Transforming oneself in order to contribute to society
In most of the interviewees’ stories, social engagement is described as a relatively new facet of their lives. While many of them were public or semi-public employees in their first careers (teachers, social workers, military persons), they rarely
Coaching for the nation 99 see their former work in the public sector as a significant form of social engagement or contribution to the welfare of society. Moreover, virtually none of them mentioned contributing to the common good of the nation (or just 'zionuf, as this kind of altruistic motivation is usually called in Israel) as a central motivation for their early career choices. This seeming contradiction is explained by the institutionalization of the pioneering ethos in the transition to statehood, which turned collectivism from a voluntary, grassroots ideology to a chief principle of government (Rozin, 2011; Shafir & Peled, 2002). For many interviewees then, entering public service was an opportunity to pursue their individual professional aspirations in what was still a state-centered economy (Maman & Rosenhek, 2012; Shafir & Peled, 2002; Shalev, 2000). It was also a common occupational path for middle-class Ashkenazi young professionals entering the workforce in the late seventies and early eighties.
Take for example the case of Nirit, a coach in her early sixties. A social worker by training, she worked for more than twenty years as a public welfare official in her hometown social services office. During her tenure there, she became acquainted with the pensioner population and its specific problems. As her interest in this age sector grew, she started to think about new ways to help them beyond the existing institutional frameworks, but she did not dare to leave her secure job and to embark on an independent project. It was only through her personal experience of coaching that she took courage and made the first steps in that direction:
Only when I started studying coaching and it shook all the furniture inside my head and ordered them in another way... and suddenly I realized that everything is possible, everything I want. [...] We learned to set goals and have dreams and develop visions. I knew that I wanted to establish a pensioners’ centre, because there is not such a thing in Israel, and in this centre I want to let pensioners and their families come and get advice and get a push for starting the journey, what do we do when we retire. And I dreamed about it in such a way that it excited and enthused me so much, so I decided to take a sabbatical year.
In Nirit’s story we find again the same entanglement between individual selfdevelopment and collective commitment. As we learn from the above quote, Nirit’s involvement in coaching did not lead to withdrawal into the private sphere, but reinforced and opened new possibilities for social engagement, as she used her newly acquired ability to ‘set goals and have dreams and develop visions’ in order to contribute to society. Moreover, her newfound realization that ‘everything is possible’ sparked a renowned interest in direct political participation and in recent years she has been involved in the Israeli pensioners’ party and even ran for office.
Nirit’s stoiy of renewed social and political engagement following her training as a coach is far from unique. Other coaches also related how the selftransformation they experienced through coaching made them more emotionally available and skilled for pursuing interests beyond their own selves. As Tami, a coach involved in local politics told, ‘when you feel complete, peaceful,
accomplished, successful, you have something to give others. [...] I think that if it were not for my work as a coach I wouldn’t get too far [in politics].’ In a telling reversal of the sociological critique of therapy, many interviewees talked about how in their previous lives before the discovery of coaching they were extremely self-absorbed and preoccupied with their own private issues. Their excessive focus on the self and its problems did not leave room for thinking about social and political issues, let alone do something for the nation’s common good (even if in their daily jobs as public servants they were actually engaged in such endeavour). It was only after they studied coaching that they started to look beyond themselves and became preoccupied with the fate of Israeli society. By instilling in them new empowering beliefs, qualities and abilities, coaching allowed them ‘to put the head out’ of their ‘little’ private fears and troubles and get involved in public life (see also Salmenniemi et al. and Perheentupa in this book). As Yael, a coach and lecturer on feminist issues, told, being a coach taught her ‘to keep silent, to listen, to be there for someone’, to be less stressed-out and fearful, and this in turn was reflected in her activism for the sake of disadvantaged women.
In this sense, it seems that for the last republican generation, the turn to coaching does not signal a further turn away from the collective, but rather reconnects it (both practically and emotionally) to its historic role as a service elite who sees itself as responsible for the fate of the nation. But as we will immediately see, the form of contribution to the nation’s common good that its members now endorse is far from the old Labor Zionist collectivistic repertoire. Instead, as Nirit’s dream of a pensioner's centre shows, their social initiatives espouse and reproduce the neoliberal language of entrepreneurship and individual choice.
Collectivistic entrepreneurship: fostering individual change in the service of the nation
As shown earlier, contribution to the common good of the nation is a central motive in the interviewees’ stories of involvement in coaching. Some of them even described their coaching activity as a mission (shlichut)* a personal calling to act in the benefit of society. But as I already hinted, the kind of contribution they have in mind differs from earlier collectivistic endeavours in significant ways. First, in contrast to the days of Labor Zionist political and sociocultural hegemony, in today’s neoliberal Israel it is they (as private but concerned citizens), not the state, who get to choose what the national goals are. Since the mideighties, the Israeli state has largely withdrawn from its role in welfare provision and its vacant place has been occupied by a whole field of NGOs, in a process that has been referred to as ‘the NGOization of civil society’ (Herzog, 2008). Initiatives like Nirit’s pensioners’ centre, Kobi’s integrative clinic for families and children and Liora’s project of coaching at school, among others, adopt this logic of action and concentrate on niches of activity that were formerly under full state responsibility and have been increasingly privatized in recent years. Hence, whether in the Labor Zionist past members of the veteran Ashkenazi elite were ‘called to the flag’ in order to perform national missions defined by the state, now they follow flags of their own liking. But still, these flags are nonetheless national and collective, not individual.
