Guy Rolnik: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

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The execution of Robespierre. Ever since the French Revolution, the support of the propertyless has been obtained by cultivating the illusion of social mobility that is grounded in owning property.Credit: Archive

“Enough,” Guy Rolnik proclaims in his column “Israel’s brain drain is a call to arms — let’s be the best,” in which he urges us to normalize the emigration debate. “Israel is a normal country by most economic parameters,” he writes. To prevent “the loss of our best and most creative young brains” to emigration — emigration that is normal by any economic measure — Rolnik offers a few ideas. The first of these offers a rare opportunity to understand, with the clarity of a slap in the face, the power of Israeli society’s mental block against ending the rule over millions of Palestinians. “Peace can’t be at the top of our working agenda, for the simple reason that it isn’t under our control.” True change, political change, is beyond our reach, Rolnik declares. Thus, in the post-peace era, the only thing left for Israel is to be a shining economic light unto the nations.

In his piece, Rolnik uses the word “normal” repeatedly and for good reason: In effect, he seeks to update the concept of normalcy so as to also encompass ruling over the Palestinians. Just as there is no poverty without poor people, then without ruling over the Palestinians Israel is a normal state. The question begs asking: What purpose does Rolnik serve, in other words what interests are satisfied, and whose, by the conceptual manipulation that rezones the status quo to permit the construction of the best country in the world.

The purpose of government, argued the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke, is to protect private property. Indeed, since their birth the liberal democracies have acted as the guardians of the owners of property. Ever since the French Revolution, the support of the propertyless has been obtained by cultivating the illusion of social mobility that is grounded in owning property (as opposed to the absence of such mobility in a society of birth-based privilege): the illusion that by working hard and acquiring wealth one can ascend the class ladder, despite the impossibility of choosing the circumstances of one’s birth. That is where Rolnik enters the picture: to insure that the state does not stray from its obligation to property owners and to the clever cultivation of the illusion of social mobility by setting efficiency standards that seem to allow for the expansion of the circle of the rich, while at the same time causing the ethical commitment between people to be forgotten.

Rolnik has the right to act to protect the interests of bourgeois property owners, but if he and his followers are interested in a “revolution in values,” in his words, they must break out of the instrumental rationalist cage of capitalism. They must remind themselves of what their hearts surely know: that the fundamental idea of equality and liberty was about ethical politics and that it went far beyond a war against corruption and economic concentration.

It is good and important to fight economic corruption, but it is impossible to do so while distorting the original meaning of “corruption.” Does Israel have the right to “raise the standard of living, quality of life, and cultural and social capital,” as Rolnik hopes will happen, when these aspirations rest on the moral and also economic platform of oppressing millions of Palestinians?

If Rolnik is genuinely interested in serious debate, he should ask himself whose partner he became when he harnessed his public influence and chose to lead the masses with his pipe, with the vigor of freedom fighters, far from the field of political action and toward a world whose values are all monetary. Would it not be more fitting for Rolnik and his ilk to devote their energies first of all to the political demand to end the oppression of the Palestinians? In doing so, their fine words would regain their meaning and surely reward them with the opportunity for genuine growth.

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