... The More Things Stay the Same

Political correctness be damned, says sociologist Gad Yair. He believes that nations have their own cultural traits, and that it's naive to deny this. That's why the 'clash of civilizations' is not going away, and peace is not at hand.

Prof. Gad Yair examines reality through a prism of culture. According to Yair, the outgoing head of the Hebrew University sociology and anthropology department, every society has a cultural code by which it operates, and he describes it without concern for so-called political correctness.

"When I wanted to understand why Russian men 'skewer' their women - I went off to read Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and I saw that everything is there. Everything is present in [Tolstoy's] 'The Kreutzer Sonata'; it's all the same story. That is the kind of analysis I conduct. I don't interview the neighbors after the murder. The Russian woman and Russian man - they have all this in their culture, it's part of the Russian story: drinking alcohol and enraging the man, who then ends things the way he does."

Hadar Segal - 12102011
Hadar Segal

Ethiopians murder their wives in Israel, too, we point out. "True," Yair says, "but they have a different story. Just as, in Arab society, you see murder that is related to family honor. You have to understand cultural roots, because our assumption that everyone is the same and that the police don't need to understand the culture is mistaken.

"And of course there's the ultimate answer - the occupation, period. But it's not the occupation. Ignoring culture leads us to a lack of understanding of what we're facing."

Yair's latest book, his fourth, "Tzofen Hayisraeliyut" ("The Code of Israeliness" ), has just been published by Keter. In it, as he writes on one academic website, he "reduces Israeli culture to the clash between Judaism and Zionism around ancient traumas that haunt the Jewish people - from ancient Egypt to modern Iran." He tries to map what makes Israelis tick, and comes up with what he calls the Ten Commandments of Israeliness as they exist at the beginning of the third millennium.

In his research, Yair conducted hundreds of observations and interviews with Israeli students, but also with non-Israeli students. One British student told him: "No English person in London would utter that line I keep hearing from you Israelis: 'Who knows, maybe we won't even be here in a generation.' The possibility that London and England won't be standing a generation from now or a century from now is unthinkable."

Existential fear is the first "commandment" Yair presents in the book, and in his view it is the bedrock of Israeliness. After it come chutzpah and contrariness; the sense of entitlement and ownership; the feeling of needing to contribute to and abide by a conditional contract with the state; humiliation; being opinionated; a lack of seriousness; a loathing for hierarchy; collectivism; and the buddy-buddy mentality.

For the most part, Yair's research has focused on formative cultural codes in philosophical and social thinking in Germany, France and the United States. He says that he wrote "The Code of Israeliness" because when he taught students about other societies, they demanded to know about the social codes that "activate" Israelis.

'A tribe among tribes'

Yair is now at work on a book about Pope Benedict XVI. "He is German, and I am showing that the pope employs the same narratives as the secular German intellectuals, from Marx to Habermas, and says the same things. And if he says the same thing, and he's a theologian, then perhaps they too can be considered theologians whose roots lie in Christianity?"

The field of social sciences, he continues, has evolved into a national and universal political science, and has lost its scientific quality. "I am trying to restore things; I'm retro. I'm doing what [social scientists] used to do. I am trying to say that culture is important. We must realize that we are a tribe in a world of tribes, with its own religion and symbols and ideologies, and we hide this from ourselves by means of scientific ideology that is disconnected from reality. Our job is to uncover why societies are the way they are. The social sciences after World War II became the social ideologies, out of a desire for world peace, the feeling there should be no more wars ..."

Yair says that when he submits articles to American publications, they are rejected out of hand because the Americans don't agree with his premises regarding culture. "American culture makes individual assumptions, and I challenge their basic premises. They can't stand that I say 'the French are ...' But when the French read what I say, they say, 'Yes, we are like that.' To Americans it is shocking.

Photographs of Freud adorn the walls of Yair's office. Following in the footsteps of the great psychoanalyst, he believes in going back to the trauma, to the root, to history, in order to gain an understanding of society in the present.

