Leading From The Center: Bernard Avishai’s The Hebrew Republic

Bernard Avishai is a thinker and writer I've admired for some time, ever since I read his rather unfortunately titled 1985 work, The Tragedy of Zionism. That book was not, as one might think, an anti-Zionist exercise. Quite the opposite. … Read More

By / June 24, 2008

Bernard Avishai is a thinker and writer I've admired for some time, ever since I read his rather unfortunately titled 1985 work, The Tragedy of Zionism. That book was not, as one might think, an anti-Zionist exercise. Quite the opposite. In The Tragedy of Zionism, Avishai called for the re-establishment of the ideological roots of Zionism.

Avishai defines Zionism in the same way a great many Israelis do: as a Jewish national liberation movement. The basic impetus of Zionism, in this understanding, was the establishment of a strong and stable state. Viewed in those terms, by 1948 Zionism had largely served its purpose.

Avishai's complaint is that outmoded Zionist institutions, mixed with the ongoing conflict with the Arabs, have impeded the full establishment of Israeli democracy. In his view, such institutions should have been gradually replaced by state institutions based on legal principles rather than ideology. He calls, chiefly, for a constitution, contending that Israel's Basic Laws are a poor substitute. Indeed, Avishai argues that David Ben-Gurion "made perhaps his most short-sighted decision" when he "let the moment" for adopting an Israeli Constitution pass in 1949.

In his new book, The Hebrew Republic, Avishai takes this argument one step further, suggesting that Israel's best hope for peace-and for a bright future–is to embrace European-style secular democracy, integrating its Arab citizens into a business-driven globalized economy.

Israel and Europe

Like many contemporary Israelis, Bernard Avishai deeply admires the European Union. Though Israel spent decades emulating the United States, in recent years, whether intentionally or not, Israeli society has begun to resemble Europe more and more.

In The Hebrew Republic, Avishai writes with general approval of Israel's ambitions to become part of the EU, or to at least form a stronger partnership with it. But he also points to the barriers within Israeli law to strengthening that partnership. Not only would Israel need to settle its conflict with the Palestinians, it would face the challenge of removing the internal legal and structural barriers that prevent non-Jews from enjoying full equality in Israel. In short, Avishai's Israel would need to become a European-style secular democracy, a move Avishai supports.

Avishai points out that Israel's Law of Return is not unprecendented within the European context. Other European countries, such as Greece, have naturalization laws that give preferential treatment to returning nationals. Yet such European states also provide secular and non-discriminatory guidelines that allow other immigrants to become full and equal citizens. Israel has no such legislation. Creating one would be a sine qua non for Israel to become more integrated economically with the EU.

As one EU commissioner Avishai quotes put it, Israel could become more closely associated with the EU, but at some point "would have to make the strategic decision of whether this is what it really wants," as it implies significant structural changes to Israel's laws and institutions.

As much as Avishai discusses potential EU membership for Israel, he puts even more emphasis on the EU as a model for a regional, integrationist approach-that is, he hopes that Israel can become a member of a greater Middle East, modeled on the EU. A Middle Eastern EU has been proposed before: the French suggested something similar when they proposed a Mediterranean Union. However, all this thinking is premature.

Avishai glosses over the fact that the EU itself did not spring into being overnight: Europe underwent two deeply traumatic world wars before the formation of the European Community after WWII. Regional conflict was a major obstacle to integration in Europe, even after the process was well underway. The EU only came into being because most of Europe (with the exception of the Balkans) was at peace. It is all too evident that peace is far from established in the Middle East.At the very minimum, conflicts in the region would need to become diplomatic rather than military for such regional integration to occur.

Israel doesn't have that kind of time at its disposal, nor do the other countries in the region seem predisposed to extend the hand of partnership. To the contrary, Israel's very existence remains, at best, resentfully accepted and, at worst, is the target of attack. That's not an atmosphere where nationalism can be replaced by regionalism, no matter what happens inside Israel. Even in the advent of peace with the Palestinians and the establishment of relations with the Arab League nations, it will be many years before true acceptance of Israel takes hold and some time after that before Israelis begin to really trust that acceptance.

Leading From the Center of "Five Tribes" Meanwhile, what can Israel do to cement a global role as a European-style nation? Avishai has long advocated the formation of an ideologically-centrist business class that could be Israel's emissaries and players in the game of globalization. The Hebrew Republic places its hopes in this globalized class of centrists, and frankly, it's a good spot to put them in. This political stratum is not confined to Israeli Jews, but includes Palestinian entrepreneurs as well. By its very nature, this economic community stands in opposition to single-minded nationalists, be they religious or secular, Israeli or Palestinian. They're also more attuned to global markets than they are to international diplomacy (though, of course, the two cannot be entirely separated), implying a greater independence for Israel than it currently has in its relationship with the United States.

