‘Westernization’ is a complex term whose precise meaning changes with location. For an American, the words ‘Oriental’ or ‘Eastern’ may conjure up images of Japanese and Koreans; to an Israeli, however, it is likely to mean Moroccans, Yemenites or Iraqis. Israel has known two meanings of the word ‘West’; increasingly, however, they are narrowing down to one. For Israel, whose main dividing line is ethnic, a large part of the relevance of the word ‘west’ relates to Eastern Europe – the Ashkenazi ‘homeland’ – as the Western part of the line. The ‘West’ meant the beginnings of Zionism, the Eastern European center and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe, the center of Herzlian Zionism and daily Zionist politics. As the Yishuv assumed an identity that was defined against both the Arab East and the Jews who came from there, the Eastern European character of the society was utterly clear. It has already been mentioned that the early waves of Zionist Zionist Aliyah, dominated totally by the Eastern and East-Central European background of the Olim, defined their way of life as a revolt against that of Eastern European Jewry. Nevertheless, such an influence could not be dismissed so easily.

The foods that the newcomers liked derived from there, as did the melodies that they loved, and the writers who influenced them were European. The society that developed in the Yishuv was indeed different from the life that they had known, but it remained European: an orchestral concert featured Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and never the classic songs of Um Kulthoum. An early feature of the cultural life of Tel Aviv was the opera house. The Hebrew University, so proudly opened in 1925, was built according to a Western program of study. The same phenomenon applied to many different spheres. ‘Western’ meant Eastern European or simply, European.

The situation has changed, however. Despite the demographic reinforcement of many hundreds of thousands from Eastern Europe in the last decades, the word ‘Western’ is perceived very differently today: it now denotes America and the English-speaking world. The word ‘America’ retains the same quasi-magical attraction for many Israelis as it had for those millions of emigrants from Tsarist Russia who spurned Zionism and chose a different direction. It is ironic that, for many Israelis, the word ‘Western’ now conjures up the same geographical reality as it did for their great grandparents, despite the intervening period of Eastern European ‘Westernization.’

There is another irony. While the early Zionist immigrants lived a life influenced by the West (Europe), they would have resisted the lure of Westernization. Their ideological concern was to create their own, authentic, native Hebrew culture, rather than copy that of other places. Thus they would certainly have rejected the idea of the West (Europe) as a cultural model for emulation, although this is precisely what they did do to a large extent. In contrast, today the attitude of a sizeable part of the Israeli population is that America is the model to emulate and that, the more this happens, the better off Israel will be.

A closely-connected development relates to the decline of the predominantly collective culture associated with early Zionism. The highest goal was the good of society, the State and the collective. People were meant to work for the good of the collective and individual goals were perceived as somehow tainted. It was considered decadent to seek individual comfort or to praise individual aesthetic values. Any ambition had to be couched in terms of the collective good, so politicians seeking office out of personal ambition were regarded in a negative light: like Moses, they were meant to be pushed into power by a higher force – the needs of the collective.

A wonderful film that projects this tension in terms of Israeli society in the early 1950s was Noa at 17(1981). Its plot unfolds against the background of the ideological changes of the 1950s and the disillusionment of the pioneering generation with some of the principles that had guided them for decades. The film’s central character, Noa, is the daughter of a family caught up in this process. She is an individualist at heart who challenges the entire collective ethos of the society as represented by her comrades in the Socialist Zionist youth movement. They talk of “we”: she talks of “I.” They talk of “duty;” she talks of “beauty.” They talk of “love of country;” she talks of personal love. The idea of this excellent film – praising individualism rather than collectivism, but examining its limits – is clear. The question that remains is what time period it really reflects: is it a film about the early 1950s, in which the story was set, or about the early 1980s, when the film was made?

Another film that does the same thing but differently is the fine, award-winning film Late Summer Blues(1987). It tells the story of a group of Israeli teenagers finishing high school in the shadow of the 1970 war of attrition with Egypt, which claimed several hundred lives at the Suez Canal. Each of teenager deals differently with society’s expectations and their own personal needs. The film explores the interaction between the personal and the national, and the way in which each individual tries to deal with potential and real contradictions between the two. Also clearly depicted are both the pull towards individualism and the Americanization of Israeli society in the post-1967 years.

Such changes in Israeli culture have been substantial. How did these changes occur? How did America replace Europe (Eastern Europe) as the Israeli concept of ‘West’, for much of the population? How did the West (America) become an idealized model for ‘Westernization’? Furthermore, how did the passage from the ethos of the collective to that of the individual occur?

It is always difficult and, indeed, risky to try to anchor long, complex processes of social change to key dates. Nevertheless, it is possible to posit that the most significant moment of change in Israeli culture was almost certainly 1967. At that point, more than at any previous time, the country opened up to both the ideal and the reality of America. The process had begun earlier: documentary films clearly show discotheques and dance clubs in the main cities before the war. However, the war caused a variety of changes.

