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Is Israel Athens or Sparta?

Saul Bellow, in his “To Jerusalem and Back,” wrote approvingly of how Israel was so special a place because it sought simultaneously to be both Sparta and Athens — and largely succeeded at both.

That was in 1976, 34 years ago. The other day, in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s leading daily, Eitan Haber, who was Yitzhak Rabin’s speechwriter, as good at the job as a person can be, had a column in which he lamented the fact that Israel has become Sparta. Only Sparta.

Haber was spurred to this sorry assessment by the recent announcement that Israel now plans to build a fence along its border with Egypt. The new fence is meant principally as a response to one of history’s more ironic bequests to Israel: In recent years, Israel has become a refuge for Africans fleeing the Ivory Coast, Congo, Eritrea, Liberia and, of course, Darfur and southern Sudan. They steal across the border from Egypt, and Israel cannot lightly send them back, since the Egyptians will send them back to the countries from which they fled. And as for Israel, coarse as it has in so many ways become, the word “refugee” triggers far too many memories to have been covered over completely by scar tissue.

At the same time, Israel cannot afford to find itself a preferred destination of all the dispossessed of Africa’s wars. So, a fence, a more orderly immigration, border controls. And that means that Israel will soon be entirely fenced in, in some places reliant on electronic controls, in a growing number of places on physical barriers.

Fortress Israel? Really Sparta?

Haber, of whose speechwriting gifts I am in awe, does not make the case. He writes, “An entire state living behind fences, surrounded on all sides by an ocean of enemies. The thought that this is our fate can drive a normal person mad. And so the construction of a new, modern Sparta is completed, while we wanted so badly to be Athens.” But it takes more than being fenced in to become definitively Sparta. If a fence is all it takes to be Sparta, what shall we say of Gaza, so completely fenced in, even the tunnels to Egypt about to be sealed off by the deep barrier fence Egypt is building on its border with Gaza?

Israel is more nearly, perhaps, a thriving ghetto, dependant in significant measure on the favors of a distant prince for its persistence. Or, if “ghetto” is too loaded, an enclave.

Israel’s Spartan inclinations are daily on display here, with diverse political leaders competing with one another to see who can come up with the more bellicose slogans. But so are its Athenian inclinations, and not just in its spectacularly successful high-tech and biotech industries. Take, for example, Lisa Ullmann, who at age 87 has just completed her 10-year-long effort to translate Josephus’s 1,940-year-old classic “The Jewish War” from Greek into literary Hebrew. Or take the Shalem Center’s translation into Hebrew, for the first time, of Hobbes’s “Leviathan” and Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” These are as purely Athenian achievements as can be.

No, all’s not well. There is reason for concern that Israel will not maintain its intellectual and scientific strength. The distribution of income is increasingly skewed, and poverty, especially among children, is rising. The political realm remains a painful example of mediocrity, so lavishly larded with corruption as to render it indigestible. Hence growing numbers of people tune out, and the best and the brightest choose other pursuits.

Those, together with the occupation, are Israel’s real problems, and it doesn’t much matter what metaphoric code you use. The real Sparta and the real Athens have both been rendered distortingly one-dimensional in their use as codes for current cultural manifestations, and even the more intimate “ghetto” is not helpful. Israel is what Israel is, and has been for nearly ever: a land of stunning contradictions, a land of tensions that foster creativity as well as conflict. None of the tensions is more tangled than the effort to be both Jewish and democratic, none is harder to work through in real time and real space. And quite possibly those who seek the victory of one or the other, the resolution of the tensions between Jewish and democratic, make the biggest mistake of all. That tension and its more abstract equivalent, the tension between universalism and particularism, are not meant to be resolved, not today nor tomorrow. They are meant to enrich the human possibility, and that remains the dream, the hope, of some of Israel’s more stalwart shakers. Whether they will become movers, too, is still an open question.

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