Israel’s a weird place. We relish extremes. During our socialist phase – under the pre-state and early-state hegemony of Mapai (yesteryear’s acronym for the Israel Labor Party) – we voluntarily were the USSR’s ideological quasi-outpost, albeit a democratic-cum-erratic one. Young Israel was tied to Mother Russia by sentimental bonds, yet was quite unwilling to endure communist hardships.
However, with socialism as their rallying banner, then-ruling elites forced returning Israelis, for instance, to muck up fridges purchased abroad because only used goods were allowed in without exorbitant tariffs. Why import fridges? Because in the heyday of state control (for which many of our headliners and self-acclaimed experts now profess nostalgia), you had to wait your turn for a locally-produced appliance. If you couldn’t pull the right strings or exploit useful connections, it could have taken years.
The wait for a telephone was more excruciating. It was a privilege for which you shelled out plenty, while the well-placed apparatchik pretended to do you a favor.
Those were the wonderful days in which if you dared bring in a reel-to-reel audio-recorder, you could count on a begrudging customs officer to unwind the tape and measure it. Only so many meters of tape could be imported and no more.
Foreign currency controls led to the blossoming of the black market. Life’s hypocrisies were straightforward and predictable. Everyone knew there was a righteous facade and a thriving subterranean reality. Higher-ups sanctimoniously preached to hard-working commoners and berated them for breaching class solidarity. A kid who flaunted a new plaything was denounced as a bourgani (bourgeois). No youngster quite knew what bourgani meant, but it was a pejorative.
Self-satisfied socialists addressed each other as haver (comrade) – which was Bill Clinton’s parting epithet for Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin indeed came from sterling socialist stock (his mother, Rosa Cohen, was a solid rock of the Histadrut establishment). While Israelis groaned under stringent bureaucratic restrictions, he kept an illicit bank account in America (even if in the wife’s name). The transgression wasn’t so awful in itself. It shouldn’t have been made an offense to begin with. Rabin, though, did nothing to decriminalize it for Mr. and Ms. Average Israeli, while allowing himself an exemption from rules imposed ruthlessly on others.
THE EXPOSURE of Rabin’s lapse contributed to Labor’s 1977 defeat. Thereafter Israel began steadily gravitating to the other extreme. Menachem Begin’s government took hesitant first steps. In time our universities churned out enough free-marketers of the Friedman-Thatcher-Reagan mold to speed along the reaction against Marx, Lenin, Borochov, A.D. Gordon et al. New-breed socialist converts to no-holds-barred capitalism, mind you, weren’t averse to continue adhering to old-left ultra-dovish views and advocate in their infinite wisdom that Israel forthwith divest itself of all its existentially vital strategic assets. Apparently a miniature vulnerable nine-mile-wide state – crammed into what fellow ultra-dove Abba Eban dubbed “the Auschwitz lines” – is good for business. What’s good for business is perforce good for the country.
And so, a new fad was born – subscribed to ironically also by sorts who kept pompously attesting to their socialist credentials. Helter-skelter we got uncontrollably globalized and began privatizing everything with frenzy, including even the Post Office. If once publicly-owned concerns were considered preferable, now they’re objects of revulsion. There’s even talk of privatizing prisons.
If once bosses couldn’t fire the worst incompetents on their payroll, today even the most diligent wage-earners feel unsafe. Inscrutable “reorganization” can make valuable employees redundant overnight.
THAT SAID, one thing remains unalterable: There’s an underlying schizophrenic Israeli inclination to boastfulness, coupled curiously with deep-set insecurities and inferiority complexes. As equity markets teeter-tottered worldwide and our bourse nose-dived in panic, spectacular hubris manifested. We simultaneously shook in our sandals and sang our own praises for doing things better than Wall Street, for regulating more, for being wiser. Wall Street could come to Rehov Ahad Ha’am for a lesson or two.
The fact is that we possessed inordinate hubris even in Israel’s infancy, when we subsisted on handouts and barely emerged from severe austerity and food rationing. Even then, we were know-it-alls, resplendent in progressive socialism, rejecting decadent Western influences and refusing to admit TV to our impoverished land lest our altruistic youth be corrupted.
No way, we now gloat, would we in the land of red tape make mortgages as easily available as Fannie and Freddie did.
Of course, we did manage a bad bubble ourselves about a quarter of a century ago, when bank share values here were disastrously inflated. True, our government eventually stepped in and effectively saved our entire financial system from imploding. Now, crow local braggarts, the Americans follow in our footsteps, although clearly more clumsily and less efficiently. They emulate what we did in 1985.
HOW LIKE the supercilious conceit which Ephraim Kishon satirized back in the 1950s, by facetiously proposing a union of equals between Israel and the USA. The new flag, he envisioned, would feature “two stars instead of 50” and the two nations would “merge into a political federation, thereby giving birth – instead of two states, until now unnecessarily and wastefully separated – to a powerful federated unit named Monolithic Alliance, Previously America and Israel (MAPAI).
“This natural process of union is fully justified by the closeness of the twin countries, which are separated only by the Mediterranean and the Atlantic… The area of the federation will extend over 3,632,085 sq. miles, an increase of 45,000% for Israel… It goes without saying that Israel is to guarantee America’s present borders… The armed forces of the two states will also be completely merged. The joint HQ is to reside in Ramat Gan. Israel’s armaments industry will most certainly put its entire output at the disposal of the Joint Army… At the personal request of the finance minister, the new HQ will publish in the very near future a calming statement to the effect that Israeli officers’ pay won’t be raised after the union… but the fine for importing low-cost phonograph records from America will be raised… The new federation is eagerly tearing down the partitions that so far separated the economies of the two states.”
And a good thing too. Obviously Israelis are savvier. As Kishon clairvoyantly forecast all those decades ago, our unique-brand old-time socialism is triumphantly vindicated. Any simpleton can see that America belatedly took a leaf out of Israel’s book and essentially nationalized (for now) private enterprises, as Israel (with American underwriting) once bailed out its crashing banks. America mimics us!
Oops, in the intervening years we rushed to privatize all over the place and uber-Americanize with super-capitalist vengeance. Oops, we better consider a wee course-correction, a tad of a U-turn to catch up with our other MAPAI half, so we can both be on the same MAPAI page.