"Long before I realized this, when people would ask me what I do, I would say that I interpret dreams. Because reality is a dream, and my job is to interpret it. We dream about some sort of Israeli society, and need to understand the roots of the dream. For years, Freud's 'The Interpretation of Dreams' was bedside reading for me, because his interpretive ability is amazing, as is the courage to 'do science.' The ability to stand up in front of the whole world and say, 'Listen to me, I am saying something important.'"

Yair says he is trying to understand how Freud's Germanic background brought him to devise certain theories. "In his theory there is a devil and an angel, the superego and the id, which constantly wrestle with each other throughout history. His own culture enabled him to understand the world in these terms. No American would have thought like that. I am interested in why the Germans are preoccupied with themes of this split personality. Germans have a romantic longing for a simple agrarian society. They developed into an alienated urban society, however, and that is how they see the world: It's always the story of the Fall from Paradise - we were a certain way and then the devil came and brought us down. In Marx, capitalism is the fall from Paradise, and we have to go back to simple socialism."

Yair reads Zionism as yet "another German narrative that deals with a final solution." After all, the question of the Jews preoccupied the Germans, and they had plenty of suggestions. Yair notes: "Marx writes about the question of the Jews ... and how it should be eliminated already. How do we get rid of the Jews? We get rid of the money-based economy, because money is the Jews' god. We'll get rid of money and there won't be Jews. So we've solved the problem: The Jews who don't have capital anymore will disappear. Herzl sought another route.

"In the face of the Germans' yearning for the lost Paradise of nature, you had the Jews, who in their eyes represented urbanity, degeneration, decadence, money and rationality - and therefore constituted a problem that had to be resolved."

The French, by contrast, are still "stuck" in the era of the French Revolution, Yair contends: "They are still in the same situation where the Third Estate tells the aristocracy and royals that they have arbitrary power. All the French thinkers are busy identifying the arbitrariness of the world: Derrida deals with the arbitrariness of the text, Bourdieu is busy deconstructing the ways in which the people are cheated by the elites, Foucault is preoccupied with the arbitrary nature of science. In essence they are engaged in a radical revolutionary project all the time."

Yair says American society is still centered around the constitution: "With them it's individualism: Don't touch us. The British king should get lost, everyone has the right to bear arms in self-defense, and the government better stay out of my house. All of American sociological theory is like this, about how a person can maximize his profits. American students who study with me become aware that, essentially, they are the U.S. Constitution. They sit on a bus going downtown from Mount Scopus, and a woman gets on with a baby carriage, walks over to them, places the baby in their arms, and goes to pay. They sit there with the baby, stunned. After all, they say, if we were in America and we offered to help her, she would say, 'What - do you want to molest me? You want to take my kid away?"

Packing suitcases

According to Yair's new book, the first Israeli commandment is also the most basic - the one on which all others rest. It embodies the fear of annihilation, which, he explains, underlies the Zionist interpretation of the Jewish story throughout the generations.

"They have always tried to destroy us, and this is what we're preoccupied with. This is facilitated by the fact that every year, we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt at the seder, plus there is Independence Day, and Memorial Day and Holocaust Day. It doesn't take much effort to remind us why we're here. The kindergarten teachers take care of that ... Even Jewish American students, who don't share this same fear, know that Israel is their own personal final solution. They too always have Dad and Mom telling them that they need a small suitcase, because in the end they might need to flee to Israel. The Zionist solution thus pertains to someone who grew up in Texas as well."

The tent protest tried in some way to go against this tendency and to generate another language.

"In one fell swoop, it could be curtailed by something security-related, however. We're on borrowed time when it comes to this protest, and to the ability to maintain a civic discourse. It will be very hard to change. Look at the discourse of the 'If you give, you'll get' mentality, and everything [protest leader] Daphni Leef was put through for not having served in the army. Only if you've done the army, only if you've contributed, do you have the right to speak here. And there is a genuine battle over this discourse, which is pretty insane, because it doesn't allow a civic conversation to exist and is quite violent."

