Tsvi Bisk

Tsvi Bisk – The Optimistic Jew Chapter Five

 The Optimistic Jew

During the pre-state and early post state era, kibbutz and moshav settlements epitomized Zionist strategy and activity. Their contribution was crucial in the struggle to create and sustain the Jewish State. They provided security in struggles with local Arabs as well as hostile Arab incursions from outside the Mandate area. They played a vital role in the absorption of Jewish immigrants and in creating Israeli agriculture.


The Optimistic Jew


Reevaluating Settlement Policy

Nothing has done more damage to Zionism and the situation of world Jewry than Israel’s misconceived settlement policy. The direct and indirect impact that this has had on rational policy making has been disastrous. Since 1967 nothing has done more damage to Jewish unity and the status of Jews around the world. No rejuvenation of Zionism or reinvention of Israel-Diaspora relations can occur without a fundamental reevaluation of this settlement policy.

Kibbutz and Moshav

During the pre-state and early post state era, kibbutz and moshav settlements epitomized Zionist strategy and activity. Their contribution was crucial in the struggle to create and sustain the Jewish State. They provided security in struggles with local Arabs as well as hostile Arab incursions from outside the Mandate area. They played a vital role in the absorption of Jewish immigrants and in creating Israeli agriculture.

Their heroic attempts to sustain equality of means as well as equality of opportunity invested the entire Zionist enterprise with a moral self-confidence that energized the Zionist pioneers and inspired world Jewry. It also earned the admiration of progressive non-Jews. This had significant political benefits. Many liberal, socialist, and labor organizations around the world were in favor of the Zionist enterprise and the nascent Jewish State because of the kibbutz and other social experiments. Israel’s standing with these organizations was a political asset second only to organized Jewry.

If you wanted to be an active Zionist during the pre-state and early state periods, you would become a member of a kibbutz or a moshav. By doing so, you would be contributing territorial, security, economic, moral, political, spiritual, and immigrant absorption value to the Zionist enterprise and the young Jewish State.

Mass Immigration Settlement Policy

Flaws in this settlement policy were perceived almost immediately after the creation of the State. The classic Zionist approach of filling up empty spaces with as many Jewish settlements as possible in order to guarantee Jewish ownership, contribute to security and determine borders, continued to be the backbone of immigrant absorption policy during the Jewish State’s first two decades.

Hundreds of thousands of new Jewish immigrants, mostly from Africa and Asia, were directed to “Development Towns” in under populated peripheral areas. They were also directed to cooperative farming villages called immigrant moshavim. Cultural reasons ruled out the kibbutz as an option for this mass immigration.

Yet even in the early 1950s, some people active in the absorption process warned that this policy was an outmoded leftover from the pre-state era, unsuited to the needs of the newborn Jewish State. They noted that most of these immigrants came from technically backward societies and possessed few of the skills required to prosper in a modern technological society. It would be impossible to supply hundreds of small villages and dozens of small towns with the full menu of social, educational, and employment opportunities required. They predicted correctly that this settlement policy would perpetuate and deepen the social gap.

The critics claimed that the advent of the State, including an organized police force, border guard, army, and other requisite institutions, as well as recognized international borders, represented a fundamental transition from the pre-state Zionist project. The strategy of filling up every square kilometer with a Jewish population to prevent Arab squatting and the development of an Arab majority in certain regions such as the Galilee and the Negev were in their view anachronistic. Instead of hundreds of tiny villages and dozens of small development towns, they suggested creating three or four major metropolitan areas. This would enable less per capita investment in infrastructure, as well as more efficient public services and employment opportunities for those people most in need. Some recommended developing Beersheba into a major city of one million inhabitants and Afula, Safed, and Tiberias into cities of a quarter million each. Such a policy would guarantee Jewish majorities in the Negev and the Galilee and better enable Israel to confront its inherited social gap.

