Where Is the 'Jewish Mind'?

In Israel, we suffer from intelligent but primitive political-security thinking that cannot deal with challenges.

Many studies have proven unusual success by Jews, since the Emancipation, in the areas of science and thought, relative to the populations of other nations. The survival of the Jewish people and its flourishing in exile prove the existence of a collective "Jewish mind," or an abundance of gifted people.

In Israel there are many areas of successful creativity: in the economy, civil society and a few governmental bodies. But the situation is different in the area of political-security thinking, where the question "Where is the Jewish mind?" presents itself.

Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and ex-IDF Chief Gabi Ashkenazi
Archive / Alon Ron

Hypotheses about the nature of the "Jewish mind" in the Diaspora contain explanations for its absence in the political-security arenas in Israel. According to some of these hypotheses, the difficult conditions of the Diaspora led to the development of talents that fit the circumstances, either as cultural traits or as individual, quasi-genetic traits. Some of the hypotheses emphasize the role of demanding, elitist Torah study.

But these processes did not apply to diplomacy, an area in which the Jewish people were not involved in exile. The ways of dealing with the government were mainly through go-betweens, and only a few Jews attained positions of political leadership. In other words, we lack a tradition of statesmanship, of educational institutions aimed at developing leadership, and of a quasi-"aristocracy" from which democratic leadership grows. The years of the state's existence are too few to fill this gap.

The result is a "primitively intelligent" political-security culture. Many of the officials are intelligent. There is no lack of common sense, since complicated problems require complex thinking.

But such thinking has not developed enough here. Instead, we suffer from intelligent but primitive political-security thinking that cannot deal with challenges.

The primitiveness is expressed in the failings of political-security thinking. For example, the inability to combine values and aspirations with a realistic view of the limits of the possible; restriction of creativity by conventions; reaction to developments instead of initiative; a lack of historical thinking that considers current issues with long-range perspective; treading in place when confronted with controversial alternatives; attachment to concepts; tunnel vision that blocks out important considerations; an imbalance between the power of political-security bodies and the inordinate influence of the army; failure to consult people with varied perspectives.

In addition, uncertainty is dealt with childishly, by adherence to one-dimensional "working assumptions" instead of planning for a variety of possibilities, both optimistic and pessimistic; there is a lack of skepticism and critical thinking about "the obvious;" contempt for others, including the enemy; resistance to abstract theoretical thinking as one of the essential bases of diplomacy; and underdevelopment of advanced professional expertise in terms of evaluation and planning.

There are also difficulties in achieving cooperation between political and security bodies, such as the Defense Ministry and the IDF on the one hand, and the National Security Council on the other, against the background of a coalition government. And, most seriously, the denial of failures.

The result is a "negative added value" of the whole political and security system, whose overall output is eroded by the friction between its units, in place of mutual synergistic reinforcement.

If Israel were not facing fateful decisions, all these could be seen as "childhood illnesses" that will pass in a generation or two. But that is not the situation. That is why there should be a revolution in the culture of political and security thinking, on all levels.

This requires changes in the government. But even without them, much can be done, including concentrating political and security issues in the hands of the prime minister, instead of distributing them among many ministers.

A situation that prevents integration; a new type of professional training for those responsible for evaluation and planning; rotation between political and security bodies, and between them and external think-tanks and research centers; defining "points to be considered in political and security decisions" as a helpful tool, not as a restrictive framework; in-depth discussions for cabinet members of political and security issues (this recommendation by the Winograd Commission was greeted with scorn in the Prime Minister's Office ); rebuilding some of the evaluation and planning bodies in a way that is appropriate for a complex reality and reduces friction, including a real strengthening of the National Security Council and its status; and both positive and negative incentives for decision-makers and their advisers - including removing those who stand out for their primitive thinking.