Special Report

Chattering-Class Blues

The telling story of a prodigal grandson.

By 5.30.07

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Lior Dayan is a grandson of Moshe Dayan (1915-1981), the mythic Israeli soldier-kibbutznik who rose to the ranks of chief of staff, defense minister, and foreign minister. Lior is a far cry from his granddad: he got out of the army after a few months in a PR unit and is now a showbiz heartthrob, "treated," as Jerusalem Post columnist Sarah Honig puts it, "with affectionate indulgence."

And Lior is part of a larger trend: in 2006, as Honig notes, "6 percent of all service-eligible males enlisted helpful shrinks to avoid conscription altogether. Among those who did join up, another 11% managed subsequently to secure early psychiatric discharge." This is a change from older days when such shirking was considered shameful, and the army is alarmed enough that it's now moving to curb the trend.

"Yet the incontrovertible sad fact," Honig continues, "is that Israel's most privileged and influential tolerate draft-evasion to a degree that erases disgrace." Another way of saying this is that an Israeli chattering class has emerged that is growing more similar to its left-liberal, war-averse American counterpart and more distant from the tough sabra ethos of the likes of Moshe Dayan.

People of this kind think war is either totally unnecessary or a primitive squabble between archaic nationalisms and religions in which they have no part. They also have small families and don't feel that they've raised their son (they rarely have more than one) for the state or to serve in the army of the state.

Until the 1990s Israel was a democracy whose chattering class had not become ascendant. The seeds of the mentality can be seen, in retrospect, in the old Left-Labor establishment with its themes of antireligiosity and extreme loathing of the political right. But that establishment retained enough connection to Jewish history and to Middle Eastern reality that it ran Israel's politico-military affairs (or in the 1980s, copiloted them in unity governments with the Right) reasonably well.

By the 1990s, though, the approved-and-certified establishment Israeli was less likely to be an earthy farmer and more often a postmodern city-dweller sensitive to global trends and eager to extricate Israel from what by now seemed a tiresome and retrograde conflict. The shift was personified in Yitzhak Rabin, also an old-style tough sabra who morphed as prime minister into the shepherd of the Oslo process.

The problem is that its results were catastrophic: over two thousand Israelis murdered in terrorist attacks since the Oslo era began in 1993, compared to 250 in the previous fifteen years.

To say that the draft-dodging trend has, nonetheless, kept advancing even in this period is not to say the situation is all bad, far from it: overall rates of volunteering for combat units, especially top-notch field units, remain high. But the fact that the phenomenon represented by the likes of Lior Dayan continues apace even in an era of suicide bombings and rocket barrages may indicate that the growth of such a detached, elitist, blase sector is intrinsic to democracy and an inevitable part of it.

My own experience of the chattering classes both in the United States and Israel makes we worry about the long-term viability even of the world's last two fighting democracies. With eerie similarity, in both countries this sector makes up for its smallness in size by taking control of the media, academic, and judiciary spheres and so wielding disproportionate power. They do so partly out of a similar ruthless disdain for the country's traditional ethos and alternative sociocultural sectors.

Among the results, Americans are encouraged to believe that the War on Terror is so much pointless sound and fury and the real threat to civilization is not nukes in the hands of Al Qaeda or Iran, but global warming; Israelis are encouraged to believe that territorial withdrawals will win them a reprieve from the surrounding aggression. Both delusions have great destructive potential, and non-elitist intellectuals have a crucial task of projecting a countermessage.

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About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.