Gershom Gorenberg

My new article in Hadassah magazine:

A few months after Avihai Ronski retired as the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces in 2010, the media reported that he was moving temporarily to a village founded several years before 20 miles south of Beersheba in the Negev.

The news value was that Ronski was moving, at least temporarily, from controversy to consensus: For years he had been a prominent resident of Itamar, a West Bank settlement known as a bastion of the far right. In his role as the military’s top rabbi, he came under criticism for allegedly politicizing the Army rabbinate.

But developing the Negev is a mom-and-apple-pie value in Israel, respected all the more because few people act on it. Moving to an isolated community expressed the Zionist ideal of pioneering—while avoiding the political tempest over West Bank settlement. If Ronski had also become a farmer, he would have completed a trifecta of old-time values.

And yet, maybe the ideals behind Ronski’s move should also stir debate. Does it make more sense in 21st-century Israel, starved for open space, to start new communities anywhere, or should we be building denser and higher? Should developing the Negev still be seen as a Zionist obligation or, as some environmentalists assert, as an ecological disaster? For that matter, what about making the desert bloom or even farming in general: Do Jews need to be farmers when Israel lives on its software successes?

While we are questioning hallowed ideals, what about encouraging immigration to an arguably overcrowded country? Or the universal military draft? On the other hand, if you start asking if a society’s basic values are obsolescent, where do you stop? What differentiates making the desert bloom from the Israeli declaration of independence’s promise of “complete equality of social and political rights…irrespective of religion, race or sex”?

The question of whether ideals have an expiration date is raised most cogently by scientist Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin). “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions,” Diamond writes, “are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.” A value that once built a society can later have harmful, even catastrophic, impact if people “cling” to it in new circumstances.

Read the rest here.

1 thought on “Devalued”

  1. One could keep a universal draft for generic national service, imposing a lottery on top of that for IDF service, so individuals would not be able to avoid military service by choosing, say, hosptial work instead. For those incompatible with IDF service, one could allow them to switch to other national service at a cost of more time served; so, e.g., 2 years in the IDF translates into 3 years in other service. This would act as something of an escape valve for those, like myself, who would do terribly in the military.
    Controlling the proportion of IDF in the lotery, you can downsize the military over time. Or you could make generic national service the first lottery, so some, defined lucky or unlucky, would do none at all. Either way would allow solution of a glutted IDF and expand the concept of community service, which can include non-Jewish citizens as well.
    I am one who believes that, as painful as it will be, you will not have broad civil rights until you begin to integrate the IDF. Integration will itself unleash many court cases, and I am well aware that the High Court’s present attitude is not hospitable to this. Arab and ultra-Orthodox should serve in some sort of equal footing; I suppose one could give the latter women avoiding jobs (supply line?) as available.
    The State has used the vanguard settlers in its West Bank encorachment policy for decades. One step in disentangling these is a universal draft. And once such begins, cries for equal social and political rights will increase.
    Since I believe your Declaration of Independence must be a constitutional document (as it delimits some of the rights character of ANY constitution), I must also adhere to the free ingress of all Jews into Israel. While this stance might be viewed as refusing to jettison the moribund, a constitutional document must have benefit to multiple ideologies to be successful; free Jewish ingress is the constitutional foundation of Israel; but so too are those right enjoyed in full equality you mentioned.
    While some on the Israeli left see equality of duties as distractive of true equality of rights, clearly the former is easier to advocate–and it will, after much contention, lead to the latter in fits as well.

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