Political independence is not just measured quantitatively. It is made up of more than territory, a deterrent army, an impressive GNP, effective law enforcement, and representation in the United Nations. Independence also has important qualitative aspects. These are affected by psychological and cultural factors, and are reflected in the feelings and experiences of individual citizens and the nation as a whole.
Self-confidence plays an essential role in the life of any individual; so too in the life of a nation. The degree of self-confidence of a state, like the self-confidence of its citizens, is a key factor in determining the quality of its independence, and national self-confidence largely depends on the nation’s sense of identity. A state with a firm sense of identity is likely to have greater self-confidence. This will impact the nature of its behavior and thereby improve the quality of its independence.
This principle applies to Israel as well as to all other nations. Indeed, some of the pathologies witnessed in Israel during the seventh decade since its founding originate in a lack of self-confidence that is the product of an extended identity crisis. The origins of this identity crisis are worthy of further exploration.
Ben-Gurion, the architect of the state, aspired to detach the “new Jew” of Israel from the Jew of the Diaspora. He believed that the Jewish state must be built on the ruins of the Diaspora, through a revolutionary rather than evolutionary process. For this reason, he championed a sacred revolt that rejected the treasures of Jewish culture, the products of Diaspora life. Instead, he took a quantum leap from the Tanakh to the Palmach, supplanting the warriors of the Bible with the soldiers of the pre-State Haganah, moving from the leadership of David King of Israel to the leadership David Ben-Gurion, and eliminating two millennia of Jewish creativity that served as the core of our civilization.
Ultimately, however, the “new Jew” - born from the sea, as it were, like Moshe Shamir’s hero - found himself without roots. The chasm between our cultural history and our current existence made us ignorant of our unique identity. Lacking cultural depth, our self-confidence was undermined.
Identity problems have far-reaching implications. Due to their own weak sense of identity, for example, some Israelis perceive the ultra-Orthodox as the only authentic Jews of our time. The Israeli government’s ongoing capitulation to Haredi demands is not only a result of a system of government that gives disproportionate strength to special interest groups; it is also a manifestation of the inferiority that many Israelis Jews feel compared to the ultra-Orthodox.
Other Israelis see their Jewish identity as a barrier to their integration in global society, and wish to rid themselves of all distinguishing characteristics. These Jews seek to remove their distinctive traits in order to conform to global trends of superficial homogenization, which are both anti-cultural and anti-national in nature.
A third group seeks to express its Judaism by adopting a radical, nationalistic interpretation of Jewish uniqueness. Rather than engaging in cultural activities that express its moral values, this group, the nationalists, chooses to express its commitment to Judaism by means of exclusion of the “Other.” It defines its own identity by negating the rights and unique identities of others.
It is at this point that the challenges to democracy that characterize today’s Israel emerge. A state that is self-confident and sure of its identity assumes the role of proprietor of the public domain with ease. Accordingly, Israel’s Jewish majority, which comprises over two thirds of its population, should have overcome its fear of Israel’s non-Jewish minority long ago. An honest assessment of reality should have immediately swept away any perceived “demographic threat” to the Jewish nature of the state.
Were we to have national self-confidence and a stronger identity, we would be able to calm the nervousness we feel in our dealings with the Arabs of Israel; we would be able to cast off ugly racism and treat Israel’s non-Jewish minority with the fairness that it deserves. Self-confidence would thus improve the democratic quality of Israel.
Building national self-confidence is a challenge that takes generations. This is true for every nation; how much more so for a nation that marks Holocaust Remembrance Day only a week before celebrating its Independence Day. A superior air force may be essential for preserving Israel’s national independence, but a return to the wellsprings of Jewish culture is necessary for maintaining the quality of that independence. The self-confidence of our people, a necessary condition for healthy existence, demands that we deal with the challenge of identity.
Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University. The article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Acharonoth on May 5, 2011.