Very few American Jews outside academic circles know the work of Eliezer Schweid, who turns 90 this September. This is in large part because most of his work remains only available in Hebrew. His obscurity is unfortunate not only because he is one of the most prolific and creative voices in Israel today on Jewish philosophy, Zionism, and Israeli society and culture, but also because Schweid, a veteran of the Palmach and a devoted lifelong Zionist, has written a series of books on postmodernism, globalization, and post-Zionism that comprise one of the harshest immanent critiques of Zionism on social and economic grounds that have ever been written. But recently the Brill series Contemporary Jewish Philosophers, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron Hughes, published a volume of Schweid’s essays in English: Eliezer Schweid: The Responsibility of Jewish Philosophy. And while the excellent collection does not include much of his work on postmodernity and post-Zionism, the essays offer the reader a taste of Schweid’s broad learning and incisive analytical approach.
“Eliezer Schweid will be remembered to posterity,” writes Lenny Levin, the translator, in a biographical sketch, “as the voice and conscience of spiritual Zionism in an age of the fulfillment of the State and the onset of postmodernism.” I would add that he should also be remembered as a lone voice who railed against the capitalization and globalization of Israel as the most serious threat to the existence of Zionism in our time. Below I offer a reading of Schweid’s critique of contemporary Zionism, post-Zionism, and the Jewish state, in light of globalization and the collapse of Israel’s collectivist ethos.
Eliezer Schweid was born in Mandate Palestine in 1929 to parents who defined themselves as hofshi, free-thinkers: that is, not religious yet not quite secular. He was raised in Socialist-Zionist youth movements where he and his generation witnessed the transition from statelessness to statehood. Schweid was born in Palestine, but his education was Western European, and he witnessed the move from the modern humanism and collectivism of his idealistic Zionist youth to postmodernism and individualism, and from nation-states as arbiters of the world economy to globalization and the rise of multinational corporations. Schweid could have, as many others did, simply lamented the ideological and economic shifts in Israel from socialism and collectivism to free-market capitalism and globalization. But he did not. Rather, he took seriously the changing terrain of Israeli society and turned his sights to postmodernity, globalization, and post-Zionism in order to understand the challenges they pose to the future of Israel and the Jews more generally.
Although Schweid often uses the term “postmodernism” in his work, I think he is really talking about postmodernity, that is, a variety of civilizational shifts in the West after WWII that have altered attitudes, alliances, and perspectives in the political, ethical, social, and cultural worlds of those of us who inhabit those societies. That is, Schweid’s postmodernity is really after-modernity, as opposed to postmodernism, which may be a subset of postmodernity but is not identical to it.
According to Schweid, we are living in a postmodern age and thus, perhaps, a post-Zionist reality. This is because while he views Zionism’s roots deep in the premodern Jewish tradition, its particular iteration in the 20th century, especially in its secular form, is a product of modernity. As Israeli scholars Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz note in an essay on Schweid, “Secularism [for Schweid] is essential for the revival of the national culture but its oppositional attitude toward the tradition causes a weakening and danger in the essential Jewish character in the land of Israel.” One could also posit that for Schweid, the adaptation of tradition without its secular component is just as dangerous to the Zionist project. It is only by holding the secular and religious in dialectical tension—I would argue with the secular as the dominant partner—that Zionism can function the way Schweid wants it to. Post-Zionism for Schweid is thus not only something that erases religion from the equation but, in another iteration, erases the secular. Religious Zionism void of its secular (humanistic) foundation is also post-Zionist.
On one reading of Schweid, post-Zionism is the de facto ideological framework, in a variety of forms, of present-day Israel that began in 1967 and became more concretized after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Schweid writes that “[i]n terms of the state of Israel, postmodernism is connected to post-Zionism.” What he means here is that the changes in the global order beginning in the aftermath of WWII that constituted for him postmodernity have affected Israel, most palpably after 1967. The way Israel has responded to those changes (by choice and by force) has altered its internal economic and cultural system, and the political and cultural reactions to the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War have, by definition, challenged the Zionist ideology upon which the state was established; they have produced a variety of post-Zionist alternatives that, he maintains, threaten the future collective reality of the Jewish state as the best hope for Jewish existence in the coming century. The state could easily continue to exist, and it is clear that Zionism as an idea continues to function. The crisis, however, is in Zionist identity, that is, whether it can continue to function as the collective identity that can drive the state and its people forward. It is for this reason, Schweid maintains, that “Zionist thought must take post-Zionism seriously as a social force …”
On this reading, post-Zionism, both left and right, does not contain the collective spirit or moral fiber sufficient to maintain the state’s character as a secular humanistic Jewish state. Here the move toward the theocratic, and surely the messianic, is no less post-Zionist than the move toward Israel as simply “a state of all its citizens,” that is, a liberal democracy. Both options, born between 1967 and 1973, come to dominate the Israeli ideological landscape.