Veteran leaders, who considered settlement activity the essence of what it meant to be a Zionist, dismissed these proposals. Rather than seeing settlement as a means, they viewed it as an end. They felt that its cessation would be a betrayal of a fundamental Zionist value. After the Six-Day War, the advocates of Jewish settlement in the newly conquered territories used this view to disarm and inhibit opposition.


The Consequences

The negative consequences of this policy are self-evident. The development towns and immigrant moshavim contain about half of the Jewish population under the poverty line. These settlements offer few opportunities for young people, many of whom move to the major cities, often to impoverished neighborhoods. Poverty and the social gap are thereby perpetuated into the third and fourth generations and the challenge of creating a Jewish majority in the Galilee and Negev is made more difficult.

The Arabs, on the other hand, have no predominately Arab city in which they would feel comfortable. Their traditional village environment, joined to the low status of Arab women both of which directly contribute to a low standard of living, resulted in a high birth rate. Consequently, more Arabs than Jews now live in these areas. This demographic dilemma has lead to an ugly phrase and an even uglier policy: Judaizing the Galilee. This refers to a proactive policy of trying to attract Jews to the Galilee by establishing numerous small Jewish hilltop communities.

The policy has “accomplished” several things. It gives us a feeling that we are really doing something about increasing the Jewish population of the Galilee – an illusion as the settlements seldom have more than several hundred residents. Their small size has compelled us to expend great sums of public money per capita on infrastructure. Establishing them requires the expropriation of land owned by Israeli Arabs – people who are citizens of the State. This has aggravated the alienation Israeli Arabs feel towards the State. Land Day is the yearly commemoration of and protest against the expropriation of Arab land for the benefit of Jewish development projects. The policy not only has not Judaized the Galilee but also has alienated and radicalized young Israeli Arabs.

This could have been avoided if we had concentrated on developing three or four major Jewish population centers in the Galilee. We could also have cultivated the establishment of a major Arab city of a quarter to half a million residents in the Galilee. The subsequent urbanization of the Arab population combined with a proactive affirmative action education policy for Arab women would have, by natural and enlightened means, greatly reduced Arab birthrates and the perceived Arab demographic threat. Moreover, such a policy would have eliminated the need for state expropriation of Arab-owned land for Jewish projects and would have forestalled much bitterness and alienation of Israeli Arabs.

If we had pursued this alternative course we would have large and permanent Jewish majorities in both the Negev and the Galilee, the social gap would have diminished, and we would have a more positive engagement with our Arab citizens. Moreover, the moral self-confidence of many Israelis as Zionists would have been enhanced rather than eroded.

Settlements in Occupied Territories

The settlement policies pursued in territories occupied in 1967 are an example of making a bad situation worse. The argument for or against the settlements in the occupied territories must be made based only on whether they are smart or stupid in regards to what is good for the Jews. In other words, what value do these settlements contribute to the Zionist project in the 21st century?

A good case could be made that some of the post-Six-Day-War suburbs of Jerusalem and the middle-class settlements contiguous to Israel’s pre-Six-Day-War borders contribute to Israel’s vital interests. The isolated ideological settlements, on the other hand, have been a tremendous burden. They have been detrimental economically and socially, as the vast funds poured into them could have been put to better use expanding educational services and building infrastructure. They have also consumed security resources that could have been better used elsewhere. The vast number of man-hours spent guarding settlements has undermined the army’s training regime, something which became painfully apparent during Israel’s recent incursion into Lebanon. They have also created a de facto border more than four times the length of Israel’s border before the Six-Day War. Simple security calculus dictates that diminishing concentrations of soldiers on longer lines of defense equals less security, while higher concentrations of soldiers on shorter lines of defense equals more security. The recent disengagement from Gaza reflected this operational reasoning.

Almost every embarrassing political difficulty Israel has experienced since the Six-Day War has been because of these ideological settlements or their supporters, and not a single country in the world has changed its mind regarding the official, legally constituted borders of the State of Israel because of the settlements.

