How Israel Transformed from a Land of Common Sense to a Bastion of Formalities

Back in 1993 I was a visiting professor on sabbatical at the then Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement of Wisconsin University, Madison (co-chaired at the time by the late George E. P. Box (1919-2013) and Soren Bisgaard (1951-2009)). On Friday mornings the offices in the building, where the center was located, were mostly empty, and so was the affiliated huge parking lot. One stormy and snowy Friday, I drove to my office at the Center and parked my car in the (nearly empty) parking lot. I went all the way to the building entrance only to be alerted by the guard that one of the rear wheels of my car crossed the white line. I was politely but firmly requested to re-park properly. Grumblingly I complied.

Later, I thought at length about this incident. It was clear to me that such could not have happened in Israel, the seemingly lawless country where drivers routinely cross parking lines, even when this may deprive someone else of a scarce parking space. It was also clear to me why such an incident could have happened in the US but probably not in my home country. With the large-sized population that the US is, no law-and-order could have been maintained unless all members adhere strictly to the democratically formed laws and regulations; And to ensure that— strict enforcing of the law is needed, even when occasionally it contradicts simple and straightforward common sense (as was the case with my ill-fated parking).

Contrast this with my home country, Israel. With its relatively small-sized population, where everyone knows everyone else, Israel has until recently been a land of common sense and personal responsibility, where state-regulating of human inter-relationships was scarcely needed, just as no formal laws are required to regulate relationships within a healthily managed family. The void created by absence of formal regulations for human inter-relationships had been filled, in the just born Israel, by simple and straightforward common sense and a strong sense of personal responsibility. These, I believe, later provided some of the “Infrastructure” for the pop-up of the “Start-up Nation”.

Another example, still current, for the distinction between the two cultures/countries, stemming in my judgement from the same source (population size and other sources, soon to be elaborated on), is personal profiling at airports. While strictly forbidden in the US, Israel Airports Authority, with relevant governmental security agencies, have analyzed real data to ascertain what characterizes a potential terrorist, and accordingly has developed a system of personal profiling that delivers unequal treatment to people boarding a flight. Common sense, supported by evidence provided by statistical analysis and expert opinions, has again gained upper-hand while defying an accepted norm (“all human-beings are created equal”), often reflected in the formality of the law.

Those times, when inter-relationships among members of the Israeli society were “regulated” by common sense and personal responsibility, those days seem to have changed dramatically in recent years. For me personally, this was brutally and suddenly manifested some years ago when the Knesset (Israeli parliament) passed a law that required employers to provide chairs for employees serving at exit payment counters. That such a law was needed was for me a source of great sadness and disappointment; And the start of a thought process regarding the transformation that Israel is being currently going through.

How has this happened? How has Israel transformed from a land of common sense and personal responsibility to a fortress of formal law and regulation?

There are four sources for this transformation.

The first turning point, I believe, was the judiciary revolution, implemented one-sidedly by the Israeli Supreme Court, starting in the early eighties of the last century. Probably the immediate trigger for this revolution was the loss of trust on the part of the Israeli public in the ability of its leadership to provide personal security (namely, taking correct decisions facing the active animosity of Israel’s neighbors). With the disaster of the Yom Kippur War (1973), and later the entanglement of the IDF in Lebanon following the First Lebanon War (1982), loss of public trust in Israeli leadership created leadership vacuum into which the then president of the Israeli Supreme Court stepped, implementing gradual historically well-defined changes that drastically shifted the balance of power between the legislative and the judicial branches of government. Good reviews of these developments have been recently delivered by Tel-Aviv University Law Professor Daniel Friedman and by radio host Yoram Sheftel (both Hebrew).

Concurrently with this re-balance of distribution of power, various new legal concepts started to appear that have migrated responsibility for inter-relationships amongst members of the Israeli society from the personal sphere to the formal comfortable environment of the court of law. Time-honored concepts, representing recognized violation of the law, like rape, stealing and bribery (via transfer of money), have been enormously expanded in the form of new ambiguous concepts like “sexual harassment”, “Deception” and “Breach of Trust”, traditionally considered to reside in the realm of morality-oriented human relationships. Possible deviations from accepted social norms suddenly could find repair not in the realm of personal responsibility, human inter-relationships and common sense, but rather relegated to the judicial system, where loosely-defined concepts could unrestrainedly and loosely be implemented in order to bring individuals before a court of justice. An over-riding term in this new world order is Ha-Kol Shafit (“All is judgeable”, namely, any issue can be brought before the Supreme Court).

