Learning from our Failures

, April 2, 1989

  VP:85    

Peoples as well as individuals can learn at least as much, if not more, from failures as from successes. Successes are usually just enjoyed; rarely are they analyzed to see what made them work. Failures, on the other hand, if we are aware of them (and we are not always aware of them), bring us up sharp and lead us to learn what we can do to do better next time. The real test of a successful community or polity is whether or not it has self-correcting mechanisms, not whether it always gets things right the first time out. In order to develop those self-correcting mechanisms, it must learn from its failures.

Failure to Establish and Maintain Standards

For the Jewish people as a polity, there are at least four areas of failure from which we can learn. One is our failure to establish and maintain standards now that we have both power and pluralism. Like it or not, we have returned to power from powerlessness, and we have pluralism and are living with it. Now we have to face the problems that both bring, including the problems of establishing and maintaining standards of how we utilize power and of how we harness pluralism.

Pluralism by itself is no more of a self-justifying activity than is power. Pluralism is a reality, a necessity for human development in democratic societies. None of us would wish to do without it, just as we do not wish to do without the power that is necessary to achieve control over our own destiny. Morally, however, pluralism is more of an instrument than an end in itself, a means to reach some higher goal.

Failure to Practice Prudence

Second is our failure to practice prudence in what we do. Our tendency is to be absolutist in our public positions. This may be a habit we acquired when we were powerless and, having no responsibility, could dream undiluted dreams. Our visions could be absolutist visions because we were never called upon to carry them out. But the failure to practice prudence now that we can and must take action within the new world of power and pluralism in which we live moves us to adopt “all or nothing at all” positions which are impossible to achieve in the real world. This affects us in every one of our activities — in our politics, our religion, and our community activities — in all too many ways. It is especially dangerous whenever issues of real importance are at stake.

The great success of the Zionist movement in our time has been the degree to which it managed to overcome this absolutist proclivity of Jews in favor of greater pragmatism. That is how we finally got our state. But even though we have been able to be pragmatic, we still have not learned to be prudent. Until we have prudence as well as pragmatism, we are going to be the authors of many of our own problems.

Failure to Settle in Eretz Israel

Our third failure is the failure of the Jewish people to settle in sufficient numbers in Eretz Israel. We would not be concerned about the situation in Israel the way we have to be now were there one or two million more Jews in the land, if 10 or 20 percent of those Jews now living in the diaspora would have chosen to settle in Israel.

Not that we lacked opportunities that challenged us to do so. First we were given the Balfour Declaration which, along with the British conquest of the land, opened a window of opportunity after World War I before the Arabs turned hostile, and we did not come. Then we achieved the establishment of the State and the opening of the doors to all Jews freely and we did not come. Then we won the Six-Day War and established ourselves in the entire land west of the Jordan, and we still failed to take proper advantage of our opportunities. Now we are going to have to make hard decisions that we would not have to make if we had taken proper advantage of the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland.

Failure of Judaism to Adapt without Splinteri

About Daniel J. Elazar

Professor Daniel J. Elazar (1934-1999) was a leading political scientist and specialist in the study of the Jewish political tradition, Israel, the world Jewish community, federalism, and political culture. He was Professor of Political Science at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he founded the Center for the Study of Federalism, and held the Senator N.M. Paterson Professorship in Intergovernmental Relations at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, heading its Institute for Local Government. Professor Elazar was the author or editor of more than 60 books, and founded and edited the scholarly journal Jewish Political Studies Review.