The settlements have also caused a great deal of alienation within many segments of Israeli society, tarnishing the label of Zionist, and weakening the spiritual fortitude and moral certainty of Israel at large. Many Israelis find the settlement subculture abhorrent and resent doing reserve duty because of it. By identifying Zionism with the settlements and calling the opponents of settlements post-Zionists and even anti-Zionists, the settlers themselves have contributed to the spread of that nihilistic post-Zionism now infecting Israeli society. The erosion of Zionist moral self-confidence on the part of large segments of the Israeli public begins with the misguided settlement project.   The question is not whether the settlers are brave and idealistic but whether the settlement project contributes to or detracts from the values, goals, and aims of Zionism as it redefines itself in the 21st century.

The British Light Brigade was composed of men who were brave and idealistic beyond measure, but their famous charge was an example of colossal stupidity. General Lee’s Confederate soldiers were brave and idealistic beyond measure, but that doesn’t mean that Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg was smart or that the cause they represented was sublime. One might wonder if Israel’s settlement policy is not the political equivalent of the ill-fated British landing at Gallipoli in World War I, upon which the German Admiral De Robeck commented, “Gallant fellows, these soldiers; they always go for the thickest place in the fence.” Israel’s settlement policy compels Israeli diplomacy to always try to break through the thickest part of the diplomatic fence, the one and perhaps only place where Arab political superiority is manifest.

In political life, stupidity is the greatest sin, not immorality or illegality. Stupidity does greater harm to our fellow human beings than immorality. If we were to judge what is pro-Zionist and what is anti-Zionist according to their contribution to or their deleterious effect on Israel’s economy, security, society, and overall morale and moral fortitude, we must conclude that the ideological settlements in the occupied territories constitute the most anti-Zionist activity conducted by any group of Jews since the advent of the Zionist project itself.

Jewish Peasants and Workers

Settlement policy was also connected to the social ideology of Labor Zionism which celebrated the Jewish return to agricultural activity and the creation of an industrial Jewish proletariat. This was called the “normalization” of the Jewish people and was perceived as having inherent ideological value. The political dominance of Labor Zionism from 1935 until 1977 and afterwards as sometimes ruling faction and sometimes major opposition inhibited a rational rethinking of settlement policy. It is certainly the case that agricultural settlements and basic labor-intensive industry (situated mainly in Development Towns) served as the economic and social foundation for the establishment of the State. But in recent years labor intensive agricultural and industrial activities have had a mounting negative effect on Israel’s economic, social, and environmental health.

Because agriculture has been celebrated as a primary value, and even as a metaphor for the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, policy makers have been loath to take a hard and rational look at what agriculture really entails in 21st-century Israel. Israel has no water, and the Jews have no wish to work in a sector with such an abysmal pay scale. Today, water-poor Israel subsidizes the export of water (for that is what you are exporting when you export agricultural products) to water-rich Germany, France, and Scandinavia in order to create jobs for Thai guest workers – all in the name of Zionist values!

The justifications for labor-intensive industries are no less irrational and their consequences for Israel’s economy and society no less detrimental. Ever since the Six-Day War, these industries have continued to survive only because of massive direct and indirect subsidies. Despite subsidies, pay scales in these labor-intensive industries have seldom exceeded minimum wage, even for people with years of seniority. These industries form the economic base of the Development Towns and thus have become major contributors to the deepening social/ethnic gap. One cannot have minimum wage industries and close the social gap. And one cannot close the social gap by simply raising the minimum wage by several hundred shekels. One can only close the social gap by raising the median wage and this cannot be done on the back of labor intensive industries. In a dynamic society such as Israel, the gap can only widen as long as such industries exist.

