A Good Old-fashioned Liberal

"Da'at Yakhid: Dvarim Bikhtav Ube'al Peh, 1960-2001" ("A Single Voice") by Amnon Rubinstein, Schocken Publishing, 272 pages, NIS 69.

"Da'at Yakhid: Dvarim Bikhtav Ube'al Peh, 1960-2001" ("A Single Voice") by Amnon Rubinstein, Schocken Publishing, 272 pages, NIS 69

It is no secret that politicians and university lecturers are almost always ready to appear on radio or television; they even like to. It is an opportunity to convey their opinions, usually forcefully, to a larger public than they would normally find at political and academic conventions. In most cases, their participation in current events programs involves little preparation. After all, articulating their views, not necessarily profoundly, is their daily bread.

The number of politicians and members of academia who bother to write for the newspapers is smaller. It takes effort to produce an insightful article that people will be interested in reading. It involves putting abstract ideas down on paper. Furthermore, compared with tapes of radio and television programs, written material is preserved in archives and hence more accessible to fans and critics alike. Politicians and academics who are also political commentators rely on the fact that human beings have short memories. They think that what they say in the electronic media will soon be forgotten.

Analyzing the journalistic writing of such people is thus a more accurate gauge of their beliefs and opinions. It reveals things politicians do not disclose, or even make an effort to hide, in their media appearances and the tactful autobiographies they publish. At the same time, we must approach anthologies of their written work with great caution. The articles are always carefully chosen, deliberately emphasizing certain aspects and concealing others that the authors and their publishers are not anxious to publicize.

These points are worth remembering when reading the essays and speeches of Amnon Rubinstein collected in "A Single Voice." Most importantly, it should be borne in mind that Rubinstein has worn many hats, and still does: He is a highly respected academic scholar whose articles and books in the sphere of law in general, and especially Israeli law, have enjoyed wide acclaim. He is a senior politician who has held influential political positions, as the top man in various political parties, as a government minister and as an active member of the Knesset who has helped to push through important law proposals. He is a talented journalist and television personality.

Secondly, the publisher of this book is Schocken, to which Rubinstein is connected in more ways than one. One presumes that this publishing house gave Rubinstein the choice of hundreds, even thousands, of articles and speeches he has written over the past 40 years. This is perfectly legitimate, of course, but if a different editor had been in charge of the selection process, the outcome might have been very different. Chances are, we would see articles that the author and publisher have deliberately left out, for reasons known only to them.

In fact, the omission of certain articles spreads a kind of haze over attitudes and approaches that the author and publisher would like us to forget, or ascribe less importance to, in the final reckoning. Rubinstein says he has not included articles that created "a great sensation" in their time, but which he feels are now outdated (he mentions two of them specifically in the introduction). Even so, the selection process remains problematic.

To Rubinstein's credit, he makes no effort to cover up the book's major - if rather ambitious - objective. In his introduction, he explains that he is a "nonconformist," who has "taken pen in hand with the purpose of not toeing the line, even if that line was laid down in the past by prime ministers, rabbis and chiefs of staff, and in the present, by anti-Zionist molders of public opinion." This will therefore be our chief criterion in evaluating a body of writings purportedly reflecting Rubinstein's public persona.

The first proof Rubinstein brings of his nonconformist outlook can be found in an autobiographical article published in 1977, the year of the political "reversal," when Menachem Begin and the Likud came to power. The article appeared a day after the elections, and as Rubinstein himself tells it, was perceived as evidence that he had switched sides and was now a supporter of Begin and the Likud. The article lovingly describes his Revisionist home, the family's strong ties to Jabotinsky, and the ideological tension between his father and brothers, who belonged to the "enemy camp," i.e. the Labor movement. The article talks about Rubinstein's views as a young man and his anti-establishment approach, critical of the hegemony and actions of the Labor movement even prior to the establishment of the state. In this same article, he states that the heirs of Revisionism went one way, and he went another.

Despite this declared split with Revisionism, it was no simple matter for Rubinstein to leave the doctrines he was brought up on. He relates that although he had chosen a different path, Revisionist ideology continued to reverberate in his brain; over the years, it has stayed with him in body and soul. Indeed, nationalism, apparently inspired by the Revisionist thinking he imbibed at home, is a motif that crops up in many of his articles (see, for example, "Be a Jew Abroad and a Goy at Home," published on September 17, 1972, and other articles in the section entitled "Jews").

In this context, it is worth noting that many research studies have shown that the beliefs and opinions picked up from dominant figures at home are among the most influential factors in the political sociology of human beings. So deeply ingrained are these beliefs, they remain in the psyche for one's entire life and freeing oneself from them is almost impossible.