For Schweid, postmodernity and, in particular, post-Zionism is not only, or even primarily, a political or cultural shift. It is just as much the result of the economic collapse of democratic socialism, the engine that drove Israel for decades. The move from socialism to late-modern free-market capitalism, what Schweid calls “neo-capitalism” (to distinguish it from classical, 19th-century capitalism, which he supports), is part of globalization that has at once made Israel “Start Up Nation” and as a result undermines its collective spirit and national character. Suffice it to say here that what “Start Up Nation” refers to is the meteoric rise of Israel through its adaptation to globalization, which has rendered Israel a First World economic power. Israel has made great use of post-WWII liberal victories against fascism and communism, two failed collectivist ideologies. But in doing so, especially in the past few decades, it has opted for the individualistic ethos of American-style capitalism, instead of the democratic socialism that served as the collective glue that held the country together in its earliest phases.
For Schweid, modernity is primarily the rise of secularism and humanism, while postmodernity is the emptying of humanism from the secular that leads to a post-ideological anti-humanistic age that is either filled with radical individualism and the pursuit of pleasure (rather than Aristotelian happiness, or eudemonia) or is infused with an anti-humanistic ideology of religious fundamentalism. In addition, for Schweid the project of political autonomy in the form of democracy, the polis as an expression of collective identity, serves as an important aspect of the modern West. Postmodernity for Schweid is thus a multivalent shift in Western civilization that was generated by the defeat of fascism and communism in WWII, and the rise of American free-market capitalism and individualism that led to what he calls neocapitalism and globalization. This includes the diminishing of modern humanism through a rejection of the belief in an objective historical metanarrative that connects the present to the past and also promotes collective identities as rooted in historical precedent.
So when did all this postmodernity begin? Schweid views postmodernity as a response to a series of geopolitical and civilizational shifts and choices after WWII that contain military, political, economic, and technological components. First, there was the liberal defeat of fascist and communist collectivism, which according to him was anti-humanist in its secularism, in large part because it severed any connection to the past and thus had no basis for an ethical monotheism upon which to build its new society. In regards to their views of human domination and a rejection of any responsibility above the collective, fascism and communism were examples for Schweid of modern polytheism. But their notion of the collective as the framework through which the individual identifies was in principle good, if in practice evil (due in large part to its anti-humanism). Replacing the socialist dimension of collectivism (which Schweid viewed as communism’s positive side) with democracy and a free-market system, the West began a slow process of rejecting the very components of classical liberalism that had a socialist-like component of social responsibility. In their place rose a free-market system whose primary purpose was to serve the individual.
Second, one religious manifestation of this postwar phenomenon is religious fundamentalism. This fundamentalism may have a socialist ethos in regard to lifting up the poor through charity, interest-free loans, etc. What it does not have is any stable sense of humanism in regard to global responsibility (that is, a responsibility to those who exist outside its orbit), nor a focus on democracy and freedom. The theocratic elements in religious fundamentalism often repeat in some way the errors of fascism and autocracy (and thus often exhibit similar traits), which is now based on a religious myth as opposed to pure human power. The ability of these fundamentalisms to gain support, at least in Israel, is in part the result of space created by the turn away from socialism and the humanism it embodies. The increase in capital through the individualism of the free-market resulted in a decrease in an ideological justification for collective existence.
Third, the next error of postwar liberalism for Schweid was its adaptation of technology or scientism as a substitute for ideology: “The Marxist discipline also demanded abolition of philosophy (as ideology) and exchanged it for scientific praxis, while declaring the assumption that social existence determines consciousness, not the other way around.” Instead of reinstituting humanism as the ideological foundation of the postwar West, Schweid claims that the turn to American dominance with its focus on manufacturing, production, and consumption as a social ethos enabled technological progress to become the very vehicle of human progress as opposed to a tool toward such progress. Places like Silicon Valley (and the large numbers of Israelis who have left Israel to prosper there) would be an illustration of Schweid’s point. What would be the value of a humanistic education for someone who wants to make a fortune working for Google? Hence Israeli universities funneling precious resources away from the humanities and Jewish studies in particular to high-tech industries. Here Schweid claims in some way that communism’s post-ideological program unwittingly won, except now technology does not serve the revolution but the individual who seeks wealth and fortune. For Schweid, globalization is a product of a neocapitalist free-market ethos that values profits, here of corporations and not countries, above collective flourishing and ethnic identities.