Labor-intensive industries require a large pool of low-income, low-skilled workers to compete in the global labor market. All the education budgets, welfare programs, and antipoverty projects in the world cannot neutralize this basic negative economic and social dynamic. Mandating a slight increase in the minimum wage as a medicine for poverty is like peddling aspirin as a cure for chronic diseases. High-tech industries and sophisticated services, on the other hand, need a large pool of highly skilled and hence highly paid workers. This creates positive economic and social dynamics that can help close the social gap.

Even massive direct and indirect subsidies cannot keep Israel’s labor-intensive industries alive. As with other developed countries, they are moving to the Third World. Israel has been experiencing desperate protests against closures by workers who have long been disgusted with their working conditions and wages. These workers want their factories to stay open because they have no other options, but would have preferred to work elsewhere. Consequently, Israel still has poverty, an even larger social gap, and an added “bonus” of chronic large-scale (up to 15%) unemployment in Development Towns.

The psychological and cultural consequences of this situation might be even more disturbing. A grinding frustration and bitterness and sense of wasting one’s life hang like a terrible cloud over large numbers of Israel’s population. People can sustain dreadful poverty when they feel they are engaged in a transcendent historical enterprise. The poverty and living conditions of the early Halutzim (pioneers) were immeasurably worse than the most impoverished segments of Israel’s population today. But they were the vanguard of their people and of a great historical enterprise. Their poverty did not degrade them; indeed in some strange way it even uplifted them. They were at the pinnacle of Maslow’s self-actualization and approaching Frankel’s self-transcendence. Today’s poverty, on the other hand is mind-deadening and soul-deadening. It is a poverty of hopelessness, while that of the Halutzim was a poverty of hopefulness.

In contrast to the unemployment figures in the Development Towns, the unemployment figures in the non-industrial, non-pioneering, non-proletariat Sharon area (Kfar Saba, Rananna, Herzlia), just north of Tel Aviv, are less than 3%. This area is a high-tech hotbed. Its sophisticated services and innovation contributes perhaps a billion dollars a year to Israel’s export figures. Yet, according to classical Zionist conceptions, these towns have nowhere near the Zionist value that settlements or development towns or near-bankrupt kibbutzim have.

The crisis of labor-intensive industries could have been avoided by applying the principles of futurist thinking and simple trend analysis. By the late 1970s, it was clear to anyone who cared to analyze the trends that labor-intensive industries had no future in the developed world. Intelligent policy makers in other developed countries began to get rid of their labor-intensive industries gradually, moving them to Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan and later on to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, combining this economic policy with a major redirection of the educational system.

The gradual process of eliminating older workers, as they achieved retirement age, while not absorbing younger workers, led to drastically shrinking these work forces without social dislocation. Young people entering the work force were directed to other lines of work, or if already in the work force were retrained for other branches of the economy. Israeli policy makers, on the other hand, still infatuated with the ideological myth of the Jewish industrial worker and having no alternative answers for the Development Towns, failed to change course. The resultant social dislocation and trauma bear witness to the shortsighted foolishness of perpetuating this particular Zionist value long after its historical shelf life had expired.

Here, the contradictions of the Zionist Left in particular are laid bare, the contradiction between a Zionist ideology that celebrates Jews returning to physical labor and a socialist ideology of a decent living wage. These two ideologies have never been able to correspond.

The Disengagement

The Gaza disengagement is past us physically and practically. Yet it will persist in the Jewish world’s political discourse. Let us attempt to clarify the reasons for this historic act in all its dimensions: the question of Jewish rights to the Land of Israel, the real alternatives facing any Israeli government vis-à-vis the occupied territories, the real cost of the settlements vis-à-vis the true tasks of Zionism, the complex security consequences of the decision and finally the question of whether it was democratic.

The Question of Historical Rights

David Ben Gurion once said that the Jewish People have an absolute moral and historical right to the entire Land of Israel but that we also have the right not to exercise this moral and historical right if it interferes with other more vital rights and needs of the Jewish People. This approach reflects the concept that the People of Israel is the hub of Zionism, not the Land of Israel; the People are the aim, the Land is the means. It implies that the Land only has moral value when it serves real Jewish persons and is devoid of moral value when it sacrifices the needs of Jewish persons.

