For Israel and Palestinians, Culture a Choice

For Israel and Palestinians, Culture a Choice

Those journalists and critics knocking Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for his statements praising Israeli culture betray their fundamental ignorance about Israel and what has made it a successful country. They have–deliberately, and at the urging of Palestinian propagandists–made up the story that Romney praised “Jewish culture,” as if he had made a racist comment about Arabs, using an anti-Jewish stereotype. In fact, Israel has re-shaped Jewish culture for the better–a reminder that culture is a choice.

The early Zionist settlers believed that to establish a Jewish state, they had to re-make the character of the Jewish people–transforming the often insular, intellectual, religious, and backward Jews of Eastern Europe into strong, modern, and independent men and women who could master agriculture and industry, and who could defend themselves.

To do so, they experimented with every aspect of Jewish culture–even reviving Hebrew as a language, adapting it from ancient Biblical texts to the needs of the present day. They experimented with different economic models–from the collective ownership of the kibbutz system to the private industry that flourished in the coastal cities–and invested in new institutions. They created Hebrew University before they declared independence.

Even critics of Zionism–such as Hannah Arendt, who supported the movement but took a stand against Israeli political sovereignty–acknowledged that it was Zionists’ efforts to create a “new type of man” that were most praiseworthy. Arendt worried that Israel could not possibly defend its independence against overwhelming odds, and that the whole cultural experiment would be destroyed, as Jewish culture was destroyed in Europe. 

This is how Arendt defended Israel’s cultural experiment from a socialist point of view (“To Save the Jewish Homeland,” 1945):

If the yishuv [Jewish society in Palestine prior to Israeli independence] went down, it would drag along in its fall the collective settlements, the kibbutzim–which constitute perhaps the most promising of all social experiments made in the twentieth century, as well as the most magnificent part of the Jewish homeland. 

Here, in complete freedom and unhampered by any government, a new form of ownership, a new type of farmer, a new way of family life and child education, and new approaches to the troublesome conflicts between city and country, between rural and industrial labor have been created….

For this Jewish experiment in Palestine holds out hope of solutions that will be acceptable and applicable, not only in individual cases, but also for the large mass of men everywhere whose dignity and very humanity are in our time so seriously threatened by the pressures of modern life and its unsolved problems.

The kibbutzim were largely a failed experiment by the late twentieth century–but Israel, ever tinkering with itself, moved on to new ideas, embracing an entrepreneurial, start-up culture that saw it soar to the top of the global high-tech industry. Today, Israel boasts strong economic growth, low unemployment, and small deficits. There are still many cultural fault lines within Israel–between Jews and Arabs, and among Jews as well–but they are negotiated within a democratic political culture that was not natural to Jews who flocked to Israel from authoritarian countries around the world, but chosen by them.

Culture is not a “racial” destiny, but a choice–a choice that economically successful countries have made. Japan chose to become a modern society in the late nineteenth century–and succeeded, though its continued embrace of imperial institutions partly led to its downfall in the Second World War. It made new cultural choices after the war, as did Turkey after World War I, as did the Asian “tiger” economies in the 1950s and 1960s, as did China after the era of Mao faded, as even some Arab states are doing today.

Palestinians have a culture of entrepreneurship, too. But their political culture embraces a cult of martyrdom that hampers economic growth. They turned Gaza’s greenhouses into wastelands. They are dependent on welfare from U.S. taxpayers, stuck in a culture of poverty. They can choose differently. It is not racist to say that; it is racist to deny it.