Orit Rozin's The Rise of the Individual in 1950s Israel: A Challenge to Collectivism. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2011. xxi + 254 pp.
by Adi Gordon, University of Cincinnati, October, 2012.
The book revisits Early Israeli Collectivism in the Age of Privatization.
The transition from Zionist Yishuv to a Jewish state, Rozin shows, was also a shift from voluntary collectivism (embodied by the halutz [the pioneer]) to centralized collectivism (“personified by David Ben Gurion,” p. xvi). This later type of collectivism, however, was collectivism from above, made possible by the establishment of the state and arguably rendered necessary by the immense challenges of mass immigration. Israel’s austerity program, for example, though intended to achieve concrete, practical economic goals rather than ideological ones, could be seen by the uncritical eye as a natural continuation of the Yishuv’s collectivist ethos, especially due to what Israelis initially made of it once it was put into practice: “According to the rhetoric of the political Left and part of the Right, austerity was a way not only of lowering the cost of living but also of constructing the collective identity based on the principle that the strong should sacrifice some of their pleasure to help the weak” (p. 6)....this is probably the book’s main argument--the seminal moment of the early Israeli “individualization process” was in response to such paternalistic policies: a reaction to this type of state-centralized collectivism in Ben Gurion’s Israel, with its ostensible disregard for the individual Israeli citizen and his or her rights. Increasingly, both ordinary Israeli citizens and the political opposition spoke in defense of individual civil rights of Israelis. Rozin understands this trend as part of Israel’s embrace of Western liberal values (p. 197). Interestingly, however, she does not locate this transformation in the distinctive worldviews and political traditions of the newcomers, but rather she focuses on the changes in the veteran society. And even when examining veteran Israeli society Rozin does not look for these new trends primarily among the “bourgeois” and conservative opposition. Indeed, she stresses that “[t]he most important of these [trends], the weakening of voluntary collectivism and the strengthening of individualism, took place within the labor movement” (p. 194). Even though the book’s drama is clearly set in early statehood, I wish it made greater effort to locate the discourses of collectivism and of individual rights (and even the discourse of hygiene) also in Jewish history beyond 1950s Israel.The Rise of the Individual in 1950s Israel is a work of a cultural, social, and to an extent, political history...[in] Part 2, “In the City Square,” explores the cracks in Israel’s collectivist ethos as further manifested in two election campaigns: the municipal elections of 1950 and the second general (Knesset) elections of 1951. Though Mapai’s hegemony was confirmed, these elections--with the remarkable success of the General Zionists, who almost tripled the numbers of seats in parliament and became Israel’s second-largest party--must be understood in the context the opposition’s “well-planned … campaign, which played off citizens’ anger, frustration, and resentment at the austerity regime” (p. 119). Indeed, in Ben Gurion’s age of Mamlachtiut (statism), the General Zionist platform stood out for its foremost commitment to individual civil rights (“We view individual freedom as a fundamental condition for the development and prosperity of nations” [p. 101]). The shift, then, was not only in voting patterns, but in generating “a discourse of rights” which transcended party lines, and as result “Mapai had to change in order to adjust to the harsh state of the economy, as well as to the demands of … the middle class” (p. 130). Rozin concludes that “In the face of the difficulties of daily life at the time [Israeli] citizens felt that they were not free to live their lives as they wished...” (p. 135).