Those that argue against any kind of territorial compromise often refer to past Talmudic prohibitions against this. They also refer to the sanctity inherent in the suffering of past generations. Our task in their minds is to use the future as a means to put into practice the principles of the past and not to use the past as an inspiration to create a different future. A rational, historically rooted but futurist oriented policy, however, would allow that the past has a voice but not a veto.

The Real Alternatives Facing Israel

  1. Annex the territories and give all its inhabitants full rights as citizens. Consequence: the end of the Jewish State by democratic means.
  2. Annex the territories and not give all its inhabitants full rights as citizens.
    Consequence: Apartheid and the end of the Jewish State by international sanctions.
  3. Annex the territories and “transfer” all of its inhabitants.
    Consequence: Ethnic cleansing and the end of the Jewish State by international sanctions.
  4. The disengagement
  5. The status quo with all its deleterious implications (as noted above)

Security Consequences of the Disengagement

We must relate to the grand strategic, strategic, operational and tactical aspects of the disengagement:

Grand Strategy: the economic, political, military, social and moral resources of a people and how best to optimally mobilize them in order to minimize weaknesses and achieve vital goals. Grand Strategy defines the criteria and priorities by which we determine policy goals; it is the filter through which we pass our policy goals to see if they are appropriate. In a sane and rational entity, Grand Strategy determines policy more than ideology. Ideology might strive for an ideal but in real life we must construct policies based upon reality. The disengagement strengthened our grand strategic position immensely: politically, economically, morally and socially.

Strategic threats: Strategic threats, as opposed to tactical threats, are those threats that endanger the very existence of the State. There are two fundamental existential threats to Israel as a Jewish State: Iran’s nuclear weapons and Palestinian demographics. The disengagement strengthened our strategic position by ridding us of one and half million Palestinians thus greatly lessening the demographic threat.

Operational advantages: Operations has to do with the rational and most effective deployment of military assets in order to achieve a security aim. By removing the army from Gaza – and the requirement to defend 8,000 settlers in dozens of small communities – we have shortened our lines of defense and placed our armed forces along defensible borders. As I said above: diminishing concentrations of soldiers on longer lines of defense equals less security, while higher concentrations of soldiers on shorter lines of defense equals more security. The disengagement strengthened our operational position by enabling a more rational deployment of military assets.

Tactical: The Palestinians now have significantly greater freedom of movement and can bring their Kassam rockets closer to the border with Israel giving them a greater ability to fire on Israeli settlements within the green line. But Israel also has greater freedom of response to such attacks since we have withdrawn. The disengagement may have weakened or strengthened our tactical position – we do not yet know. What we do know is that Grand Strategy, Strategy and Operations take precedence over tactics.

The Question of Democracy

Was the decision to disengage democratic and constitutional? Let us review the facts. A democratically elected government, exercising the State’s sovereign right of eminent domain, decided to remove some of its citizens from a certain area and relocate them for the greater public good: that greater public good being the rationalizing of the lines of defense, weakening the demographic threat to Israel and improving our general standing in the world.

The government voted to endorse the plan and it was ratified by the Knesset. The decision was reviewed by the Supreme Court in regards to its legality and constitutionality. The Court overwhelmingly ruled in favor, with only one dissenting voice. The disengagement should be seen as the first minor step in an overall and comprehensive reevaluation of settlement policy. This would enable us to formulate more rational security, economic, social and political policies in the future.


tsvi bisk

Tsvi Bisk is an American­-Israeli futurist. He is the director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking (www.futurist-thinking.co.il/) and contributing editor for strategic thinking for The Futurist magazine.

He is also the author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century.

Tsvi is available as a lecturer or as a scholar in residence as well as for strategic consulting


The Optimistic Jew

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