In politics, the pure is the enemy of the good. One need look no further than the discussion that ensued in response to my post Votes Are Not Enough. Some of the most prolific correspondents there, coming from both the right and left, shared the implicit assumption that democracy, if not pure, is not democracy.
Unfortunately, they won’t be able to read the fine essay that Nurit Gretz published in the arts and literature section of Friday’s Ha’aretz—the piece, in Hebrew, seems not to be available on-line. Gretz addresses a problem of the same genre and in doing so shows how wrong purism can be.
She does so by writing about one of the icons of Labor Zionism, A.D. Gordon, the Second Aliya’s guru of back-to-the-earth socialist egalitarianism. One of Gordon’s disciples was the poetess Rachel Bluwstein, who lived and worked at Kevutzat Kinneret on the southern edge of the Sea of Galilee, where Zionist farmers first tried to work on a communal basis. Bluwstein—universally known in Israel today as Rachel the Poetess—lived in accordance with Gordon’s teachings. She abandoned the middle-class life she’d known in Russia and set aside her aspirations for education and culture to become a simple farmer.
When Rachel told her comrades that she had decided to leave the commune to attend university in France, many of them condemned her as a traitor to the cause. Shmuel Dayan, father of Moshe, wrote to her cynically: “There was a worker and now there is not one. Will you feel, remember, and understand our world, the world of the laborers?”
As Gretz relates, Rachel told her comrades that she was going to study agronomy—but felt compelled to conceal that she also planned to learn painting.
Ironically, it was Gordon the ideologue rather than her fellow workers who told Rachel that art was a worthwhile pursuit. “Our renewal demands that we accept labor as a new value, a new foundation of our lives, but [we must] not abandon the spiritual assets we have already required.”
Gretz uses this story to call on her fellow Israelis, intellectuals and workers, to reintegrate the two worlds that Gordon believed should never have been separated. The polarization of these values was the product of little minds who sought purity of ideology at the expense of the integration of values that the real world requires.
The purists who commented on my post commit the same sin. They accept a Platonist illusion that there is an ideal democracy out there that is the only standard by which Israel can be judged. They assume, naively, that the provision of equal political rights guarantees fairness and justice. To show that wrong all one needs to do is look at our real world. Indeed, the point of my post, entirely missed by these polemicists, was that the provision of formal political rights can still leave a minority essentially powerless.
All societies are imperfect. Any society that grants equal political rights to all its citizens regardless of their ethnic and religious affiliations can hardly rest on its laurels. Inequalities of power are created inevitably, not just by group affiliations but also by economic inequality, geographical distance from the center, and inequitable access to education and culture, to name a few. All societies that seek to be just societies must balance any number of competing and cross-cutting goals and purposes, and each society has a different set of constraints that it must face. To claim that Israel’s model of government is inherently more unjust than those of other Western democracies is to be blind to the huge disparities of power, rights, and privileges that exist in even the best of modern societies. In all these countries, it’s the obligation of socially-conscious citizens to seek to correct the injustices that each society perpetuates and to seek a better balance of values. Israel is no better and no worse than other countries on this score.
Rachel studied agronomy and painting. In the end she never went back to being a farmer. Circumstances—illness, and the small-mindedness of some of her erstwhile fellows–created constraints that led her to live out her life in Tel Aviv and became a giant of modern Hebrew culture. Was she a traitor to her great cause? Gordon obviously didn’t think so. Thanks to Nurit Gretz for reminding us.