Revisiting The Age Of Innocence In Israel, ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ and What Can Be Done About It / By Zeki Ergas

For Uri Avnery (1)

As I write this paper, I have before my eyes a Jewish National Fund magazine published in Geneva on whose cover David Ben-Gurion is planting a tree. JNF has for decades carried out a campaign of forestation in Israel that is very popular in the Diaspora, and BG was giving it a hand. 2

David Ben-Gurion was a great leader. He also had a very big ego and he made some very big mistakes, especially towards the end of his political career. But there is no denying that he had a great soul. After he was forced into retirement, he chose to go and live in Sde Boker, a far-away kibbutz in the Negev. He did that because he believed that Israel needed to keep her pioneering spirit alive.

That was the early-1960s. It was, unfortunately, already too late. So, in 1973, the Grand Old Man of the Israeli nation died an embittered man. He knew that he had failed to realize his most cherished ideal after the establishment of the State of Israel: the creation of a nation that would become, not only successful in the conventional sense of the word, but also a beacon of light for he rest of the world. It was not to be. Maybe, it could not be. Nevertheless, that failure has cost Israel a great deal, bringing her to the edge of possible catastrophe.

So, it may appear naïve, just when Israel has sunk so low in what can be described only as an Age of Deceit -- and Conceit, to wish for the emergence – before it is too late -- of a new zeitgeist inspired from the Age of Innocence that existed, a long time ago, in the Yishuv. 3 And yet, it seems to me, a serious attempt to do that is not entirely redundant badly needed at this point of time. Let us have the courage to call a spade a spade: Israel has entered a very dangerous phase of her history and she needs to be very vigilant, for the end of the road she is travelling now could be apocalyptic …


Arguably, Prince Myshkin, Dostoyevsky’s hero in The Idiot, is the most famous ‘innocent’ in world literature. 4 It is important to note, to begin with, that Myshkin is not an ‘idiot’ in the conventional sense of that word : it does not mean a ‘stupid person’ or an ‘imbecile’. Most cognoscenti agree that Myshkin can best be defined as a ‘quixotic character’, a ‘seeker of the truth’ in human society. For the great Russian author, the truth is ultimately to be found in religion, more specifically in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to save the sinful humanity. Be that as it may, more relevant in the framework of this short essay is that Myshkin, in spite of his truthfulness and the goodness, is misunderstood by society that rejects him. He is defeated at the end of the novel. That is sad and disappointing, but it is also realistic: human society is flawed, and justice and truth can be achieved only partly. However, Dostoyevsky tells us, that does not invalidate the fact that, at a higher level, Myshkin is right and the society, wrong.

So, what is the lesson, the moral of this great novel? I believe, the following: It is true that in our flawed societies, truth and justice are formidable challenges which can be achieved only partly, but we must try to do our best honestly and sincerely to achieve them as much as possible.

Israel has not been doing that lately …


Eugene Ionesco is believed to have said (or is it in one of his plays?): What one does not say is far more important than what one says. 5 That describes what has been going on in Israeli politics, especially after the extraordinary military victory in 1967 -- which many Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora saw as the will of God. The goal of all the Israeli governments without exception, never openly acknowledged, was, and still is, the establishment of a Jewish state in the ‘historical’ Palestine, from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

Would it be fair to say that that hidden truth has represented, throughout that period, the true wish of the majority of the Jewish Israeli population -- and of the Jews in the Diaspora? Or, has the Jewish Israeli population been indoctrinated, manipulated, and even railroaded into thinking that that was the right thing to do? The answers to both these two questions is, it seems to me, largely, ‘Yes’.


Uri Avnery writes: there was a ‘spirit of togetherness, of belonging, of idealism’ in the Yishuv, especially in the kibbutzim and moshavim (villages of cooperatives). The connection with the land was especially important: the pioneers worked very hard to drain the swamps, to make the desert bloom. Frugality, equality and solidarity were not empty words, but cardinal virtues. 6

All this is nostalgia now.

And, as a result of it, Avnery believes that he himself and many Israelis experience what he calls a ‘cognitive dissonance’, which he describes in the following manner: on the hand, Israelis have, emotionally, positive feelings that derive from having accomplished in Eretz Israel something that has great objective value, the creation of a Jewish homeland; on the other hand, however, they experience, rationally, negative feelings, for they know that they have done a great injustice to the Palestinians who lost their homeland and their homes. 6

That same ‘cognitive dissonance’ can be observed, Avnery writes, concerning the War of Independence: on the one hand, it was honestly perceived by the pioneers as a war of ‘No Alternative’ that they had to win, or perish – in fact, 6,000 young people did lose their lives, out of a population of 635,000; that is close to one per cent of the population, comparable to the American losses in the Civil War, the bloodiest war in that nation’s history --; on the other hand, however, the true balance of power favoured the Israelis because: one, the Palestinians were divided and lacked modern arms; and two, the Arab armies were weak, unable to cooperate and in competition among themselves. 6

Avnery concludes that, today, Israel, in order to fix that ‘cognitive dissonance’, needs, inasmuch as it is possible, to repair that great injustice that was done to the Palestinians -- known as the Nakba (Catastrophe). 6


During The Age of Innocence Israel was admired all over the world. Young men and women came in droves to be part of this wonderful experience, to work in the kibbutzim in particular. They felt they were doing something special, contributing their two cents’ worth to the creation to something that had real value.

And then, when they went back to their own countries, they had plenty of beautiful stories to tell about what they had seen and experienced in Israel. These stories, they told them to their friends and relatives who, in turn, told them to their colleagues and acquaintances. It was greatest possible publicity for Israel.

Israel was loved by many people.

