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Let’s Prove Hegel Wrong

July 27, 2012

Though Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher, is not known primarily for his humor, he apparently had occasional pithy moments. “We learn from history,” Hegel said, “that we do not learn from history.”

This would be a good week to promise ourselves that we will prove Hegel wrong.  For with all the machinations surrounding Binyamin Netanyahu’s compromise haredi- draft bill and his having (apparently) eviscerated Kadima, we risk losing sight of the potentially lethal issues lurking just below the surface. Though the week’s events have been almost entertaining, we would be far better served by reflecting not on them, but on both the American Civil War and Israel’s own defining moment, the sinking of the Altalena in June 1948.

What could the American Civil War possibly have to say about what used to be called the Plesner issue? At the time of America’s creation, the Founding Fathers knew that there was one issue they dared not address. Slavery was more than a matter of the South’s economy; it was the point on which fundamental American values clashed. On the one hand, the emerging United States was committed to “liberty and justice for all,” but on the other hand, a commitment to private property rights and the limited nature of government meant that those Founding Fathers who opposed slavery could not force the issue.

Interestingly, in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included a passage condemning slavery, but he blamed slavery on the British, thus hoping to raise the moral issue without attacking the South. But even that, the Founding Fathers understood, would ignite a dangerous fuse. They omitted the paragraph, leaving the slavery issue to fester until civil war ripped the United States apart. At the time of the war, the survival of the union was by no means a foregone conclusion.

Today’s haredi issue is also one of economics, morality and the sustainability of our fragile union. Everyone outside the haredi community understands that the current system is economically unsustainable. With more than half of haredim living in abject poverty (because they refuse to work), with the rest of us supporting the ultra-Orthodox through taxes, and with a large and growing community not contributing to Israel’s GNP, something has to change if Israel is not to become a third-world economy.

Morally, it is an obvious outrage that the haredim are protected by our sons and daughters, yet do nothing themselves to help protect this country, and worse, too often show blatant derision for the young men and women whose service makes haredi life possible. What has emerged is not only grossly unfair; it is a crass violation of the mamlachtiyut – being a state – that was at the heart of David Ben-Gurion’s world.

Ironically, though, it was Ben-Gurion himself who sowed the seeds of this problem by giving exemptions to a few hundred survivors of the Shoah. Ben-Gurion assumed that they would soon die out and that a society-wide ethic of devotion to the state would replace them. He was obviously grossly mistaken. While Ben- Gurion gave exemptions to some 400 young men in the early years of the state, the number of those today who do not serve approaches 40,000.

Is it too late? The haredi leadership has warned that if the Plesner law, or anything like it, is passed, they will take to the streets. They will boycott Israeli products.  Cities will burn, they promise. Did Ben-Gurion, like Thomas Jefferson, unwittingly steer us in the direction of a painful and possibly bloody conflict?

America barely survived its civil war; if Israel has one, would we survive it?
With 20 percent of Israeli society made up of Arabs who are (understandably) not committed Zionists, with the haredi population growing and at least somewhat hostile to the state, how similar is our situation to that of America in 1860? Are we not, perhaps, just shy of the fabric of our society being torn asunder? When the economics become unsustainable and an even clearer national consensus emerges that radical change is needed, what options will we then have?
Before we reply, “Yes, it’s worrisome, but let’s not exaggerate, because Jews will not fire on each other,” we ought to recall the Altalena, the Irgun Zva’i Leumi boat loaded with arms over which David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin disagreed so bitterly. Mention the Altalena, and Israelis tend to think of the image of the boat burning just off the Tel Aviv shore, civilians looking on impassively as if what they were watching was a fireworks show, and Begin’s courageous demand of his men that they not ignite a civil war. “Jews do not fire on Jews,” both former-Irgun and Hagana men yelled in the streets of Tel Aviv.The sobering irony is that as they were yelling “Jews do not fire on Jews,” Jews were actually shooting at other Jews. The shooting in the Altalena story was not limited to the firing on the ship. The longsimmering hatred between Ben-Gurion and Begin, which continued for decades, had reached a breaking point. Upon hearing that the Altalena was docking at Kfar Vitkin, former Irgun members abandoned their army units and went to cheer Begin.  It was more than Ben-Gurion could take, and the results were catastrophic. In the streets of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, Jews opened fire on each other.Drafting people is not sufficient, the Altalena episode ought to remind us; draftees can also desert. Perhaps drafting all of the haredim is not the answer, and national service that would provide them with real-world skills would make more sense. The IDF does not need more soldiers, the brass consistently acknowledges; what we really need is a shared social and national ethos, and Israel is a very long way from having one.

When matters reach the boiling point, it is almost inevitable that both sides will make mistakes. Yes, some former Irgun members deserted their units, but because of his hatred for Begin, Ben-Gurion seemed determined to sink the ship even if it no longer posed a threat to the primacy of the IDF. Some of Ben-Gurion’s allies in the Knesset, believing that he had become irrational about the ship, and asked him in the plenum, “Even if the boat sails back into international waters, you will still want to sink it?” “Yes,” Ben-Gurion replied.

And he did. Hagana men were killed.  Irgun men died. Valuable munitions that the fledgling state could not afford to lose were destroyed. The ship sank, and was later dragged out to sea.

The carcass of the Altalena has recently been located, and there are plans to raise it. It’s an appealing idea, not only because it would be a fascinating historical artifact, but because it would serve as a sobering reminder of the mistakes we dare not repeat. Jefferson’s legacy ought to teach us that emerging societies do not have the luxury of ignoring existential disagreements on core societal issues. But the Altalena reminds us that if we move too quickly or assertively, Jews can shoot at other Jews.  (They fired on each other, we would do well to recall, in large measure over disagreements as to who would defend this state.)

Paul Harvey, the famous ABC broadcaster, once quipped, “In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.” Cute, but true. Which is why we need to tread carefully, ensuring that horrific events of the past do not replay themselves in our still fragile future.

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