Bernard Avishai divides Israeli society into five groups he calls "tribes." Tribe One is the traditional Israeli elite, generally Ashkenazi, secular and cosmopolitan. Tribe Two is the Mizrahim, largely working class, more culturally traditional than the elites of Tribe One, generally leaning more toward the right. Tribe Three is the newest sector in Israel. Made up primarily of Russian speakers, this community hails from the former USSR. Tending towards nationalism, they are also highly educated and very connected to the global economy. Tribe Four is the national religious sector, the settlers, for whom a theocratic ideology trumps all other concerns. Tribe Five is the Arab population of Israel, increasingly alienated and less educated due to getting a much smaller share of state resources, but eager for a more prominent role in the Israeli economy.

Israel's ideally centrist leadership would be drawn initially from the first three groups. Tribe Four, the religious settlers, would doubtless be beneficiaries of increased globaliation. That is not to say that the religious sector would not benefit from increased globalization. A substantial portion of religious nationalists are very deeply involved in the global economy. But the religious prioritize ideological concerns above economic ones, and would generally be opposed to the sorts of compromises and trade-offs that would be necessary to implement Avishai's proposals. Tribe Four, the religious, would remain outsiders to the centrist leadership, an obstacle that would always need to be managed.

Avishai's emphasis on creating a stronger Israeli business class is not new, but what distinguishes The Hebrew Republic is Avishai's insistence that this Israeli business class integrate Arab citizens, the Fifth Tribe, more fully into the body of the state. It is, indeed, not overstating Avishai's case to say that his vision is completely dependent on the integration of Israel's Arab sector, and on Israeli Arabs embracing such a market-based program. From my own personal experience working with Israel's Arab community, I tend to agree that they would. But, again, this possibility comes with a time limit.

Avishai documents the increasing disillusionment, alienation and gradual radicalization of the Arab community in Israel. While many argue that the Arab standard of living is higher in Israel than in any other country (true enough), the fact remains that Arabs face both legal and institutional discrimination that severely handicaps them relative to Israeli Jews. This situation continues to worsen in the twenty-first century, as racism and violence against Arab citizens of Israel continues to increase. The danger, which Avishai is not alone in pointing out, is that state discrimination against 20 percent of Israel's population is creating the next stage in the Arab-Israeli conflict, this one rooted in Israel itself, rather than in the Occupied Territories.

Uniting Peace Forces With Global Capitalists

Avishai imagines global capitalism as the cure both for internal discontent and for eventual peace between Israeli Jews and their Arab fellow-citizens and neighbors. Here, Avishai has an upward battle, as left-wing peace activists are hardly likely to embrace capitalist entrepreneurs. Most peace activists associate capitalism with colonialism, and believe global capitalism can only harm those already without rights [reference to Said or Chomsky?]. Within Israel, peace activists tend to view the global business class as creating the increased social and economic stratification within Israeli society (as noted in the introduction to another noteworthy new book, Colin Shindler's A History of Modern Israel). Given that the most prominent politician associated with the global capitalist class is Benjamin Netanyahu, one can hardly blame progressive Israelis for their doubts.

Netanyahu-style capitalists, however, have a fairly simplistic approach to Israel's economy, as Avishai demonstrates. Instead of a neoliberal economics based on crude structural adjustment policies and de-regulation, Avishai proposes a more practical, market-based economic vision rooted in sustainability, and dependent on increasing social and political progress.

Where Netanyahu believes that peace is a nice but unnecessary addition to Israel's long-term economic stability, Avishai recognizes that it is a long-term necessity. Avishai credits Netanyahu with correctly observing that Israel's "idea capital" has obviously withstood the intifada and the conflict with Lebanon. But Netanyahu believes this can be sustained indefinitely. Avishai counters by looking at the global situation.

China and India already have become the globe's leading manufacturers. Israel's main chance at retaining a niche in the global marketplace is its expertise in high-tech. Yet the fact of the matter is that China and India, with their massive populations, have a much bigger human resource pool to draw upon than Israel. If the instability created by constant conflict continues, Israel will continue to see an exodus of innovators and venture capitalists-the very population it needs to retain its market. I say "continues" because the brain drain has already begun. Though Israel experience economic growth even during the Lebanon war, outside investment dropped precipitously at the beginning of the intifada and increasing numbers of young Israeli professionals have already begun leaving for the calmer pastures of Europe or Silicon Valley.