Today, Israel is a successful capitalist country, a leading nation in many fields, inter alia: ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) and modern agriculture. She has become an affluent country. But she is also the second most unequal country in the Western world after the United States, and a leading exporter of sophisticated weapons. As for the kibbutzim, they have become business-oriented enterprises. Organizations like AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee), the Jewish lobby in Washington maybe very powerful and very effective, but there is a price to pay.

Today, there are few beautiful stories to tell. There is no shortage of ugly ones, however: discrimination against the Arab Israeli citizens; a war syndrome that, inevitably, results in killing women and children; ruthless demolitions of houses; endless illegal appropriation of Palestinian land; wild-eyed and fanatical settlers on the loose; and the building of a Wall that makes Israelis look like the heirs or inheritors of the Afrikaners before they threw in the towel in the 1990s …

Today, Israel may be admired for its power and inventiveness, but it is not loved by many people.


Shlomo Sand may be right when he affirms that a Jewish people does not really exist. That, in other words, Moroccan Jews have very little in common with, say, American or Canadian Jews, except for religion.

In contradistinction, the Israeli people certainly exists. It is an example of very successful social engineering. The Israeli identity was created from scratch by the Founding Fathers of Israel. The revival of Hebrew, a dead language – like Latin, or Ancient Greek -- was at the core of that creation. Similarly, a number of important values, attitudes and characteristics were also created from scratch.

Let me mention a few. Israelis are, like Americans, a ‘can do’ people -- that is also why (in addition to real politik) they get along so well with them. Israelis are a tough, courageous and self-confident people. But, the negative extremes of these qualities (or ‘virtues’ as Aristotle calls them): roughness, temerity and arrogance are a problem and cause a great deal of trouble for Israel.

Too many Israelis -- and Diaspora Jews -- believe in social Darwinism: that a no-holds-barred struggle is going on between the nations of the world, and that only the fittest will survive, or succeed. This ideology was applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with disastrous results. It was forgotten that that struggle – any struggle -- has also moral, ethical and philosophical dimensions as well which can be disregarded only at one’s own peril.


One of the jokes that circulated in Israel in the 1950s and early ’60s was that Israel had, at last, Jewish prostitutes. That was viewed as a desirable development. As a sign that Israel had become a ‘normal’ country. Today, Israel can ‘boast’ not only all the sophisticated and refined forms of prostitution (call girls, escort agencies, etc.), but also all the ‘white-collar’ crimes, some related to the presence of the Russian mafia, and all forms of political corruption – two leading politicians are under investigation …

More seriously perhaps, Israel has become a ‘mindless’ consumer society. An Israeli friend told me recently: Tel-Aviv is full of pleasure-seeking epicureans walking their little dogs, instead of making babies. Israelis also appear to have become a selfish people not overly concerned about the plight of their less privileged brothers and sisters. As mentioned above, economic inequalities have reached unbearable levels.


Hard-headed pragmatists will object: You cannot resurrect what is dead: The Age of Innocence cannot be brought back. That is true. But Israel can aim at being inspired from it. Israeli thinkers, writers, artists, and so on, could, and should, mobilize to tackle that big challenge, which is indeed daunting. It is perhaps too late. But it is worth giving it a try. There is urgency in this matter.

The very first priority, obviously, is to get rid of the present government which represents a cul-de-sac: things cannot move in the right direction with people like Netanyahu and Lieberman at the helm. As the recent visit of George Mitchell has shown it clearly, this government is on a collision course with the Americans. Mitchell has repeated it ad nauseam to all the Israelis he met -- Netanyahu, Avigdor, Barak, Gabi Ashkenazi, Livni : the United States wants a two state-solution, which means a sovereign and viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. He told the same thing to Mahmoud Abbas, Mobarak and other major stakeholders. So, as I have argued in some detail in a previous paper, Obama is very serious about the two state-solution. He really wants it very badly. 7

The second reason this Israeli government has to go is that, if it persists in its stubborn ways, the BDS (Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions) campaign against Israel will pick up momentum: the Dutch have already said that if the new Israeli government does not show real commitment to the objective of the two-state solution, it will contemplate BDS against Israel. And that is just an hors-d’oeuvre, the Brits and other governments will follow, and the civil society organizations of many countries.

Thirdly, a new zeitgeist in Israel must include a vast social project. Economic inequalities need to be drastically curtailed. Israel must be inspired in this respect from the Scandinavian countries, and not from the United States. The world is going through fundamental change which will have serious economic, financial, social, ecological and ethical implications. Israel cannot remain outside these momentous developments. 8

Dr. Zeki Ergas is Secretary General of PEN International’s Swiss Romand Centre and a member of the same organisation’s Writers for Peace Committee.

  1. See Note 6.
  2. Keren Kayemet LeIsrael, Jewish National Fund, No. 42 horizons verts, juin 2008,
  3. The society of Jews in Palestine that existed before the establishment of the State in 1948. During Ottoman times at the end of the 19th century and under the British Mandate after the Great War.
  4. Considered by many to be his fourth greatest novel -- after The Brothers Karamazov, The Devils and Crime and Punishment.
  5. A Rumanian and French playwright and one of the masters of the Theatre of the Absurd. He died in 1994.
  6. Uri Avnery writes a weekly column in Gush Shalom’s (Peace Bloc) website: This one, posted on 11 April 2009, has the same title, Rest Comes to the Weary, as a famous song from the time of the pioneers. I have also learned that Ben-Gurion disliked and disapproved of Uri Avnery, and that he ignored him systematically when the two of them were members of the Knesset. BG also wanted to close down Avnery’s publication Ha Olam Ha Ze (The World that Is)
  7. See: Zeki Ergas, Touching Bottom in Israel and What Is Next?
  8. Zeki Ergas, Global Systemic Crisis, Paradigm Shift and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.