My new article in Hadassah magazine:
A few months after Avihai Ronski retired as the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces in 2010, the media reported that he was moving temporarily to a village founded several years before 20 miles south of Beersheba in the Negev.
The news value was that Ronski was moving, at least temporarily, from controversy to consensus: For years he had been a prominent resident of Itamar, a West Bank settlement known as a bastion of the far right. In his role as the military’s top rabbi, he came under criticism for allegedly politicizing the Army rabbinate.
But developing the Negev is a mom-and-apple-pie value in Israel, respected all the more because few people act on it. Moving to an isolated community expressed the Zionist ideal of pioneering—while avoiding the political tempest over West Bank settlement. If Ronski had also become a farmer, he would have completed a trifecta of old-time values.
And yet, maybe the ideals behind Ronski’s move should also stir debate. Does it make more sense in 21st-century Israel, starved for open space, to start new communities anywhere, or should we be building denser and higher? Should developing the Negev still be seen as a Zionist obligation or, as some environmentalists assert, as an ecological disaster? For that matter, what about making the desert bloom or even farming in general: Do Jews need to be farmers when Israel lives on its software successes?
While we are questioning hallowed ideals, what about encouraging immigration to an arguably overcrowded country? Or the universal military draft? On the other hand, if you start asking if a society’s basic values are obsolescent, where do you stop? What differentiates making the desert bloom from the Israeli declaration of independence’s promise of “complete equality of social and political rights…irrespective of religion, race or sex”?
The question of whether ideals have an expiration date is raised most cogently by scientist Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin). “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions,” Diamond writes, “are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.” A value that once built a society can later have harmful, even catastrophic, impact if people “cling” to it in new circumstances. …
Read the rest here.