The founding ethos of modern Israel was beyond doubt a collective one. Israeli poet Amir Gilboa captured this sentiment in one of his famous poems: “Suddenly a man wakes up in the morning and feels he is a people and begins to walk…” The creation of the state united the individual and the collective. The new Israeli society was faced by the formidable challenges of building the state, settling the land, defending it, and absorbing mass immigration. Reality demanded a tightly knit mobilized society with little space for individualism — then considered a luxury. Furthermore, many of Israel’s founders came from Europe, bringing with them a socialist vision that they aspired to implant in the Jewish yishuv (the prestate organized Jewish community in Palestine). The concrete expression of these aspirations was the creation of the kibbutz, the Histadrut (the labor union), and the development of an overall national economy that was oriented toward socialism. This was not the sole voice of early Israel — Tel Aviv was the site of a middle-class urban experience — but the collectivist-socialist oriented narrative was clearly dominant.
Considering that early ideology, the dramatic shifts during the state’s 65 years are remarkable. In the late 1960s and the early ’70s, the pioneering discourse transitioned toward a language of normalcy. Coupled with the rise in the standard of living and the influence of American culture, the puritan ethos that had prevailed in the pioneering era was challenged; individualism began taking its place as a legitimate social value. It was not long until this social change translated into political currency, and in the 1977 national elections, the capitalistic-oriented Likud party replaced the socialist Labor hegemony.
The shift from a collective ethos to blatant individualism was extreme and dramatic. Many factors contributed to the sense that collectivism, while necessary in the initial years, had run its course. The collapse of Eastern European communism, which had greatly influenced early Zionism, was one factor; the protest against the Ashkenazic, secular, socialist hegemony was another. And the craving for “normalcy,” diversity, and the prioritization of the middle class was yet another. These factors and others converged to bring about the change. The Histadrut and kibbutz movements have dwindled to mere shadows of their former selves. Few signs of the earlier socialistic orientation remain, and capitalism, consumerism, personal success, and individualism are perceived as core social values.
The success of Israel’s high-tech industry exemplifies how effectively the country has embraced the values of a free market economy — both good and bad. On one hand, the environment enabled the industry to flourish in a global market and pull the Israeli economy forward. On the other hand, the new wealth is shared by a relatively small group. In addition to creating a country with one of the largest economic gaps between rich and poor, there is a growing sense of alienation and frustration that eats away at Israel’s basic social fabric.
And yet, Israelis — especially in times of national crisis — maintain many values and practices that mimic the intimacy and familiarity of a collective spirit. And in recent years a robust culture of young adults involved in creating alternative communal lifestyles and social structures has emerged.
Israelis, despite a focus on individualism, still stand out with their relatively high level of solidarity among peers. This can be a modern expression of what Rav Joseph Soloveitchik framed as a shared “covenant of fate” — stemming from a collective past as a persecuted minority or a present and ongoing struggle for existence.email print