To appreciate the severity of this development, the shift from personal responsibility to the dominion of state-law, one needs only view Israeli news bulletins on main Israeli TV outlets: One often sees individuals being interviewed, with face covered and voice distorted, spewing out personal recriminations (against other individuals), which, instead of being straightened-out where they belong, namely, in the realm of personal responsibility and responsible inter-relationships, ultimately find their way to a court of justice.

But there is another deeper source for the transformation that the Israeli society has undergone, escaping from common sense and personal responsibility to the safe and re-assuring warm shelter of the formalities of the law. That source had already been well articulated long ago by the Jewish psychologist and intellectual Erich Fromm (1900-1980) in his book Escape from Freedom (known in Britain as Fear of Freedom).

With the cumulative fatigue in the Israeli society of the on-going struggle with the active animosity of its Arab neighbors, near and afar, a certain desire for escape-from-freedom, escape from making free-will choices, has taken root. Its most apparent manifestation is the growing desire to treat moral free-will decisions the same way that one treats “Law of Nature”. We all live in two worlds, the “World of Law of Nature”, where law violation is immediately penalized (try defying the gravitation law‼), and the “World of Randomness”, where no law of nature is seemingly active so that free-will can be exercised. Human relationships mostly belong to the latter. When we relinquish the authority to make decisions regarding human inter-relationships to state law, we move free-will decisions from the “World of Randomness”, where they belong, to an artificially created duplicate of the “World of Law of Nature”— the “World of State Law”, where no free-will needs to be exercised. Thus, state law is inserted into a sphere where it does not belong, the “Randomness” sphere, eliminating the need to exercise free-will. How convenient and comfortable, in the age of the smartphone and the fading need for personal contacts, to treat human relationships and personal moral decisions as though they are subject to some “Law of Nature”, only this time in the form of “State Law”.

Escaping into the shelter of state law and regulation, where someone else makes decisions for us according to how much the latter have been violated, this transition into escapism has transformed the Jewish state from a land of common sense to a bastion of formalities, where personal morality, free-will and common sense are substituted by state law.

There is a fourth dimension to this transformation (besides the judicial revolution, the fatigue generated from neighbors’ animosity and the human-natural escapism from free-will). The Jewish people has, throughout history, been willingly bound by its covenant with the Divine, as articulated in the Torah and later continuously repeated by the Jewish prophets: “And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:6); “You are my witnesses, says Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen…”..”therefore you are my witnesses, says Jehovah, and I am God” (Isaiah 43:10,12). A dramatic change has occurred in the eighteenth century and later, with the enlightenment movement in Europe that emphasized reason and science, and with the Jewish emancipation, when Jews finally were recognized as entitled to equality and to citizenship rights.

As a result of these and some other factors that played role in the secularization of the Jewish people, most Jews in Israel today conduct a secular way of life. Under the umbrella of the Jewish faith, there is Divine demand to conduct moral life associated with free-will: “I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). With this Divine command, for moral personal relationships out of free choice, vanishing (in Israeli secular society), what is the alternative for the secular Jew? The solution is genius: Treat decisions you have to make in the “World of Randomness”, where free-will should be exercised, as though they belong in the “World of Law”, albeit not “World of Law of Nature” but rather “World of State Law”. This elegant and all-encompassing solution, a pale substitute to the Divine command, allows the non-believing Jew escape from personal freedom-of-choice, mandated within the Jewish faith, into the comfort of non-free-choice, as it exists in the world of “Law of Nature” and mimicked via “Law of State”.

A good illustration for the escape from “Divine Command” into “State Command”, exercised in the secular Israeli society (and indeed in all Western democracies), is provided by a comparison of slander laws in the two spheres (Jewish faith and a Western-style democracy). While Jewish law defines slander as negatively talking truth about a third side (Leshon Ha-Ra), state law defines slander as making negative false assertions (about a third person). Personal moral responsibility, empowered as Divine command (Torah slander), is replaced by state-law slander, a variant of “Deception”, as a legitimate basis for a legal procedure. Personal responsibility in human inter-relationships gives way to the formality of the law.

These four sources, the judicial revolution, fatigue from the need to make free-will choices confronting the on-going animosity of neighbors, and a resort to escape-from-freedom, strengthened within the Israeli secular society by abandoning the Divine command to exercise personal moral free-will (“therefore choose life”), all these developments have transformed Israel, from the land of common sense and personal responsibility, it once was, to the embodiment of state-law formalities that, to a large extent, it currently is.

Recognizing this reality may be a first step towards a desirable reverse transformation.


This post appears on Times of Israel:

Haim Shore_TimesofIsrael_How Israel Transformed from a Land of Common Sense to a Bastion of Formalities_January 27 2019

It is given below (for better readability).


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