Done Being Born: Israel after Sharon and His Generation

Published January 27, 2014

Weekly Standard

Although he has, in most respects, been gone from the scene for the better part of a decade, Ariel Sharon’s death this month has nonetheless hit Israel hard. His military career was among the most exemplary in a nation that has seen far more than its share of great warriors. And by the end of his political career (if not at every point throughout it), Sharon was widely respected and admired. The sudden end of his premiership in 2006 left many in Israel with a sense of missed opportunity and unexplored possibility. But perhaps more deeply than that, his death signals the passing from the political scene of Israel’s founding generation. Sharon was the last prime minister who participated personally in the nation’s founding, and there will not be another. Israel has clung to its founders as long as it could.

In the 1990s, Israelis tried out two leaders from the younger generation—Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak—but reached back for Sharon in an hour of crisis, as the second intifada raged. It is not hard to see why. In the decades after their nation’s founding, Israelis had grown accustomed to larger-than-life leaders, world-historical figures who had played important roles in the realization of what, if not for that amazing generation, could easily have remained an impossible dream.

Although Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, was a member of that generation, the presidency is a ceremonial role, and Israeli politics no longer lives in the shadow of that nation’s founding generation. This has been increasingly clear for a decade and more, of course, but Sharon’s passing makes it an unavoidable fact. It has not been an easy fact for Israelis to get used to, in a variety of ways—some more obvious than others.

Being governed by plain old politicians, rather than men and women of historical stature who fought impossible odds to bring a new nation into being, has been a painful letdown for a society rightly accustomed to living in awe of its own existence. But more than that, Israelis have had a hard time letting go of the founding intensity that has characterized their politics; they have had a hard time getting used to the fact that their country is no longer in the process of being born, but is, for all the never-ending threats to its security, an established presence on the world stage.

The result is a nation peculiarly unwilling to acknowledge its achievements or to contend with the deep problems that remain unaddressed at the core of its civic and national life. Israel’s national anthem is a melancholy song of hope that there might someday be an Israel. Its political and (especially) legal system exists in a constant state of emergency, insistently unwilling to recognize in itself sources of precedents and traditions that might stabilize things. Many of the most promising members of the up-and-coming generation of Israeli professionals and intellectuals—people born into a nation in its third or fourth decade, whose connection to the founding was their grandparents—still live with a yearning for the profound source of meaning that a Zionism that had yet to achieve its principal goal offered prior generations. They have trouble finding such meaning in the mundane tasks of self-government and perpetuation.

This is a problem that Americans once experienced too. Ours also is, to a degree unequaled in the modern era almost anywhere except in Israel, a founded nation. And the first three generations of Americans lived in every sense under the shadow of the founding generation.

Every president in the 48-year stretch from George Washington through Andrew Jackson claimed some connection to the revolution (with Jackson making endless hay of having been captured by British troops as a young boy and cut in the face for refusing to be of use to them), just as every one of Israel’s prime ministers in its first 48 years (until Netanyahu’s election in 1996) had been involved in its founding. And when those with direct memory of or involvement in the revolution passed from the scene, the United States was left not only with decidedly lesser leaders in charge but with a palpable unease about what should come next.

The greatest expression of that anxiety came from the greatest member of America’s third generation. On January 27, 1838, the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, invited an up-and-coming lawyer in town to address the students about an important public question. The 28-year-old attorney, Abraham Lincoln, chose as his subject a question to which he thought his countrymen needed to turn their attention: “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” And he could see clearly why turning to that subject was difficult for America, because the nation in his day (at 63 years of age, almost exactly Israel’s age today) was confronting the challenge of moving from a mode of ambitious founding to a mode of grateful preservation that might allow its people to build on the best of what they had inherited while addressing the terrible problems left unresolved by the founding. Americans of his generation, Lincoln said, lived in a thriving nation blessed with great advantages that, as far as they were concerned, had always been there:

We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them—they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

That task is, in a word, the task of conservatism—the task of building on the given, not creating something wholly new. It was the task to which Lincoln thought his nation needed to turn if it was to overcome the enormous political and moral challenges it faced without destroying itself. And the move from a mode of founding to a mode of conservation and improvement would be no easy feat for a nation whose founding was so dramatic and which, until so recently, had lived with the direct memory of that founding. But that directness could no longer be appealed to, Lincoln worried:

I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read—but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest.

At the close of that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history was to be found in every family—a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related—a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned. But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone. They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.

They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.

In that wise but still youthful reflection on the problem of how a nation might address its flaws by revering and building on its greatest strengths—the problem that would occupy him for the rest of his life—Lincoln laid an awful lot of weight on pure rational persuasion. “Passion has helped us; but can do so no more,” he told the students as he neared the close of his remarks. “It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.”

Twenty-three years later, as Lincoln stood on the steps of the Capitol having just taken on the presidency in an hour of terrible crisis, he was still wary of pure passion in the life of a nation, but he was less certain that pure reason was enough. “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection,” he said at the conclusion of his first Inaugural Address. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

He had discovered the secret link between the spirit of pride and reverence for an extraordinary founding and the spirit of preservation and improvement of a cherished inheritance. He had discovered memory.

Israel’s strengths and weaknesses, its challenges and its problems, are very different from ours. But maybe what it needs, as it moves out of the shadow of its founding, is not so different from what America needed as the last of its founding generation passed away. It needs a way to revere those who brought it into being while still seeing clearly what they left unresolved at home and abroad. It needs to find the strength to deal with its problems in the very memory of its founding, and in the legacy built up since. It needs to see itself as the mature, impressive, complicated, full-blown nation that it is.

And it could probably use a Lincoln, too—but who couldn’t?

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