Firstly, the resulting period of economic growth fostered a developing consumer culture: there was more to buy and more money with which to purchase it. Moreover, the value of consumerism was increasingly legitimized. This was important in a society where a rather Spartan attitude had formerly been common in large sectors. Money had been spent on national tasks rather than personal comfort. Not only were many of the new goods that fuelled the consumers’ hunger American, but the very culture of consumerism was largely associated with America and the West.

A significant parallel occurred in the development of a youth culture that strongly differed from the pioneering youth culture dominated by socialist, collective values that formerly had prevailed. A trend toward individualism developed among the youth and became increasingly legitimized by general society, even while it was decried as decadent by the leaders and ‘moral compasses’ of the country. As in the West, boys’ hair began to lengthen and a new narcissism became evident in the clothes worn by youth of both sexes. Rock music took large sections of the youth by storm. A mild drug culture began to develop. Once again, these elements of youth culture were associated with the West and, above all, America.

Perhaps these changes would have occurred anyway, but there were important ‘agents of change’ at work within Israel society that cleared a path for them. One was the large group of Jewish volunteers, largely from the English-speaking world, that flooded the country in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, particularly those who worked on the kibbutzim and moshavim. The impact of this group was felt far and wide. They were an interesting mixture of elements old and new: on the one hand they were aware of their Jewish identity and were strongly Zionist: they came to the country because of the pull of the collective society. However, they were also individuals, many of whom had been strongly influenced by the youth culture of the West. They looked and dressed Western: they were a living representation of the West.

The older generations were happy to accept them. They came from the Diaspora but did not represent the old idea of the Galut that Zionism had rejected. These were not the Eastern European Jews that Bialik and others had condemned so eloquently: these were young, free Jews who lived in the Diaspora and who could feel at home there, but who were also connected with Israel, Zionism and idealism. Their ways might be strange to many of the older generation, but they were seen as positive nonetheless. The younger generations were happy to accept them, partly for the opposite reasons: they were ‘cool,’ had long hair and listened to rock music. In these very different ways, the fact that several thousand young people were considered positive role models caused them to become important agents of change.

Their influence – and that of the world from which they came – was deep. They represented an idea of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ that had long been ready to burst to the surface. Many young Israelis were happy to break through the limitations of a Puritanical establishment whose vocabulary stressed such words as ‘duty’ and ‘obligation.’ A large number of the young had become aware of the gap between the high ideals of their society and the behavior of some individuals who used such language as a mask for individual greed and ambition. It would take a full decade until this tension exploded and the old Labor Party establishment was kicked out of office after two generations of domination and rule. In many ways, however, the seeds were sown in this period.

Another crucial agent of change was the advent of television, which began to be broadcast in Israel in 1968. This gradually opened a window to the wider world, supplying visual information about the West. The cinema had long played a part in shaping the collective imagination of the secular population, but the impact of television went deeper still: here was something that could be watched on a nightly basis; this was where one’s fantasies could be nurtured in private.

It took decades for television to begin to free itself of the influences of the establishment that had brought it to life. Nonetheless, this did occur gradually: first black and white, then color; first one channel, then two, and then cable television. Glimpses of the West had become full exposure: the America that featured daily in Israeli living-rooms was slickly attractive compared with the routine of life in the Jewish State. With the multiplication of channels, Israelis became increasingly exposed to commercial advertising that was ever more seductive in its visual sophistication.

The trend towards individualism that is connected very strongly with the influence of American culture is so pervasive that, predictably, it is impossible to single out the most significant individual cultural figures who represent it. Any attempt to be representative would involve mentioning long lists of creative people in many disciplines. Nevertheless, there is space here to note one film, one song and one writer.

The writer is Etgar Keret, a superb interpreter of the small, quirky corners of Israeli life and the Israeli psyche. In a series of very short stories, idiosyncratic and sometimes approaching the level of parable, he depicts scenes from the Israeli reality that are in fact also universal.

The song is Si Heiman’s extraordinarily moving mid-90s version of her father Nahum’s wonderful song, Kmo Tzemah Bar. Decades earlier, Hava Alberstein had given this song, one of Israel’s most beautiful, a straight, touching treatment, but when Si Heiman performed it – a representative of a new generation – she invested the beautiful melody with a soulful, bluesy character that the original had not possessed. The distance between the two versions says something about the distance traveled by Israel in the course of a generation.

The film is the recent, award-winning Broken Wings, one of the most beautiful Israeli films to have been produced in years. It depicts a family that is struggling to recover after the death of its father and husband. Significantly, this man does not die in a heroic war accident or as the result of some other ‘national’ cause; his death has a more mundane cause – a bee-sting. The film deals with real people living in the alienating routine of an anonymous big city: in this case, Haifa. It is both intensely Israeli and yet hauntingly universal, treating as it does relationships, the need for love and the struggle to live a normal life in a harsh social reality.

These three symbolize the new Israel. In large sectors of society, earlier models and values have been replaced, respectively, by America and individualism.



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16 Apr 2015 / 27 Nisan 5775 0