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Only Liberalism Can End Israel’s Culture Wars

The state should refrain from meddling in ‘big meaning’ except for Zionism’s original goal of Jewish political self-determination | Opinion

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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The flag procession on Jerusalem Day outside the Old City, June 5, 2015.
The flag procession on Jerusalem Day outside the Old City, June 5, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Menachem Mautner, one of Israel’s most interesting legal thinkers, argues that classical liberalism can’t function in Israel, and that Donald Trump’s election victory shows that classical liberalism doesn’t even work in the United States. He has supplied an impressive array of arguments for his position.

Nevertheless, I will argue that, while Mautner’s points must be taken seriously, Israel’s society and political system can survive only by accepting classical liberalism.

Let me first summarize Mautner’s main points. Classical liberalism, which originated in the thought of Thomas Hobbes and developed via Spinoza and Locke in the 17th century to John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, is essentially atomistic. It is largely concerned with defending individual rights and the freedom to live and believe as you see fit both against other individuals and, most importantly, against the state.

Classical liberalism, Mautner says, is based on an unrealistic conception of human nature. Humans do not only need to make up their minds and strive for their goals, but they are essentially communitarian creatures, as a number of leading political thinkers like Charles Taylor have argued, and I agree with Mautner on this point.

Humans need to feel that they belong somewhere, and they need what Mautner calls “big meaning” that is, a large, culturally entrenched, emotionally gripping narrative of what makes life worth living. The prime providers of big meaning are of course religions, but national narratives can also be emotionally meaningful and provide a sense of belonging and purpose.

Mautner argues that classical liberalism doesn’t provide for this need, which is why it does not function in Israel. Therefore, Mautner argues for what he calls the republican conception of liberalism. This version, while preserving individual freedom, is based on a larger conception of the common good an overarching vision of the state’s function that, to some extent, provides the big meaning that human beings need.

Mautner’s points are important, but he fails to address a number of dangers in the conception of the state as provider of big meaning. Thomas Hobbes wrote his greatest work after the endless slaughter of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which was largely a clash between Catholicism and Protestantism. Hobbes’ claim that the state is primarily responsible for its citizens’ safety was precisely an attempt to expel big meaning from politics, which is based on compromise, whereas big meaning, mainly religions, have claims to absolute, nonnegotiable validity. This was the beginning of the long process of the separation of state and politics, a cornerstone of classical liberalism.

Furthermore, Mautner, in his emphasis on liberalism’s failure to provide big meaning, forgets Europe’s horrible experience with political systems that take a monopoly on big meaning through the exaltation of the nation. The results were the two most destructive wars in humankind’s history. Furthermore, when the state claims a monopoly on big meaning, the result is mostly some form of totalitarianism.

This is why liberalism ardently cautions that the state must by no means be the main provider of big meaning and offers an alternative. The liberal conception of the state allows for a rich civil society in which non-state organizations and institutions like churches, synagogues, mosques, art, professional organizations and sports clubs offer citizens a sense of belonging. Liberalism is based on a pluralism of big meanings and lets individuals choose which version they want to adopt.

Mautner’s proposal that Israel adopt the republican version of liberalism, in which the state reflects a vision of the larger, common good, unfortunately is completely unsuited for our situation. Israeli society, as President Reuven Rivlin has pointed out and I have argued for years, simply does not have a common ethos, and not only because 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs for whom Zionism is certainly no source of big meaning. It’s clear that the majority of Israeli Jews want Israel to have some Jewish characteristics, but it’s not very specific in what this means.

For the sake of simplification, I will address only three distinctly different visions of the greater good within the Jewish population held by three distinct and vocal minorities.

The religious-Zionist conception of Zionism is distinctly messianic and sees Israel’s mission in annexing the West Bank, settling it with Jews and gradually turning Israel into a theocracy.

The ultra-Orthodox conception is anti-messianic and sees no religious value in the state per se but believes in basing the public order on an ultra-orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

The liberal-secular value system assumes that the state should be responsible for nothing but security, infrastructure and social services, that big meaning should be left to individuals and families, and that the state has no business in interfering in these matters.

It’s very difficult to see a common denominator between these three conceptions of the common good, and this is one of the reasons Israeli politics and society are ridden by such deep conflicts. Every group is trying to impose its conception of the good life on the country as a whole. The result is a state of constant tension, and all groups feel that their way of life is threatened by the competing views.

Furthermore, both the religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox have carved out living spaces where they have de facto autonomy and impose dress codes and orthodox observation of Shabbat laws. We secular liberals should, as I have argued time and again, have similar autonomy in shaping our lives according to our values.

This is why Israel, at this point, can only survive if it safeguards the basic tenets of liberal democracy. The state should refrain from meddling in big meaning except for Zionism’s original goal of Jewish political self-determination, and for connecting Israel to Jewish history, which would satisfy the majority’s need for Israel’s Jewish character.

All liberal democracies have a historical narrative of their own identity, and this can be maintained without massively interfering with individual freedom about big meaning.

Unlike Mautner, I think Israel should evolve toward a federal system that lets the various communities feel that their core values and ways of life are not threatened. It would leave big meaning to these communities and give individuals the right to choose theirs. In brief, if Israel is to survive, it has no alternative but classical liberalism.

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