Rubber Bullets is one of the most important, insightful and original books published on Israel in the last decade. The author, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, reflects on the poverty of individualism in his country. In Israel, he tells us, personal identities and needs have tended to be subordinated to the demands of the group, and expressions of individuality have been characteristically frowned upon as manifestations of selfishness, arrogance, and lack of communal spirit. He also suggests, however, that the Jewish state is currently in the throes of a cultural revolution that aims to change these entrenched attitudes and assert the primacy of the individual. Finally, he claims that this cultural revolution has been accompanied by a major shift in the way Israelis view the use of force, which in turn has been one of the main factors driving the peace process.
In the first half of the book, Ezrahi documents the collectivist atmosphere which traditionally has permeated life in Israel. Israelis, he argues, are socialized into believing that their individual lives are meaningful only insofar as they partake in an unfolding collective historical drama: the restoration and consolidation of a Jewish Kingdom in the Holy Land. Thus, personal voices tend to be drowned out by the chorus of the group singing the epic of the return of the Jews to their ancient land. Meanwhile, the significance of individual stories is only a function of their contribution to the Zionist enterprise. In this kind of environment, Ezrahi remarks, the state cannot be seen - as it is in the Western democratic tradition - as the product of a social contract among free, autonomous individuals. It cannot be viewed as a mere tool to serve the needs of citizens. Instead, it assumes tremendous importance as the key to collective redemption, whether that goal is defined in religious or secular terms.
Ezrahi is particularly effective when he highlights the various manifestations of this collectivist thinking in Israeli society. He notes, for instance, that for all its idealization and romanticization by generations of Diaspora Jews, the kibbutz always denied the very legitimacy of private space, thus depriving its members of the resources needed to cultivate a sense of self and individual uniqueness. Certainly, only a tiny minority of Israel's population ever lived in kibbutzim, and the kibbutz is now a dying institution. Still, the values associated with kibbutz life were pervasive in Israel during the first four decades of the country's existence. In this Israeli institution par excellence, children were raised more by the community than by their parents, and no one was sheltered from the omnipresent and invasive gaze of the group. The kibbutz, Ezrahi observes, is "group singing, group dancing, group eating, group nature trips - indeed group everything" (p. 35). One understands why this might be attractive to Diaspora Jews eager to experience (for a few months) a sense of Jewish solidarity and camaraderie unattainable in their own countries. But by the same token, it is easy to realize why the absence of opportunities for solitary experience are felt as deeply oppressive by kibbutz-born Israelis who, consciously or unconsciously, long for a bit of privacy and for an escape from the all-encompassing grip of the community.
According to the author, Israel's educational system similarly fails to cultivate individual creativity and personal growth. Even more decisive has been the Israeli army, which promotes conformity and group bonding while almost eliminating time for individual reflection and self-examination. Ezrahi notes in this respect that "the disproportionate representation of kibbutz members among the officer corps in the Israeli army indicates the high degree of convergence between the spartan values inculcated in the kibbutz and in the army alike, and has made the army the setting where the cherished values of kibbutz communities are indirectly transmitted to young people" (p. 38).
As Ezrahi moves from an analysis of Israel's institutions to an examination of its literature, he detects more signs of the systematic subordination of personal narratives to collective ones. Until recently, he tells us, modem Hebrew prose and poetry "offered few examples of personal expression," tending to equate them with "abandonment or betrayal of a besieged community" (pp. 22-23). He also highlights the poverty of autobiography as a literary genre in contemporary Hebrew culture, noticing that "the most typical form of 'autobiography' in modem Israel has been the political autobiography of a public figure ... in which the principal theme is some variant of 'How I Helped Build the Country"' (p. 95). Along similar lines, the author describes the "stiff" and "impersonal" style of Israeli radio and television news broadcasters, who traditionally have read the news in "declamatory impersonal voices, as if they were acting out a Greek tragedy" (p. 24). Such a pompous style, according to him, contributes to an atmosphere of constant mobilization that always seems to be preparing individuals for the heroic sacrifices required for the group's survival. It also implicitly portrays even the most mundane events as parts of a great historical drama. By contrast, adult birthdays have characteristically been treated as relatively insignificant events in Israel. Ezrahi sees in this absence of "a culture of personal calendar" yet another manifestation of the poverty of Israeli individualism. The events Israelis are expected to commemorate are less the watersheds in their personal and family lives than those found on the long list of powerful moments in Jewish history, from the destruction of the Temple and the exodus from Egypt to the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.