The global marketplace simply enabled corporations, rather than nation-states, to benefit most, creating massive multinational conglomerates that enhance the wealth of the corporation often at the expense of those who come to depend on it. Its supply-side ideology, through which the wealthy get wealthier, has been questioned by many economists, but this is not really Schweid’s concern. His concern with globalization is that it undermines collective identity and serves a post-humanistic end of neocapitalism thus making nation-states unable to continue to develop ideological justifications for their continued existence. How has all this had an impact on the Jew and the state of Israel? Does this bode well for the future of the Jews or the future of Israel as a Zionist entity? It is to these questions we now turn.
There has been much written on post-Zionism over the past few decades. Many view it as emerging in the 1980s through the works of the Israeli “New Historians” who questioned the founding myths of Zionism, in some cases arguing that Zionism’s original sin was in the founding of the state as a Jewish state that never provided space for the self-determination, to say nothing of the equality, of the Arab population. Schweid is not a historian of Israel but a scholar of Zionism. His focus in on the way postwar postmodernity as a Western phenomenon, stressing mostly economics and geo-political shifts and alliances, created conditions for Israel’s response to the wars in 1967 and 1973, responses that in many ways undermined Israel’s own Zionist foundations. In some cases, I think that Schweid holds that all “Zionism” today is effectively “post-Zionist,” in part because the conditions that made Zionism viable as a theoretical and practical ideology no longer exist, either in Israel or in the world’s perception of it.
Schweid argues that the shift from a more socialist society focused on collective responsibility to a neocapitalist economic system focused on “egoist” individualism and profits was more than a choice of production or a necessary outcome of transitioning from an agrarian to a technological society. That market shift undermined the cultural and ideational foundations of Zionism as a collective project, moving Israel further away from being the nation-state of the Jewish people to a state of all its citizens. This for him may be the greatest challenge of Zionism. Here I will look at the way Schweid understands the political and cultural shifts that took place between 1967 and 1973, shifts that in his view responded to the new occupation and gave rise to two disparate positions, neither of which in his view can be easily considered Zionist. For Schweid, after the Six-Day War there were two new approaches to Israel’s new reality: (1) the first stage of post-Zionism and (2) messianic Zionism generated by Israel’s victory.
The first stage of post-Zionism was not the post-Zionism that contested Israel’s Jewish character and advocated for Palestinian self-determination. That would come later, after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The first iteration of post-Zionism was more economic: the introduction of Arab labor into the Israeli marketplace. After 1967, the combination of a flood of cheap Arab labor from the territories and the slow abandonment of Israel’s socialist framework, only in its initial stages at that point, yielded a realignment of an Israeli ethos from one dedicated to social cohesion to one focused on profit. One could add that by 1967 a generation of Israelis born in Israel reached adulthood, many of whom began to set their sights on financial success without needing, or wanting, the social safety net their immigrant parents required. In addition, post-’67 Israel saw a larger than usual influx of American immigrants, who brought with them a free-market ideology that would later radically change the country, moving it toward an “American dream” that created a kind of economic post-Zionism that dominates today.
And, Schweid argues, the rise of messianic Zionism on the right did not only have a political impact on the country but a cultural one as well. Religious Zionism, which after 1967 largely became Kookean Zionism, essentially served as a bridge between the religious and secular sectors of Israel. In Abraham Kook, its intent was to redirect secular Zionism to view itself as part of a metaphysical shift, a kind of collective spiritual teshuva. Even if this did not immediately result in a return to tradition, it would reorient secular Israel’s self-understanding. In some way, Abraham Kook offered a metaphysical template for a materialist-socialist experiment. Even given this advocacy of tradition for Kook, humanism continued to play a crucial role in the Zionist project.
As we move into the post-’67 Kookean ideology influenced by his son Zvi Yehuda Kook, the humanism that was built on a secularized version of Judaism among early Zionists now morphed into a more ethnocentric and arguably anti-humanistic version of the older Kookean model. Religion began to serve as a tool and justification of domination and power and no longer a value system that supports humanism. In Zvi Yehuda Kook’s Zionism, Judaism has been stripped of its modern Western foundations, thus disassembling Zionism as Schweid understands it.
Then, according to Schweid, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 moved this post-Zionist process further along exponentially. Apart from the continued move toward free-market individualism, the Yom Kippur War deflated the sense of Israel’s invincibility, eroding “the trust that the people gave to the state and its armed forces to defend it.” In addition, Israel’s allies began to consider the Palestinian cause in ways they had not before, in part because of growing settlements and in part because of other geopolitical interests with regard to the Middle East and its precious resources. Israeli society continued to fragment: There was increased settler activity, promoted by Likud as government policy changed after the 1977 election, and then of course there was the founding of Peace Now in 1978.
