Begin x 100 + Ben-Gurion x 40 = Proud Israelis and Jews


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-19-12

Education Minister Gideon Saar has announced curricular plans across Israel to celebrate the centennial next year of Menachem Begin’s birth and the 40th anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s passing. This is a commendable move in a country that is so indebted to these two leaders and is so in need of Zionist inspiration. Yet the announcement triggered a sourpuss Ha’aretz headline: “Arab educators in uproar over plan to study Begin and Ben-Gurion.” Not only should the Arab schools welcome this educational initiative, the celebrations should reach into the Ultra-Orthodox schools—and be embraced by Jewish educators worldwide.

By deepening our collective historical memory we can build Jewish identity, Zionist identity and Israeli identity, using these world-class statesmen as inspirations. Both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were among the twentieth-century’s great leaders, who believed, as Ben-Gurion put it, that leadership entailed giving people what they needed, not what they necessarily thought they wanted.  Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, dominated Zionist and Israeli politics in the 1940s and 1950s, shaping modern Israel. Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, fought hard to establish Israel, then revolutionized it, making Israeli politics more traditional, more capitalist, more Sephardic in the 1980s.

These were noble, self-sacrificing, passionate, charismatic, occasionally prickly, scholar-politicians, as bold as they were literate, as eloquent as they were visionary, each of whom led modest lives and both of whom hated each other.  To visit Ben-Gurion’s hut in Sde Boker, to see the living room furniture on display at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, is to encounter useful role models today in the fight against materialism To read their speeches is to learn about the Biblical echoes that infused the origins of the Zionist movement, to tap into Zionist idealism, and to learn compelling Jewish, Zionist and universal ethics of work, community, state-building, dignity, and self-defense.

Both these heroes remain controversial. Learning about Ben-Gurion includes learning about his ugly decision to attack the Altalena, the supply ship chartered by his rival Begin’s Irgun laden with weapons the fledgling Israeli army desperately needed. The Altalena’s sinking alienated many Beginites, but unified Israel militarily.  Similarly, learning about Begin includes learning about his violent turn toward attacking British soldiers and Arab irregulars in the 1940s, with attendant loss of innocent life.

Educationally, the Begin and Ben-Gurion life-stories invite students into many illuminating conversations. By celebrating these two lives together, we can start building a Zionist and Israeli consensus. Israelis need to be reminded of the grit, the values, the motivations, the moves, and the occasional mistakes and excesses, that helped spawn their state. Ultra-Orthodox and Arab educators should not opt out. They benefit from the State and need to learn about it – and its heroes. Citizenship, especially in a democracy, entails being rooted in your country’s story, engaging its history, affirmatively and critically.  It is a form of educational starvation to raise Israeli children without teaching them about foundational figures like Begin and Ben Gurion – just as there are foundational documents and foundational ideas every citizen should know.

Most outrageous was the Arab educators’ counter-proposal to study the lives of Abdelrahim Mahmud and Edward Said instead. Mahmud was a fiery Palestinian nationalist poet who died in the 1948 war fighting Zionists.  Said was the Palestinian professor who claimed that Westerners were Orientalists oozing condescending contempt for Arabs.  In exploiting the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency” to view the Israeli-Palestinian local conflict as part of a global struggle, Said helped cast Israel and all Westerners as inherently racist, colonialist, oppressive. Using those two as educational role models would alienate young citizens-in-training from their state, rather than fostering a constructive civic Israeli-Arab identity.

Arabs and Haredim should understand this initiative as a mark of respect.  Countries with diverse population should grant communities autonomy tempered with responsibility. Israeli Arabs and Haredim operate within the social contract that makes a country work. Tax-supported Arab and Haredi schools should teach about their particular cultures, worldviews and heroes – with Arab schools handling the difficult stories of 1948 and 1967 delicately, with nuance. But for citizens of Israel to become good citizens they also need a common vocabulary, common ideas, shared experiences. Learning key civic ideas, and meeting certain founding heroes educationally, is part of the essential educational journey.

Similarly, the Begin-Ben Gurion commemorations in 2013 provide a great opportunity to improve Israel-Diaspora relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invested heavily in Heritage Sites – and should make sure the Begin Center and the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute are frequently visited and well-funded.  “A crisis in values is threatening our collective identity,” Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser wrote in the 50-page outline of the Heritage Plan. “A new generation of Israelis, for whom the Zionist experience is foreign, takes their lives here for granted and is being raised in an environment of cultural shallowness with dwindling knowledge and spirituality.” This plan does not seem to have given much thought to bringing Diaspora Jews into the conversation. Without adding much money, simply by thinking more ambitiously, setting our sights not just on sites but on heroes, values, and a renewed narrative, with annual celebrations of different anniversaries, we could leverage the work already being done and create a Zionist Heritage platform for the entire Jewish people.

Great heroes are like good books – they tell important stories, deliver valuable ideas, embody important values, stretch us and unite us, providing common points of reference. Commemorating Begin and Ben Gurion is an opportunity for community building, among Israelis and among Jews. These two anniversaries will not solve the existential challenges of Israeli citizenship or Jewish identity. But if done right, the celebrations will contribute to the important educational mission of raising constructive Israeli citizens and proud Jews.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Honoring the Alchemy of Education: Israel’s Honorary Doctorates


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-12-12

What do the scientist Howard Cedar, the historian Deborah Lipstadt, the Israeli Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, the industrialist Eitan Wertheimer, the sociologist Robert Putnam, the Nobel prize winner Dan Shechtman and the singer Yehoram Gaon have in common? These are among the luminaries reminding us that it is honorary doctorate season again at Israeli universities. The newspapers are filled with lists of super-duper high achievers being celebrated for jobs well done and lives well lived.

