An Illusion of Acceptable Public Life in Israel

Yair Assulin
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An ultra-Orthodox man looks into an ambulance at the funeral of Avraham Daniel Ambon, 21, from Argentina, who died in the Mount Meron disaster, on Monday.
Yair Assulin

To a large extent, the most vexing thing in the deluge of words gushing forth following the terrible disaster at Mount Meron – including calls for a commission of inquiry, for taking responsibility, for the orderly functioning of systems and for their re-examination, for delving into minutes of meetings – was the underlying assumption that Israeli society is basically a normal one, a healthy and functioning one. That what transpired at Mount Meron – the criminal negligence, the corruption, the looking away – was an exception that escaped the attention of a normal, well-managed state, and that any link between the festivities there and Israeli society, which allows them to take place every year, is purely coincidental.

This, after all, is the ostensible justification for all this shocked and astounded discourse. What is there to be amazed at? Did what happened at Meron really surprise anyone? At least twice a week, on nearly every level, we discover how corrupt the system has become, to what extent politics has died, turning in on itself, to what extent various official bodies see mainly themselves, not the citizens they’re supposed to serve, and to what extent the problems are severe and far-reaching. But instead of recognizing the significance of these things, we continue being astonished and shocked, looking for the instantly culpable, thereby creating, mainly for our own benefit, a specious appearance of normality. There could be no more profound self-deception.

A society that has been dominating another people for almost 55 years cannot truly see itself as normal. A society in which death plays such a central part in its fabric, which consciously or unconsciously conducts itself with an underlying conception of itself as an impenetrable “iron wall,” cannot assume that it is normal. The same applies to a society lacking a constitution or a shared and well-defined civil ethos, or a society with a nation-state law that is based on a religion. A society whose foundational text, the Declaration of Independence, is the epitome of a document riddled with contradictions and repressed issues – with the best description of this complexity being the words of Prof. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin: “There is no God, but he promised this land to us” – cannot presume it is normal.

The most dangerous deep process that has been burrowing ever deeper into Israeli society over the years is the self-deception regarding its normality, the ignoring of reality as it truly is, the addiction to illusions of what we’d like to be instead of seeing what we really are. The deepening of this self-deception is a mirror image of the weakening of the role of culture as a tool for self-reflection, criticism and discourse.

The story of Mount Meron did not take place in a vacuum. Moreover, it is almost the ultimate fable. This is unrelated to one government or other or to one public figure or another. Attempts to depict the situation as a result of the long rule of Benjamin Netanyahu are actually a tool for augmenting the self-deception and stagnation. In the years of his evil rule, Netanyahu mainly exploited the corruption, the blurring of boundaries and the self-delusion that were already ingrained in the system long ago. Examples of this are legion in almost every area. Everyone is familiar with them.

Last week, President Reuven Rivlin said that “for a long while we’ve been living under the illusion of constitutional order.” This sentence, the most courageous one he’s uttered in his entire tenure, should be amended, with the period covered spanning the entire existence of this state. Anyone looking with clear eyes at Israel’s story from its inception, without detracting from its great achievements and prosperity, must recognize that there has always been an illusion of acceptable public life. There is no clearer expression of the country’s collective subconscious.

One must recognize this fact. Without a willingness to courageously look at the roots of self-deception in Israel’s story, without a willingness to recognize the enormous gaps between reality and the stories we’ve told and continue telling ourselves, without understanding that we don’t require some “repair” at this point, but rather a rebirth, no revival can occur.

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