Having highlighted the weakness of individualist thought and practices in modem Israel, Ezrahi traces them back to the strong collectivist overtones of the three different strands of Zionism - socialist, nationalist and religious-that inspired the creation of the state. The long dominant socialist variant ("Labor Zionism") always combined the notion of a Jewish return to the Biblical homeland with the ideal of building a communitarian society. For its part, right-wing nationalist ("Revisionist") Zionism, as embodied in the tradition running from Vladimir Jabotinsky to Yitzhak Shamir, emphasizes collective Jewish power, solidarity and self-reliance as the preconditions for national survival in a world inherently hostile to Jews. As Ezrahi notes, it "cultivates the view - widely believed to have been confirmed by the Holocaust - that individual Jews (even fully assimilated ones) are not likely to escape persecution and even annihilation" unless they act as a people and learn how to subordinate their individual desires to the welfare of the nation (p. 82). As for Orthodox religious Zionism, it "draws upon the long Judaic tradition of viewing the individual as a member of a community of faith designated by God to carry out divine mission" (p. 82). In this framework, the individual is not supposed to be the master of his or her own destiny, and the purpose of his or her life is certainly not the pursuit of happiness and selfrealization; instead, it is to take part in the collective struggle to bring about God's will. Ezrahi concludes that "by elevating the spiritual and moral significance of the collective narrative, the religious, nationalist and socialist Zionisms have converged in diminishing the individual. In all of these narratives, the individual in modem Israel is variously portrayed as misguided, culturally ignorant, assimilated, faithless, degenerate, materialistic, and egotistical" (p. 83).
Ezrahi pinpoints the main irony in Israel's collectivist outlook when he observes that the long history of discrimination against Jews, and the frequent persecution of them with the tacit or explicit blessing of governments, should actually have shaped Israeli political culture toward a clear commitment to the defense of individual rights and a strong distrust of state power. That this did not materialize should be ascribed mostly to the realities of Jewish and Israeli life from the 1930s through the 1970s. The Holocaust, the need to secure Israel's existence, the various Arab Israeli wars and the experience of terrorism all contributed to creating an atmosphere that subordinated the needs of the individual to the imperatives of collective survival. As a result, while Israel adopted democratic political institutions and processes from the moment it was born, it has barely begun to develop a genuinely democratic political culture that places the individual at the center of its preoccupations.
The good news, according to Ezrahi, is that Israel is moving, slowly but inevitably, into what he calls "a post-epic era," characterized by the steady diffusion of the values of democratic individualism. He detects manifestations of this phenomenon in the enhanced tolerance of private space; in the continued development and spread of conversational, colloquial Hebrew (which provides a far more effective vehicle for expressing one's individuality than the formal Hebrew of the first generation born in Israel); in the greater focus on the individual and his or her personal life in Hebrew culture; and in the more frequent use of leisure time to pursue personal as opposed to community-oriented activities. Similarly, the author attributes the sharp increase in mass travel abroad to the growing need felt by Israelis to escape - if only momentarily - the pressures of the group and the constant atmosphere of alertness and mobilization that permeates life in their country. He also sees as very significant a decision taken by Israel's Supreme Court in March 1995, which reversed earlier rulings and "permitted bereaved families to break the uniformity of the official inscriptions on gravestones in military cemeteries and add words intended to individualize the dead and express the more personal grief of family members" (pp. 243-244).
Ezrahi claims that the growing appeal of peace and territorial compromise should also be analyzed against the backdrop of the spread of individualism. To him, the contest between hawks and doves is also one between collectivist and individualistic views of Israel. Hawks insist that Israelis have a collective responsibility to ensure that all the land seized in 1967 will remain the property of the Jewish people. They also believe that individual Jives can legitimately be sacrificed for that purpose. By contrast, doves place the individual and the sanctity of life at the center of their preoccupations. Accordingly, they believe that territorial concessions can be justified if they save lives and enhance the security and welfare of future Israeli generations.
