The Invention and Decline of Israeliness; State, Society, and the Military, by Baruch Kimmerling

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Berkeley, New York and London: University of California Press, 2001. 268pp. $45.00.

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 of the elections to the 16(th) 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 ultraorthodox 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. …


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