In many ways, Avishai's vision is something like Thomas Friedman's in his work The Lexus and the Olive Tree. The biggest difference is that, where Friedman sees the changing marketplace as a global dynamic that needs to be shaped to bring balance between modernization (the Lexus) and traditionalism (the olive tree), Avishai is focusing on one specific case and looking for the path to stability. Avishai's emphasis is thus on fostering new leadership in both Israel and Palestine, based on the strength he sees in these societies' entrepreneurial communities. The very rise of such leadership can only take place in Israeli and Palestinian society by preserving the more traditional aspects of each society (Friedman's olive tree). In terms of Israel, this is specifically why Avishai offers his vision of a Hebrew Republic, one which would succeed Zionist institutions, not oppose them.

The Hebrew Republic

Avishai's economic vision will have a significant appeal to a large sector of Israelis, especially the centrist Kadima pragmatists and Israel's moderate left. Yet these groups will not be so quick to embrace the sweeping social changes Avishai suggest. While they have plenty of incentive for peace, many of these centrists abandoned hope after the failure of Camp David and the subsequent explosion of the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, and are deeply insecure about the Palestinians.

This is really the most vexing element of Avishai's work, and the answer is not presented in the book, but rather by the book itself. The peace movement, particularly the moderate sector to whom Avishai is appealing, is desperate and thus more likely to overlook ideological differences on issues such as the economy. The Israeli entrepreneurial sector, by contrast, is very strong and successful right now. But political instability makes the future of that success questionable, and the secular entrepreneurs are leaving the country in droves. Israel is hard pressed to find the right kinds of incentives that would make them want to stay. The Hebrew Republic is Avishai's attempt to provide inspiration to Israelis steeped in the global market not only to stay, but to work to take the reins of the country.

Perhaps the greatest contribution in this book is Avishai's presentation of Palestinian pragmatists and business-people. This is a group that has every reason to wish for the conflict to end, and a mutually beneficial relationship between Palestinians and Israelis to emerge. It's a community not without influence among the Palestinians either, but one whose voice has been much quieter than it needs to be. Avishai presents the sector among Palestinians that Salam Fayyad represents, and, one can hope, whose influence will continue to grow. Indeed, it is this community that must be supported if Avishai's vision of peace, or some form of it, can possibly emerge. Where I find my most profound difference with Bernard Avishai is in his vision, of a "Hebrew Republic." Language is a key component of a national existence, and that is particularly true in Israel. Part of his emphasis on Hebrew is based on Avishai's wish to make it clear that he is not trying to erase or reverse Zionism with this proposal, but to instead establish a basis for a future Israeli society that is both uniquely Jewish and fully multicultural. What would hold such a state together, according to Avishai, is a shared language, specifically, modern Hebrew. But it's not clear that the Hebrew language alone is sufficient to serve as the basis for such a society. Avishai, of course, has a much broader vision than just a language, but in the end, it is only Hebrew that truly binds all the disparate threads of the society he envisions together. Given how ideologically charged modern Hebrew already is, it seems likely that more will be needed. Still, the idea is itself important: that a common civic culture, that transcends Israel's cultural particularities, ought to help do this. Especially a common language.

Just as he did with The Tragedy of Zionism, Bernard Avishai tempts those who don't read the book to believe he is blaming Zionism for all of the Middle East's ills. He isn't. But he is, I believe, promoting a vision of a transformation of Israeli society that would take a very long time, and time is not on the side of rational reform. The daily violence is proof of that. And a prolonged solution is problematic for the very entrepreneurs Avishai appeals to, as they've grown up in a culture that looks to the next quarter more than the next year, let alone multiple years. Nevertheless, Avishai's fundamental premise is a sound one. He sees Israel as more than a Jewish state. It's a state that was built by Jews, will always be culturally Jewish and always be a homeland and a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. But Avishai's Israel must now come to grips with the new Israeli nation it has created and complete the work of creating a democracy begun so many decades ago. His vision is one that, unlike so many others, has concern for human rights, civil liberties and international humanitarian norms at its very center, right alongside global capitalism, warts and all. That's a worthwhile goal to pursue, and its one which potentially appeals to a broad spectrum of people. Its various aspects have the potential to greatly improve Israel's daily existence as well as its prospects for peace. Bernard Avishai is breaking new ground here, bringing forth ideas that are fresh and practical, based in the realities on the ground and in the world at large. They need to be built upon, and quickly.

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