to nuances and the power of imagination as an antidote to conformism; acquisition of language skills was meant to broaden emotional expression and conceptual scope; knowledge of other cultures and religions made it possible to extend the individual’s observation beyond his immediate circles of identity and to develop sensitivity to human complexity and, accordingly, empathy toward the Other.

The objective was to forge an individual who maintains an autonomous stance in the world, capable of forming his worldview by dint of reason and able to decide issues of moral weightiness. And nowadays? The didactic purpose of cultivating one’s personality has been supplanted by the need to get an academic degree or career promotion; the study of human beings has given way to a preoccupation with “discourse”; and questions of value and meaning have been neglected in favor of burrowing into identity issues, producing intellectual ghettos of political, cultural and gender insularity.

Moreover, the attempt to imitate scientific methods in the humanities and incorporation of the principle of scientific progress have brought about an inflation of worthless research whose only purpose is to “update” and “innovate” at any price. The dominant element throughout is market logic and the need to meet the demand of the academic system for “impact” – that sacred word around which the life of the contemporary academic revolves and which epitomizes the transformation from the world of intellectual contemplation into one of a cynical, uninhibited careerism driven by a constant need to prove “necessity.”

Evaluating research according to “impact factors” has not only distorted the choice of topics of study – which are now increasingly based on utilitarian, extra-scientific considerations – but has also turned researchers into manufacturers of publications and salespeople who constantly market their wares. The intellectual’s status has thus been undermined, and issues that were once the exclusive and substantial preserve of the humanities have been neglected.

Israel's Supreme Court.Credit: ‏‎Oren Ben Hakoon

In all fairness, it must be said that humanistic education is no guarantee of humanism. In this connection, the question posed by the late literature scholar and theoretician of culture George Steiner continues to resonate: “Do the humanities humanize?” he asked, referring to what he termed the “brutal paradox” that gave rise to the Nazi killing machine in the heart of enlightened Europe, in the land of Schiller, Goethe and Beethoven.

But at the same time, it also needs to be said that a necessary condition for the existence of a democratic, open, pluralistic society is the cultivation of citizens who possess critical awareness and are morally responsible. In the absence of a humanistic education capable of producing people with an untrammeled consciousness – we are condemned to live in a society of obedient and efficient robots that are easy prey for despots and demagogues.

What ought to be

This is not the appropriate forum to address the conceptual, methodological and didactic revolution that is needed to correct this situation. I will just offer several general ideas, in brief. What is needed above all is the following: First, a closer connection between the humanities and a values-based education, grounded in the understanding that the humanist realm, in contrast to the exact sciences, need not be, and indeed cannot be, morally neutral. “A neutral humanism,” as Steiner put it so well, “is either a pedantic artifice or a prologue to the inhuman.”

Herein also lies the role of higher education, as entrusted not only with promoting the study and understanding of mankind, but also with teaching and shaping moral individuals who possess social awareness. What’s also involved is a shift in the self-perception of intellectuals from individuals engaged in professional promotion, into a service-oriented elite committed to society’s welfare. New models of humanist learning need to be developed that focus on encouraging self-knowledge and emphasize how essential and relevant a humanist education is for life.

In this spirit, for example, Israeli literary scholar Yoav Rinon suggested that literature be taught as “didactic poetics,” which can help map crisis situations and offer practical solutions through an interpretive reading of literary texts. At a deeper level, it’s necessary to discard entirely the approach that links humanist study with “progress,” and to develop new models centering around a contemplative approach that enables us to rethink basic human conditions and problems.

At the systemic level, it is correct to encourage an interdisciplinary approach that combines a technical education with a humanistic one. One way is to create a culture of higher education based on a liberal arts model of general studies, which enables the student to combine “unprofitable” courses with “practical” studies. Integrating humanities courses into scientific and technological curricula might also be welcome, though the danger with this is that the humanities will be instrumentalized and turned into a “practical” tool lacking concrete value.

In the neoliberal (and postmodern) era, morality is for the weak; adherence to values of truth, decency and integrity is perceived as no more than the weapon of losers.

Moreover, creation of ties between academia and the general public should be encouraged, including cooperation with high schools (as is being done, for example, in Tel Aviv University’s “Idea” program or in private initiatives such as Derekh Ruah, an organization aimed at promoting the humanities in Israel).

But however useful and vital such steps are, they constitute only a temporary and partial solution and cannot extricate the humanities from their deep crisis. Only a fundamental makeover of public discourse, backed by the willingness of those shaping the humanistic discussion to rescue the humanities from the stifling grip of both scientific instrumentalism and postmodern moral neutrality, will have the potential to restore their status to some degree.

As the opinion becomes engrained that the humanities are superfluous and a waste of precious educational resources, it is essential again to heighten awareness of their importance to society and of the necessity to preserve and cultivate their autonomous status alongside the exact sciences. As the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey noted more than a century ago, the difference between the natural sciences and the humanities lies in the way they set out to explain the world. Whereas the natural sciences aspire to uncover the causal connections between natural phenomena, the humanities aspire to uncover their meaning. Accordingly, the natural sciences are based on empirical observation of the world of nature and all that is not the work of man, while the humanities deal with the world of man, with the meaning that man confers on his existence and on historical endeavors of a cultural, political and spiritual character.

Implicit in this difference is also an essential distinction concerning the role of the exact sciences and the humanities in society. In contrast to science – which, as the sociologist Max Weber noted, can say “what is” but not “what ought to be” – the humanities, and indeed the entire cultural discourse, need to act as a space within which a discussion is conducted about ethics, values and meaning.

The exact sciences and the humanities must be the pillars on which the entire edifice of human knowledge rests; it is incumbent on them to preserve their autonomy as two separate realms of knowledge that engage in a free and fruitful – but at the same time mutually restraining – dialogue. This is of greater relevance than ever today, given the challenges facing not only Israeli society, which is searching for its democratic, secular identity, or other Western countries that are struggling to preserve their democratic identities – but that will confront all of humanity in the post-coronavirus era, amid the climate crisis and unprecedented technological revolutions.

It is precisely now, as we look to the realms of science and medicine for salvation, that we must bear in mind the need to strengthen our critical and ethical perspectives. We must remember that technological developments can bring great blessings to humanity, but can also turn out to be a two-edged sword (see under: “splitting the atom” or “the invention of chemical fertilizer”).

Only cultivation of a humanistic, ethical and critical discourse can protect humanity from the technology Golem it has created. Only a society that adopts the humanistic option can act as a brake for man’s reckless rush to perdition.

Dr. Amit Varshizky is a historian.