07 November 2011


There's a beautiful moment in Meir Shalev's new book, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner:  A Family Memoir, in which his pioneer grandmother (who lived her life on Nahalal, one of the early moshavim established by the Zionist pioneers) is captured on film describing why she lived on a moshav and not a kibbutz.  She said:
"We went to a moshav because we wanted freedom and privacy," she explained, that incorrigible individualist, adding a sharp statistical observation: "A lot of people left the kibbutzim and went to moshavim.  Nobody left the moshav for a kibbutz."
 Shalev goes on to elaborate:
As for the historical ideological conflict between the two types of settlement, a conflict that many had flogged before her, she said something quite simple:  On a moshav you know who you are sitting down to eat with--your family, for better or worse.  But in a kibbutz collective dining hall sometimes you find yourself with people you do not wish to sit next to, in whose company you do not wish to eat.
In idealist societies, the tensions between the individual and the collective are well-rehearsed; and this particular manifestation of contemporary Israeli life has yielded to a larger social debate, as was seen this summer, in the tent protest in Tel Aviv.  Namely, Israelis are no longer debating collectivist values of 19th century Zionism but are grappling with the current tensions under-girding Israel today--how capitalism, free markets and individuality might exist alongside a nation founded on principles of equality and justice and, for many of its founders, socialism.

Closer to home, here in New York City, the Occupy Wall Street movement nears its second month of steady protest against greed and the unrestrained accumulation of wealth:  it is unjust for 1% of the population to control the amount of wealth to the distinct disadvantage of the 99% of the remainder of the population.  This disparity ought to be eye-poppingly obvious to the most casual observer, and, if you've been paying attention for the past two hundred years, ought not to be news to you, either.

And as opposed to Israel, America's dilemma runs in the opposite direction:  What to do about broader social and communal values in a society founded on presumed "unalienable" rights of radical individuality?  The two great economic debates of the twentieth century--President Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society--are distant memories, arguably the last galvanizing moments when American citizens debated, fought, bargained and negotiated through a series of political maneuvers and compromises to enact into law social values of economic justice and equality.

In a small aside in the Times Magazine this past Sunday, U.S. Poet Laureate Phil Levine comments about President Obama, "When he campaigned, he seemed like a genius, but I think he may not have been up to the task. It’s foolish to say this, but the guy we need right now is Lyndon Johnson. We need a bully and a really shrewd manipulator."

Before you make the mistake of assuming that in politics one bullies or manipulates only in order to win, consider that it can also be the case that one bullies and manipulates in order to win for the right cause--racial equality, equal rights, economic justice.  One fights for the legislation that asks of its citizens a sacrifice for the greater good.  For the rights of the many over a precious few.  But in the nearly 40 years since the military draft has been abolished, Americans have never been called upon to serve as a requirement of citizenship.  And though this has presumably been understood as a victory for those who opposed American involvement in the Vietnam war (debatable), it has resulted in a near total absence of basic obligatory acts of citizenship.  We owe our nation little except what we personally choose to give--ask not what you can do for your country but what your country owes you.

Both President Roosevelt and President Johnson ruled during a time when citizens, as a price of their membership in the greater polity of the American enterprise, were required to serve.  Today, to our great demise, nothing is demanded of us.

I believe strongly that the game-changing narrative required of our leadership is the call to sacrifice, with a particularly sensitivity toward the least fortunate in our society--a sense of sacrifice based on our highest ideals as a nation with a shared sense of responsibility for one another, not a sacrifice so that each can do as he pleases. 

For all the noise coming from the various protest movements on the left and the right in this country, I've yet to hear a cogent articulation of what may actually be required of us in the years ahead in order to put this country on a better path of living up to its highest ideals.

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