Taking his argument one step further, Ezrahi shows that the emergence of what he calls "an Israeli culture of the self' is challenging traditional Israeli notions about war and the legitimate use of force. The establishment of the State of Israel, he notes, turned a segment of the Jewish people from helpless prey into a militarily powerful nation. With that transformation, however, Israelis found themselves facing two challenges that Jews had not had to confront since antiquity: how to justify the exercise of force to other Jews and to the outside world? And how to live with the consequences - at both the personal and the collective level - of using military force? For a long time, Israelis found it relatively easy to live with these dilemmas because an overwhelming majority of them subscribed to the belief that their country used force only in self-defense. Israelis saw themselves as reluctant warriors, compelled by circumstances to fight in order to resist annihilation and allow their frail state to survive. Thus, state power was idealized, and the ambivalence toward the use of military force was submerged. In many Zionist circles, a cult of military might even developed. Force was necessary to restore honor to a victimized people, while enabling it to exact revenge for thousands of years of anti-Semitism. Significant in this respect was the tremendous sense of pride that Jews all over the world felt after Israel's resounding victory in the 1967 war.
Yet by the mid-1980s, Israelis had become more skeptical about the benefits of military force. To Ezrahi, nothing symbolized this new stance better than the army's adoption of rubber bullets in 1988, a few months into the intifada, in order to confront stone-throwing Palestinian youth. Of course, these steel bullets coated with rubber were lethal when shot at close range and could cause severe internal bleeding. Nevertheless, to the author they were not merely, as critics of Israel claimed, a mask designed to justify the use of brutal force by an occupying army. This choice of ammunition was instead a genuine attempt to limit the scope and extent of injuries among Palestinian demonstrators. Thus, Ezrahi views the rubber bullet as a metaphor for Israel's growing uneasiness about the use of military might to solve what was increasingly being recognized as a political problem.
Ezrahi analyzes the trends responsible for this transformation of individual and collective attitudes. One factor, he claims, has been the sheer accumulation of hundreds of thousands of individual Israelis' personal experiences with killing enemies and with mourning cherished ones fallen in wars. The sense of personal loss felt by so many people has made them more reluctant to see individual lives merely as instruments through which collective goals can be achieved. The "nauseating, brutal experience of destroying human lives" (p. 193), as much as the sense of irretrievable loss of fathers and sons killed in combat, has made Israelis more prone to see the human tragedies behind military victory. It has increased their inclination to remember these victories not as glorious if painful moments in the process of national liberation, but as personal catastrophes. And those who will never come back from the battlefield are likely to be remembered not as anonymous "heroes" or "martyrs" in the Jewish-Zionist epic, as official historiography would have it, but as flesh-and-blood loved ones whose promising futures were suddenly snatched away. In addition, the realities of war have often exposed soldiers to the discrepancy between the official rhetoric of self-defense and the actual motives of their governments (the 1982 Israeli invasion being a case in point). Finally, time has enabled more Israelis to look at war "from the other side," from the perspective of their victims. Fifty years ago, that was much harder for their parents to do, because of the shadow of the Holocaust and the pressures of building and consolidating a state against great odds. These two phenomena fueled an acute sense of vulnerability and made compassion toward enemies more likely to be perceived as self-destructive, as a betrayal of the community, and as a luxury that could not be afforded.
Although Ezrahi occasionally slides into academic jargon, the book is filled with insights. Still, for all the evidence marshalled, I am not convinced that the assertion of democratic individualism is as strong, inevitable and irreversible a trend as the author implies. As Ezrahi himself recognizes (in passing, toward the end of the book), the May 1996 election of Binyamin Netanyahu demonstrates the enduring appeal of deeply illiberal religious and nationalist visions of Israel. This is even clearer when one remembers that, despite Netanyahu's narrow margin of victory overall, he won the election with a comfortable 11-percent lead in the Jewish sector. And certainly, over the past year, the Israeli prime minister has amply demonstrated how difficult it is for him to break with the collectivist-nationalist streak of his party's tradition ("collectivist" in the sense Ezrahi gives to this word). Similarly, can one really be as optimistic as Ezrahi when one considers the very strong showing of the ultraorthodox, religious Zionist, and Russian-immigrant parties in last year's Knesset elections? (Sharansky's Israel Ba'aliya party is included in this list because of its relatively hawkish stance on territorial compromise and its emphasis on the need to uphold Jewish collective identity.) Finally, when discussing the spread of liberal democratic sensibilities in Israel, Ezrahi fails to even address the long-term structural forces that work against this phenomenon. One is the disproportionately high growth rate of the ultraorthodox and religious-Zionist segments of the population, the political values of which are at odds with Western-style liberal, democratic norms. Readers like me, who immensely enjoyed the spin through Ezrahi's book and found much of his evidence persuasive, still have reason to fear that the author may have spoken too soon and underplayed how bumpy the road toward the "post-epic era in Israeli democracy" will be.