The imprint of Revisionist traditions learned in his father's house is even more evident in Rubinstein's later writing. As he points out in the introduction, he has a bone to pick with "anti-Zionist academics." His article "Israel, the Jewish National State" (December 29, 1999) is an impassioned defense of the bond between Jews and Israel articulated by the Law of Return. He is even more blunt in an article subtitled "On the Absence of Palestinian Right of Return" (June 19, 2000), in which he claims that the whole world is against us because people have not yet recognized the Jews' right to self-definition. Similar remarks appear throughout the book. If that doesn't reflect the heart of national consensus in Israel, then I don't know what does. Furthermore, despite Rubinstein's complaints about the hegemony of the critical sociologists, new historians and anti-Zionist academics, they are still a very non-hegemonic minority at our universities. The truth is, they are the nonconformists in the nationalistic Israel of today.

Rubinstein, in the spirit of Jabotinsky and his father's house, is actually a traditional liberal, which, of course, is not a bad thing. Like many liberals, however, he is no nonconformist. He may seek to present himself as an individual swimming against the tide, but in his articles, his speeches, and his political activity, he belongs to a major current in Israel, represented by the Progressive party, the General Zionists, Shinui, and to a large extent, Meretz, the party he represents in the Knesset.

In many respects, the characteristics Rubinstein attributes so admiringly to the late Gershom Schocken, the editor of Ha'aretz who made him a journalist and a board member of the paper, apply to Rubinstein himself. In a eulogy for Schocken published on January 18, 1991, he could be talking about Amnon Rubinstein. There was no subject that did not interest Schocken, he writes. He could immerse himself in the study of the great English poets, but he was also curious about what attracted people to the music of Rod Stewart, and appreciated the sculptures of Yigael Tumarkin. Above all, Schocken was a "blend of conservatism and modernism." In him, one sensed a "dichotomy between old and new." His outlook was capitalist, but one of his heroes was Rosa Luxemburg. He was the symbol of secular hard-nosed rationalism, but after the rescue mission in Entebbe, he wrote an editorial exalting the soldiers of the IDF as Israel's rock and savior. Due to this complexity, Schocken did not fit the Israeli stereotype. He was not the sort of public figure who could be packaged and labeled, with his opinions on this or that subject predictable ahead of time. Perhaps, writes Rubinstein, it was this "non-Israeliness" that was Schocken's major contribution. In practice, this is as much a portrait of Rubinstein - and Ha'aretz - as a portrait of Gershom Schocken.

Moderate, humanistic liberalism comes through in Rubinstein's writing on the status of Israeli Arabs, the status of homosexuals, the relations between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, and the folly of privatizing education. The same holds true of his views on the economy, poverty, the victory of enlightened capitalism, centralized planning, the "liberal trinity": freedom from foreign occupation, freedom of the individual and economic freedom, and other issues. Like Schocken, Rubinstein's range of subject matter is very broad. He has described his travels with sensitivity and erudition; eulogized men of stature like Yitzhak Rabin and David Elazar; written about jurisprudence, social problems, the world in flux, globalization, literature, music, linguistic fashions, education, social change in Israel.

What is missing from this book, however, are articles on politics and the political system. The question is whether the omission is unintentional, or a deliberate attempt by Rubinstein to divert attention from a number of misguided political maneuvers, among them the founding of the original Shinui party, and above all, the push for direct elections for prime minister, which was meant to bolster the prime minister's power - a goal that did not fit in with Rubinstein's liberal outlook but enjoyed very broad consensus at the time. Also absent are articles relating to his term as minister of education (which, incidentally, does not appear on the listing of Rubinstein's ministerial positions on the back cover) - a term not known for its impressive achievements, to put it mildly.

At any rate, the articles in this book, covering a wealth of topics, are interesting and clearly written. Rubinstein's prose is colorful and rich. Nothing he writes is shallow. Broadmindedness and creative thinking are the rule. And most importantly, this collection represents the liberal centrist thinking that prevailed at Ha'aretz, especially under the editorship of Gershom Schocken. The man who emerges from these pages is not a revolutionary, a flouter of conventions or a nonconformist; he is a liberal academic/politician/journalist of the centrist school, of the kind that has always existed in this country, in the days of the Yishuv and after the establishment of the state, of the kind that has never been controlled by any movement - not the socialists or the Bolsheviks, and certainly not the post-Zionists, no matter what Rubinstein and others say.

Contrary to the image of the nonconformist that Rubinstein is trying to create, it is the centrist approach of his speech in the Knesset on the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom, that typifies the man. "We want to start rubbing out this stain [the lack of a human rights law] in a spirit of good will, out of a desire to compromise and reach a consensus in this house," he declared. These, of course, are not the words of a nonconformist. But between ourselves, Israel could use a few more humanist-conformists of the Amnon Rubinstein brand.

Prof. Gabi Sheffer's book "At Home Abroad" will soon be published by Cambridge University Press.