With Its Eye on the Celestial, Tangible Israel Lies Withering

While the state dwells on our spirit as an ideal for which we are ready to lay down our lives, we allow the country to be destroyed.

Yossi Yonah
Yossi Yonah
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Yossi Yonah
Yossi Yonah

Many people ridiculed Yair Lapid when he listed his reasons against dividing Jerusalem in an interview in The New York Times. “Jerusalem is not a place, Jerusalem is an idea,” he said.

But ridicule is not appropriate. Whether Lapid’s statements were made based on a well-founded worldview or said out of innocent belief, they show a distortion deep in Israel’s national culture that must be corrected. This distortion is reflected in a preference for the celestial over the earthly, the spiritual over the corporeal. This distortion peeks out constantly from statements on various subjects by public figures as well as by ordinary citizens, and its influence over patterns of thinking hold a danger to the physical country and its living citizens.

Jerusalem, Lapid says, is a theoretical idea. Perhaps it is one borrowed from Plato’s world of ideas. Thus, to the finance minister, it is neither here nor there if the physical city is divided and never unified. It is neither here nor there that the inhabitants, both Jews and Palestinians, know the boundaries very well and are usually careful not to cross them. The provocative forays of extreme right-wing activists into the eastern parts of the city show the strict boundaries that separate the residential areas of the two people. But these facts lose their importance as the minister raises his eyes heavenward, to the celestial spheres. In his imagination he sees a supreme, contiguous and unified idea: Jerusalem of gold. Jerusalem is a good example of the distortion that is deep in our national culture, but it is not the only example.

Compared to developed nations, concern for the environment is not at the top of the agenda for Israel’s citizens nor for its leaders. From this point of view, too, our love of country shows that we perceive it more as an idea and less as a physical entity. Otherwise it is hard to understand why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled the national program to reduce greenhouse gases and why his decision met with only weak public protest.

The Environmental Affairs Ministry has mapped out at least 300 sites that contribute to pollution of our water table. Together we take part in damaging the landscape, we consume products that contain materials that are harmful to the environment, we react with equanimity when our natural resources are brutally exploited and we even allow these resources to be handed over to giant international corporations. One member of the Tzemach Committee, the interministerial panel on gas policy, even went so far as to say that we should immediately extract the gas that lies near our shores and export it, because who knows whether the state will still be here in 30 years. This is another example of a frightful gap: While the state dwells within our spirit as an ideal for which we are ready to lay down our lives, we allow the country to be destroyed.

But the most important thing of all is the people of Israel. While the country’s leaders proclaim the importance of the people of Israel and boast that it is eternal, they do not see any connection to the economic prosperity, health and education of the flesh-and-blood citizens. The idea of the people of Israel is whole and eternal, but the existence of these people, here and how, is faltering. Responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with our leaders, under whose aegis a wicked economic policy came into being that fosters damage to people’s welfare and leads to a terrifying growth in poverty and distress.

And perhaps there is no contradiction, since the destruction of the land and harm to the citizens living on it conform well to the idea of preferring the celestial over the corporeal. When the physical land is bruised and exploited, when many of its inhabitants rot in poverty − that is when their glory is exalted. Because the physical entity, as Plato taught, is always a pale reflection of the celestial idea; it will always be a weak representation of the real thing. The “Land of the Fathers” will always be preferable to the physical land, the “city that is compact together” will always be more valuable than the living, divided city, and the eternal “people of Israel” will always be preferred over the citizens of this country, who are groaning under the weight of an economy that accords little value to human life.

A preference for the celestial over the earthly comes at a great price. With it comes enormous danger to the physical country and its citizens. It threatens to turn the Zionist idea into an abstract destination behind which there is nothing concrete and tangible.

The author is a professor of education at Ben-Gurion University.

Trash in Tel Aviv's streets. February 2012.Credit: Nir Keidar
Flags for sale ahead of Israel's Independence Day.Credit: Flags for sale ahead of Israel's Independence Day.

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