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It's Not Just the ultra-Orthodox: Israeli Culture Is at Fault for Pandemic Debacle

זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell
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Israelis along the shores of Lake Kinneret in the Galilee during the Passover festival, 2019
Israelis at Lake Kinneret, during Passover 2019. Boundaries between low and high culture are blurred, and criticism of unrestrained conduct in public is labeled condescension.Credit: Gil Eliahu
זיוה שטרנהל
Ziva Sternhell

When Prof. Ronni Gamzu energetically took up the reins as coronavirus czar, he truly believed that the combination of scientific data, rational behavior and Israeli common sense would swiftly help him head off the pandemic’s worrisome advance. Presumably, he did not foresee the obstacles that cunning politicians would place in his way, nor the clashes that would arise among the professionals involved.

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But there was another factor of equal importance at play here – one that does not get as much attention: . Behind the failed management of the pandemic and the inability to dictate clear safety rules lies a cultural tradition that has been deeply rooted in local history since the early 20th century.

Granted, the outrageous and Arab communities continues to be a major stumbling block in the effort to combat the coronavirus, but disregard of the requirements to wear masks and to avoid large gatherings is common elsewhere too. Israelis’ characteristic scorn for behavioral norms in the public domain – as seen constantly on the roads, at the beach, in national parks and in public institutions – has become even more conspicuous during this age of the pandemic.

In parts of the world that have a more refined culture of “courtesy and manners” such as Northern Europe, certain parts of the United States and Far Eastern countries like Japan and Taiwan – the current crisis is more easily dealt with. Which only underscores the Israeli problem, which exacts a heavy cost, and not only in relation to the virus.

It’s all too easy to slide into superficial definitions of the so-called first and . But the roots of Israeli culture – which is commonly manifested in daily life and accepted, as has recently been proven yet again by the country’s leadership too (none of whom would ever dream of resigning, even if he or she clearly broke the rules) – lie in the worldviews that shaped society here in its early days.

From the outset of contemporary Jewish settlement in Palestine the seeds were planted that contained the DNA of resistance to the “hypocritical” and “artificial” bourgeois European culture, which dictated behavioral norms and cut man off from his authentic self.

This was not merely a way of casting off the burden of religion and the conservative lifestyle of Eastern Europe, first under loose Turkish rule and then as underground activity during the time of the British Mandate. From the beginning, Israeli culture had the backing of a romantic European ideology that flourished in the early 20th century and sought to create a society liberated from the shackles of the past, one that would connect the New Man with a new nation.

Studies done over the years have highlighted the fact that the rebellion against the bourgeoisie, its values and customs, which played an important part in shaping Israeli society, was not confined to the economic sphere. The intellectual elite, which included many influential figures like A. D. Gordon, Y. H. Brenner, Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber, helped import to Israel the myth of the consensus-shattering man and the rebellion against the Western civilization that Nietzsche likened to superfluous “husks.”

The connection to man’s “true” inner world and the “pure” world of nature (not necessarily to the holy land of our forefathers), untainted by Western civilization, was a founding tenet of the early pre-state Jewish settlement enterprise and the building of the Israeli nation-state. This undercurrent of ideas directly and indirectly contributed to the rise of the ideal of spontaneity and authenticity, which have been trademarks of Israeli society from the start and made the notion of “courtesy and manners” laughable.

The problems came to light when the state was founded and it was time to cast off the habits of underground activity, and to establish serious professional criteria for its management. In the first decades, the legacy of the British Mandate as well as the significant contribution of the "Yekkes," the German-born Jews who insisted on preserving the old “bourgeoisie” order, helped in this. But over time, this legacy crumbled. The results are quite apparent in everyday life, even if we aren’t always aware of their causes.

The roots of the failed management of the coronavirus crisis may also be found in the disdain for professional conduct that is typical of our government ministries and is evident, among other things, in the tendency to shoot from the hip with no long-term thinking, and in baseless political appointments.

In recent years, this unfortunate situation has only been compounded by the trend popularly referred to as “identity politics.” While making an important contribution to the democratization of society, this trend, which has been growing more extreme, is essentially based on denouncing Western civilization and classifying it as patronizing, oppressive and colonialist. Nietzsche has resurfaced, and universal and rational values have become dirty words.

An entire legacy of intellectual currents that saved the Western world from oppression and ignorance, that advanced equal rights and launched science and technology to unprecedented heights – was tossed away. Over time, the boundary between low culture and high culture became blurred, and any criticism of unrestrained conduct in the public domain is labeled condescension.

The coronavirus crisis has suddenly exposed Israeli society’s limitations: The non-professional government struggles to function, the spontaneity has ceased to be charming, the “authenticity” turns out to be better suited to TV reality shows – and, as always, the Israeli “it will be okay” motto doesn’t solve urgent problems. The legitimization of the breakdown of society into separate competing groups and the lack of obedience to a binding behavioral code isn’t exactly helping these days either.

The fact that values like universalism and rationalism have again become vital principles for handling the crisis means that new thinking is required about the ideas that have gained control over intellectual life here in recent decades. It is far from certain that the current government and its leader will learn the lesson, but the need to lay the ideological foundations for a culture that is suited to the current reality is today more pressing than ever.

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