Heritage Sites Should Not Be Political Hot Potatoes

Bibi’s ‘exercise in survival’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-28-10

The storm in Israel and around the world kicked up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Heritage Program is doubly unfortunate. It distorts Israeli politics, perceiving everything through the Israeli-Palestinian lens. It also clouds an important shift; finally, our leaders are addressing this country’s values crisis and the need to build a strong Zionist identity among young Jews both here and abroad.

Last Sunday, Netanyahu took his Cabinet to Tel Hai, the Upper Galilee settlement where the early Zionist hero Joseph Trumpeldor died defending what became Israel’s north. Mortally wounded in 1920, Trumpeldor supposedly said, “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.” Ninety years later, Netanyahu returned to Tel Hai to teach young Jews that it is even better to live for one’s country.

Netanyahu allocated nearly NIS 400 million to rehabilitate 150 historical sites, both ancient and modern, which tell the story of Israel and modern Zionism. The next day, Netanyahu explained to the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors: “We’re just presenting the facts… the actual facts of the growth of Zionism, the return of the Jews….”

Building on the success of Birthright Israel and the MASA programs, Netanyahu wants young Jews, from Israel and abroad, to “actually walk this land – walk it, sense it, feel it, study about it, learn it directly – [as] we say in the army, ‘through the boots’ – through the boots but also through your eyes, through your brain and through your heart, to learn about our heritage and to make that heritage part of the foundation of our future.”

Logically, in offering a triptych of Jewish history, Netanyahu included Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem, and Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron. Alas, anger over improving those two West Bank sites upstaged the necessary discussion regarding the remaining 148. Israeli leftists, Palestinians and the Obama administration denounced Netanyahu for including those sites. The attacks perpetuated the late terrorist Yasser Arafat’s classic conceit, trying to make everything about Israel about him and the Palestinians. And once again, the alleged pro-peace camp missed an opportunity to push talks about the territories to a more realistic plane.

The Israeli left made a mistake of historic proportions – paralleling its failure to ensure that every settler displaced from Gaza in 2005 was welcomed back to Israel within the Green Line smoothly, efficiently and warmly. The traditional burial places of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel are as essential to Jewish history as George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello are to American history. Negating that fact negates Jewish history and offends Jewish sensibilities.

No one should seek territorial compromise by diminishing the value of these and other sites to Jews. The compelling pro-compromise argument should be: “Yes, Hebron is one of our holiest cities. Yes, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb are precious to us. But yes, nevertheless we are willing to give those up for peace.” Pretending they have no value distorts history and cheapens the compromise the left claims to champion.

Moreover, in making the Heritage Program another Israeli-Palestinian flashpoint, the Israeli left once again self-destructively risks making patriotism, Zionism and Jewish identity right-wing issues rather than common concerns of the Jewish people. During their successful presidential campaigns, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008 refused to concede family, flag and faith to Republicans. In a powerful Independence Day speech at Harry Truman’s hometown of Independence, Missouri, Obama described his “deep and abiding love” for America, insisting “there’s nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America’s traditions and institutions.”

Israeli governments, right and left, should have launched a Heritage Program long ago. In Israel, and abroad, too, many young Jews are seduced by the siren song of modernity, by the lure of “I” over “us”, “now” over “then”, the fleeting over the eternal. Modern life makes many humans feel like random atoms floating around rather than complex molecules bonding together – more grounded, effective and powerful. With social ties diminished, social capital plummets. The result is an identity crisis, a values crisis, addiction to the Internet, growing violence and sexual abuse, family breakdown and epidemics of immorality, cynicism, materialism and selfishness.

It is no coincidence that the moral crisis for Jews in the modern world, our mass meaning crisis today, follows the mass abandonment of Jewish tradition, values, rituals and structures. We have created a “whatever” culture, a “why bother” society, generations of Jewish pagans addicted to the me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, now-now-now shopping and leisure imperatives. And despite our many blessings of freedom, comfort, safety, prosperity and serenity, medical breakthroughs and enlightenment, we must acknowledge the mass social wreckage modernity has wrought, the many broken souls, the many derailed lives, all our goodies, all our indulgences somehow produce.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is right to root young Jews in our history, our community, our dreams. Similarly, Minister for Diaspora Affairs and Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein should be applauded for offering to train Israelis traveling abroad how to fight the growing push to delegitimize Israel. A sense of responsibility fosters a sense of community. And Netanyahu’s appointee to the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, should be praised for trying to revitalize that organization around an identity agenda.

In his Soviet prison, Sharansky discovered that Jews and Pentacostalists who belonged to a community and a larger narrative found it easier to stay true to themselves and defy the KGB. We must define what Jewish identity means in the 21st century while cultivating mass pride of membership in our historic enterprise, the Jewish people.

Netanyahu called his Heritage Program “not merely an exercise in education,” but “an exercise in survival.” We can find salvation in more Jewish education because Jewish education is not just about learning the facts but mastering life. Jewish education is not just about thinking, but also about doing. Jewish education is not just about understanding the world but also fixing it – Tikun Olam. Jewish education is not just about skill-building but identity-building.

In short, Jewish education is values education – and that is the added value Jews need, both young and old. Treat these Heritage sites as invaluable Jewish educational tools not political hot potatoes.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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