Yair also says he is not surprised that there was not a single bit of violence during the entire summer of protest - that at the big rally in Kikar Hamedina, not a single display window of any fancy store was broken. He calls this a "loyal protest": "We remain 'enlisted' all the time. We belong to the state. Violence against the state? No way. I mean, in France you couldn't have any protest without signs of violence. Look at the English vandalism in London [this summer]. Here there is astonishing loyalty. I mean, the crux of this protest movement's claim is that, we're loyal, and 'you' betrayed us. 'You' being the tycoons, or the government ... It's a campaign that is asking that they give us back what is ours. A very loyal campaign, very Zionist."

Yair says he is afraid of what he calls ideological sociologists, and believes that one must in any event have some distance before being able to say anything significant about society. "Politics is for politicians. Fine, go to demonstrations, but don't write the pamphlets for the demonstrations as part of your work. One of the interesting things right now is seeing the economists quarrel [over the social protest]. After all, economics, contrary to sociology, is a serious science. It's all numbers and formulas, so why are they arguing so much? There's supposed to be some empirical truth. If they quarrel, then it's a sign that they are politicians. It's not the truth, not research, that prompts them to say the things they say, but rather interpretations tied to a priori political stances: for or against a welfare state, for or against capitalism. It's interesting to see the incredible 'political enlistment' on the part of those from the economic field in Israel."

For his part, Yair says he doesn't read newspapers or watch television. "I'm connected to the Internet, so I can see if there's a terror attack. I deal with the major movements in history. What I read in daily life is Thomas Mann. What's happening now doesn't interest me. I go backward. It's more important to me to read Herzl than Bibi. I go to the roots. Because there will be a terror attack in the end. The only question is when, where and how many killed. It'll go on. The Palestinians will be Palestinians, and there won't be peace.

"The social protest is being carried out by people who have something to lose. But there are populations developing here that have nothing to lose. Maybe when they take to the streets there will be violence; these are Israelis of other kinds. It will take a long time and these people will have to bypass the army in order to break free of the Israeli grip. Watch Yaron London's program 'The Chosen People.' In it he talks to the children of foreign workers, and they, too, want to be in the army, and sing 'Hatikva' enthusiastically. It just goes to show the power of this society to enlist a partnership even among people who have no roots or future in it. By this theory, the ultra-Orthodox could rise up in revolt."

Indeed, what about them?

"The ultra-Orthodox are ... the mirror placed in front of Israel ... There are Israelis who are a little bit Israeli, and there are Israelis who are very Israeli. The ultra-Orthodox have only a little bit of Israeliness, but they know, for example, how to produce politicians that excel at playing up that Israeliness."

And the Israeli Arabs?

"They are increasingly becoming partners with us, but [existential] anxiety cannot be ascribed to them. Palestinian society has its own deep code. In 'The Yellow Wind,' David Grossman wrote about the Palestinian concept of sumud: to hold on to the land - because in the end the Turks left, the English left, and the Jews will also leave. And the Israeli thinks that in the long run they are probably right, and we really will have to get the hell out of here. In that respect, the Palestinian deep code has other roots ."

According to Yair, western society inherited from the French the premise of universality, which holds that everyone is the same, that ultimately everyone is going to be modern, democratic, rational and living in an egalitarian republic: "That is a French-Catholic belief, and our social sciences considered this is to be true about the world, and humanity. But human beings sit in cultural 'pens,' and don't leave them. Islam is Islam, and East Asia is East Asia. It takes special theories to explain them in their own terms and to understand them."

In his June 2009 Cairo speech, it seemed like U.S. President Obama was trying to talk to Muslims differently.

"But ultimately he told them that democracy is the way, and we will help you. He gave them the American narrative. That is a Christian solution, after all. If you understand American roots, you also see why [certain groups of Christians] come to the settlements here, to volunteer on behalf of the Jews. It's part of some Christian mindset. They believe they were tasked by God to make democracy an example for the whole world, and the Jews also have a task, and we have to help them implement their task here, so that salvation will come. Democracy is an evangelical Christian enterprise. The Muslims say, 'We don't want you' - and they're right. If you don't understand your own roots, and you simply say, 'Join us in our democracy,' without realizing that God is speaking through you, then you are fated to go on standing in a position of confrontation in the conflict of civilizations."

