- The Invention and Decline of Israeliness; State, Society, and the Military
Kimmerling’s latest analysis of Israeli society is timely and important. Although as this review was being written Israelis had yet to go to the polls, the most important outcome [End Page 182] of the elections to the 16th parliament (Knesset) was known well before the voting booths closed down. This outcome was that neither one of the two “major” parties—Likud and Labor—will be able to garner enough support to form a stable, ruling coalition. Whether Shinui—the liberal, militantly secular center to right-wing party—or Shas—the ultra-orthodox Sephardic party—emerged as the third largest party, the writing was on the wall many months before the election: Israeli society is on a spiraling crash-course towards fragmentation. Gone is the “communal bonfire.” Gone are the days when one and then two parties dominated the political scene, and stability, so we thought, was ours forever. Gone are the days when “Israelis”—while separated by political positions—were seemingly united by a shared vision of what “Israel” is, and should be. Gone, to use Kimmerling’s terms, are the days of “hegemony.”
The days of “hegemony,” according to Kimmerling, refer to the first two decades of Israeli independence, when Israeli society, and the state, were ruled by a socialist, nationalist hegemonic political bloc. It was their culture, their values and their particular view of politics which came to define and constitute Israel and Israeli national identity. The glory days of Mapai’s (the leading socialist nationalist political party, and the party of Israel’s first legendary Prime Minister David Ben Gurion) hegemonic rule are long gone, but it is only during this past decade that the reality of post-hegemonic Israel has truly come to surface.
Hence, the results of the election reflect the consequences of long-term social, political, and economic upheavals—not to mention the ravaging of a five year “experiment” with a new so-called “direct election to the Prime Minister” electoral scheme. The roster of political parties reveals that the majority of parties cater to narrow, sectarian, “identity”-oriented politics; the number of seats allotted to these parties reveals their seemingly irresistible appeal to the average Israeli. Thus, if a stagnating economy, a terrorism-ravaged society, and a dead peace process were not enough, the fragmentation of Israeli society has permeated the political system itself. Baruch Kimmerling, in his recent book The Invention and Decline of Israeliness sets out to address and precisely explain this dilemma: the breakdown of Israeli society.
The story that Kimmerling tells is one of regeneration and decline; the construction of a unified cultural and political dominance, and its gradual replacement by a multitude of alternative cultures and subcultures. The book incorporates a socio-historical analysis of Israeli society and the Israeli state. Kimmerling provides, however, as he usually does, an alternative history, one that is absent from the more mainstream history and sociological textbooks.
The book comprises seven chapters. In the first three, Kimmerling explains in detail the construction of the socialist national hegemony that dominated the pre-state Jewish polity in Palestine (the Yishuv), and then the state of Israel, from the advent of the second and third waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1920s, until the aftermath of the 1967 war. It was in this period that the socialist-national hegemony [End Page 183] received its first blow, from the national religious movement. In chapters four and five Kimmerling explains the process by which the dominant hegemony came to be replaced by the establishment of rival autonomous cultures and subcultures, including the Mizrachi traditionalists, the secular Mizrachim, the Arab citizens, the Russian-speaking immigrants, the Ethiopians, and the non-citizen workers. This process has resulted in a fragmented society, with multiple cultural identities, but lacking, according to Kimmerling, a unifying multicultural ideology as an organizing principle. Thus, Israel is a multicultural society which fails to recognize itself as such. Indeed, Israel...