The rise of the new Israeli left inaugurated the second phase of post-Zionism that Schweid considers anti-Zionist. While the first phase of secular post-Zionism after 1967 may have eroded the sense of the Zionist ethos of responsibility by choosing Palestinian labor and profit over maintaining the Jewish responsibility of state-building, it maintained the Zionist belief in the Jewish people’s return to its homeland. In the second phase, post-1973, the secular left turned away from the state toward the Palestinian cause. Schweid makes the somewhat problematic claim in my view that Peace Now became more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than to the Jewish perspective. However, it is somewhat obvious that the left soured on the Zionist project as it was now being promoted by the rightist or even centrist government that was increasingly influenced by the religious right.
The Palestinian cause thus became, in a sense, an attempt for the left to recapture what they understood to be a humanistic element of Zionism that had eroded since 1967 for a variety of reasons. In doing so, Schweid believes, they abandoned the nationalist component of Zionism in favor of advocating for an American-style liberal democracy, whereby Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. In short, Schweid claims, the secular left overextended itself to compensate for an overextension on the right. In doing so, the secular left and religious right both failed to enable the Zionism project to continue on Schweid’s terms.
From my understanding of Schweid’s views, it appears to me that these regnant alternatives, encapsulated in messianic Zionism and Peace Now but including all their various gradations, are all operating in a post-Zionist framework. Zionism’s humanism could not survive occupying another people—it had a hard enough time including its non-Jewish citizens—and in some sense, for much of the world, the Palestinian dilemma reframed Israel as an oppressive regime at the same time it was rising to become a major economic and military power. Postmodernity and its diminishing of grand historical narratives and shifting nation-states from collective units to places for individual achievement made it more difficult for secular Israel to find its distinctive identity, especially since religion had moved from being a resource for secularism to being a force for messianic intimidation.
Given all this, for Schweid, it may be the economic shift, as an illustration of a changing ethos, that most deeply struck at the core of Zionism. Schweid is a social democrat, and his view of Zionism as a national cultural project is founded on the basic structure of socialism and democracy as the economic foundation upon which a national collective can best achieve its goals in a nation-state. For Schweid, socialism is not simply the economic ideology of early Zionism; for him, it is the best economic and cultural system to cultivate collective responsibility and a focus on humanistic cultural productivity, more so than the capitalist individualism that underlies the pursuit of profit, wealth, and individual achievement.
Schweid is opposed not to individualism in general, but rather to what he calls “egoist” individualism that puts profit above social responsibility. In some way it is that sense of social responsibility that holds Zionism, and thus Israel as a Zionist nation-state, together. And there is little doubt that in the early years of the state, and even before, socialism through the kibbutz movement and governmental agencies succeeded in building a state that was absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of whom had neither the requisite knowledge nor skills to immediately participate in a capitalist free-market economy. And socialism also provided the backbone for a sense of national responsibility: The state would be the product of Jewish labor and not of the economic exploitation of the indigenous Arab population, even as Jewish labor would not be as economically viable.
Schweid’s jeremiad about neocapitalism and globalization is not a frontal attack on capitalism writ large. He makes a distinction between 19th-century capitalism and the present globalized capitalism by arguing that it is neocapitalism that directly threatens the national project:
The economic theory of neo-capitalism is different in its essence from the national capitalism of the nineteenth century. [Neo-capitalism] is materialistic, and trans-national (global), and substitutes spiritual values for material ones. The practical consequence is the strengthening of economic power that diminishes the state by means of private wealth through free-market competition.
He states his solution quite starkly, even prophetically:
The only possibility for the success [of Israel, or perhaps Zionism] would be a return to monotheistic humanism and notions of justice and responsibility that will enable technological civilization to elaborate its will and ability to balance the good of the individual to the good of the collective, between the rights and obligations of the individual, between individual success and generosity to the other, between the love of the self and the love of the neighbor. This is still the call that was first heard at Sinai. This still resonates in the vacuum of the global village and requires the same kind of response that Jonah received in Nineveh in order to save the poor and the animals he shepherded. Is there a chance that this will be answered, even in part, this time before the world falls into global war?
Schweid’s sweeping assessment of the challenges that face Israel in the coming generations does not evoke great optimism, certainly not in terms of a Zionism that he believes can continue to generate humanism, democracy, and collectivism. The days of Israel’s collective spirit embodied in the kibbutz movement are gone. Israel has emerged as a first-world capitalist power that has benefited from globalization and the corporatization of the world market. Globalization and the dominance of multinational corporations are not going away; Israel is just too good at globalization to pass it up for a return to a social democratic system Schweid advocates. If secular Israel has largely turned away from Zionism’s cultural project, and the religious community in Israel, both National-Zionist and Haredi, have imported their version of an anti-humanist Judaism in its place, where can we look for a cultural renewal fed by the humanistic ethos of Schweid’s modernity? Israel’s success certainly has a price. Perhaps the first step toward finding a solution is recognizing that price. Eliezer Schweid’s later writings have offered his readers such a challenge. Whether we will heed his warning remains up to us.
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Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.