Can't societies change? Didn't German society change after World War II?

"My a priori answer is: No, societies do not change. Then my empirical caution comes into play and I say: Let's do some research and check it out. The Germans constitute a major challenge, because they suffered a very great trauma in World War II. They came to realize that something in their German-ness had gotten them into this situation again and again. They sought for a way to be different. Furthermore, the Americans also steamrolled them with educational processes of 'de-Nazification.' So you think that maybe they really have changed. They will probably tell you they have. For example, there's a complete faith in democracy and rights: They've got a constitution from 1949 that is very democratic, to which they tightly adhere. But who are the most German personae in history to date? Goethe. Schiller. Luther. Which piece of work is read the most? 'Faust,' still. When I teach students about the split in German character, one of the manifestations of this split - between the id and superego - is between the cultural and the political. For them culture is the real thing, and politics is artificial, an estranged piece. When you talk to Germans, you see their attitude to politics is really one of contempt."

Why do Israelis seem to look down upon their own culture and artists?

"The whole attitude toward academia in Israel is the same, on the part of the government as well, incidentally. Zionism had two options: the German option and the Russian one. The Russian option won out. So there are German kibbutzim, and there are a few holdovers from the Yekkes [i.e., the culture of Jews of German origin], but the formative force here was Soviet. We are draining swamps, we're involved in very mechanical projects. We're in the cowshed. So today the cowshed is high tech. It's still a cowshed in the cultural sense."

Yair believes that the only factors that alter reality are major catastrophes. For example, the terror attacks of 9/11, of which Israeli society is a victim: "This marked the end of the dream. It was the moment when Oslo ended and the Americans woke up from the notion that world peace is a realistic goal. The Israelis are the first to sober up from this thing. That terror attack hit Israeli society the most, because it eliminated the political option of the left. There's no Meretz because of bin Laden, not because of Bibi. You can't disconnect what goes on in Israel from global processes."

'I am a realist'

In the battle between "the end of history" and "the clash of civilizations," as posited by political scientist Samuel Huntington, Yair explains: "Huntington won - and Bibi is Huntington: He thought in the same terms before and thought so after, and the world lent its support to this [idea of a clash], with a very clear statement by the Arab world that [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak was a Western puppet and they want to return to Islamic roots. It's all a conversation between the West - in other words, Christianity - and Islam. Israelis and Palestinians are ... on the margins. We're being used. The 9/11 terror attack killed the faith in 'the end of history' - the faith that the West will triumph and everyone will believe in democratic neoliberalism. Who can believe in that now? Maybe there is something very defeatist in what I'm saying, but I see myself as a realist. We need to wait, adopt the Palestinian sumud. Openings for change in history are very rare, and they only follow catastrophes."

Yair also is critical for his own colleagues in the social sciences: "Nothing new is being said. The narratives' range of options has been exhausted. We don't leave our boxes. Maybe we push the lines a bit and get a professorship. The institutions work, we all make a living from this copying, but when you observe what is being done from afar, everything is the same. It's sad, because on the one hand we worship innovation, and on the other hand we are also terribly obedient. When there's something else evolving, we don't let it happen."

It is clear to him that Israelis won't like the kind of social codes he proposes exist. "They like to be independent and think they're individuals. But we are between Herzl and Jabotinsky. That's our range; it's a very functional, survivalist range, one that works. What can we say that will change anxiety in Israel? My book begins with an observation by Amos Elon, who wrote 40 years ago about Israelis' ritual of listening to the news. Nothing has changed since then, only today instead of radio there is the Internet. The Zionist narratives haven't changed; the social protest has been a loyal one. There is something depressing about this."

Israeli sociology, he says, is particularly trapped in the field of political science. "It is very state-oriented, even in its post-Zionist protest. It wants peace, but it is totally enlisted ... I try not take either side, rather to try and comprehend what is important in our self-understanding. I think my book is important in this respect: It comes from a very Freudian place - from the dark, the unknown, with recognition of the limits to the ability to change. Freud anticipated an enlightened civilization that would arise in the wake of psychoanalysis. I don't see that that happened, because of what occured subsequently in history."