Second, for most interviewees contributing to the nation's common good is less a matter of participating in collective endeavours or engaging in outright political activity (though as we saw in the cases of Nirit, Tami and Yael, there is also room for that) than of fostering individual change and self-development. Hence, although they often voiced ardent political criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu's right wing government and policies during the interviews, they seldom spoke about the need for profound structural change, especially in economic matters. This is less due to feelings of political powerlessness than to their structural position as the ‘winners’ from the liberalization of the Israeli economy (Ram, 2008; Shalev, 2000). Thus, while they sometimes decried the ‘excesses' of the capitalist turn in Israel and the retrenchment of the welfare state, for the most part they did not want to go back to the old Labor Zionist 'socialist' model. Instead of political, structural change then, they conceived societal change as stemming from the ripple effect of individual transformation. As Dov, a coach in his early sixties, argued:
I think that when someone undergoes coaching and comes to it to make a change from a positive place, the change in the end influences his family group, also his extended family, also his group of friends, also his community.
According to this approach, if each of us understands that ‘things must start from the person’ (to quote Liora) and takes responsibility for himself, the nation as a whole will benefit. Like with Adam Smith’s invisible hand, the sum of each individual’s autonomous efforts will result in a maximization of the common good (see Klin-Oron, 2014 for a similar argument from the field of spiritual channeling in Israel). Dov provides a vivid example of this neoliberal approach when he describes his project of establishing a ‘school for entrepreneurs’ that will provide business coaching to small business owners and developers. He came to the idea after he learned that a majority of small businesses in Israel close down after one or two years of activity. While he acknowledges that large economic forces beyond any business owner's control impact on his chances to succeed, he ultimately blames their failure on a lack of entrepreneurial skills. As he says, ‘if forty-four thousand businesses closed [last year], this means that at least forty-four thousand people made a mistake at some point.' By teaching them how to navigate a constantly changing economy and think in a strategic, entrepreneurial fashion, he hopes not just to help each individual business owner but to make a significant impact on the national economy. As he explained:
One of our thoughts regarding the school for entrepreneurs that we want to establish is that the more successful businesses there are, it contributes to GNP [Gross National Product] in the end. That is, it helps also at the national level.
While most interviewees did not frame their national contribution as coaches in such an explicit and articulate way, the enlistment of coaching’s neoliberal individualized therapeutic approach to the solution of what they saw as national problems was far from unique. Interviewees often described coaching as a new gospel that can provide innovative answers to Israeli society’s most acute problems, such as educational underachievement, social inequality, poverty relief and social and political polarization. Even Israel’s arguably most intractable national problem, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was deemed a legitimate target for coaching intervention. As Haim, a very active coach in his mid-sixties, explained:
I started with the vision that this work will cross borders and I will be able to make some kind of impact in countries beyond our political side. [...] Coaching creates bridges of communication between people, both within themselves and with others. That is, we can learn to send to each other travelers instead of missiles [both words sound similar in Hebrew], tourists instead of terrorists. Being able to learn how to agree while we have disagreements in many areas and to respect the fact that we disagree, that he thinks X and I think Y. and I will respect him that he thinks X and he will respect me that we think Y and we don’t have to kill each other. And through this coaching approach, this coaching language, I really believe that it’s possible.
In this excerpt, Haim provides an interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the therapeutic ethos of communication (Illouz, 2008). In his view, the key to avoiding violence is to create ‘bridges of communication’ between both sides of the conflict by fostering open dialogue and acknowledging and respecting their mutual differences. In this way, he simplifies a national problem with complex structural causes and scales it down to the individual level, much like Dov did in the small businesses case. By reducing it to a problem of (miscommunication, Haim depoliticizes the conflict and makes it amenable to therapeutic intervention.9
But as I have argued throughout this chapter, the adoption of coaching’s highly apolitical and individualized language by members of the last republican generation like Haim does not mean that they have withdrawn into their private affairs and lost their stakes in national issues. If we pay close attention to Haim’s words, we can discern the use of the collective ‘we’ when referring to the Israeli side of the conflict. This use of the collective ‘we’ betrays a sense of belonging to a bigger collective, an almost natural identification with the nation. In forging a vision to use coaching to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Haim is not acting as a private individual but as a representative of the nation, a self-appointed ambassador of peace. In this sense, I would like to argue that his turn to coaching does not signal a rupture in his commitment to the nation nor a sense of alienation from the collective (Ram, 2000), but rather provides him with a new and more effective tool to fulfil his schlichut as a member of Israel’s service elite. Therefore, much like in the other cases I presented in this chapter, the neoliberal logic of coaching does not stand alone, but is enlisted to and interwoven with this generation’s republican mission to contribute to the nation’s common good.