Honorary doctorates are often distributed at commencement ceremonies to salute particular heroes, emphasize certain defining values, and introduce graduating students to inspiring role models. The juxtaposition of young graduates embarking on their careers with impressive individuals who have already made their mark reminds us of the alchemy of education. We remember that watching others frequently stretches us and that success is not preordained – each of these honorees sweated, suffered and improvised, surviving and thriving in challenging environments.

The seven mentioned – of dozens being honored this spring – offer a broad celebration of modern Israel’s values. Professor Cedar, a top geneticist, represent Israeli science’s extraordinary achievements while Shechtman, the iconoclastic chemist, shows that Israeli greatness is finally being recognized. Wertheimer, of Iscar, now owned by Warren Buffett and Berkshire-Hathaway, represents Israel’s invigorating entrepreneurial climate.  Justice Joubran represents Israel’s muscular legal culture and great strides towards equality in welcoming Israeli Arabs into leadership positions. Gaon represents Israel’s delicious creativity and the commitment of some celebrities to use their fame for public service. Professor Lipstadt, the historian who confronted the Holocaust denier David Irving, represents Israel’s great partnership with the United States and the happy consonance of Jewish, Zionist and academic values, while Putnam, the Harvardian who taught us that this generation likes to Bowl Alone, unlike our more communitarian parents, represents the sweep of achievements in the humanities worldwide. These worthy superstars honor the institutions that honor them.

Missing from the lists I examined for this year were leading politicians – reflecting the current state of political despair. For all its strengths epitomized by its impressive universities, Israel is enduring a leadership vacuum and a crisis of popular confidence in politics. As in the US, many Israeli voters doubt their leaders or their institutions can solve the serious problems afoot. Universities are sometimes happy alternatives, and, frankly, sometimes ugly mirrors reflecting what goes on – as my Jerusalem Post writing colleague Seth J. Frantzman reported last week. The phenomenon of what he calls “Incitement U” is a serious problem demanding frank discussion and creative reform.  Frantzman was called a “collaborator” at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev last week for daring to think politically incorrect thoughts – backed up by research — about Beduin land claims. Still, during honorary degree season, even Israeli universities usually are on their best behavior.

In a more ambiguous category are the many honorary degree recipients who earned their honors by donating generously to the university. On the one hand, philanthropy is a fancy name for Tsedakah, righteous charity, and should be rewarded. Universities need the help; generous benefactors deserve the thanks. Giving generously in a contemporary culture of self-indulgence which makes few people ever feel like they have accumulated enough is an act of heroism and selfless commitment to the next generation. The usual honorary degree mix of genius academics, general high achievers, and generous donors itself represents the tripod on which the academy stands – pure knowledge, pragmatic action, and community spirit.

At the same time, the “look Mom, I bought a doctorate” game fools no one. As the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes in his illuminating new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the game is a form of corruption: “Money can buy things, but only in somewhat degraded form,” he writes. He then imagines what would happen if universities were honest, saying at the degree-granting ceremonies to a wealthy donor: “We confer honorary degrees upon distinguished scientists and artists for their achievements. But we award you this degree in thanks for the $10 million you gave us to build a new library.”  Of course, “the transparency would dissolve the good.” Instead, Sandel notes, universities “speak of public service, philanthropic commitment and dedication to the university’s mission – an honorific vocabulary that blurs the distinction between an honorary degree and a bought one.”

Blessedly absent from the Israeli honoree community are those absurd salutes to the famous – simply for being famous. In recent years, American universities have devalued their honorary degrees by granting doctorates to Shaquille O’Neal, Jack Nicholson, and Dolly Parton. Such awards often thrill parents, students, alumni and donors, giving them opportunities for celebrity namedropping back home – but they demean the process.

Six years ago, Knox College granted the television comedian Stephen Colbert an honorary degree. His best career advice for students, he said, was: get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.”

Fortunately, Israeli universities, especially these days, are not honoring the jack squatters but the thinkers, doers, and builders of today and tomorrow. Even without any rah-rah blue and white speeches, even without quoting Herzl, these ceremonies are profoundly moving Zionist acts. They tell the story of a society that is growing, that is contributing to the world – and recognizing the world-class achievements of others. When we pull back the historical lens and consider that these universities were not established in 1249 like Oxford or 1636 like Harvard, but mere decades ago, when we remember all the traumas and travails, we should not only salute the honorees, not only praise the universities, but hail the Jewish people and the entire Zionist enterprise.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Gil Troy: Speech at the Young Judea Year Course 2011-12 Closing Ceremony


Gil Troy’s speech at the YC 2011-12 Closing Ceremony

The Jerusalem Studio School Pioneers Art Zionism


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-31-12

A remarkable community of artists from across the United States is rallying around a Jerusalem art school, demonstrating this small school’s outsized importance in the world of figurative painting and art education. Top American artists donated nearly three dozen paintings for a February 21 auction at New York’s Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects to help the Jerusalem Studio School (JSS), an art school founded in 1998 that ran a deficit for the first time ever last year due to an incompetent, spendthrift CEO. The outpouring affirms the important artistic and educational vision of the art school’s founder, Israel Hershberg.  The broad embrace – like the school itself – demonstrates another platform for supporting Israel, Art Zionism.
“You know, I usually fall for the siege mentality,” says Hershberg, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Austria to two Holocaust survivor parents in 1948 before ending up in Brooklyn. “But this really restores my faith in humanity. You have all these artists, many non-Jewish, coming to help. And non-Jewish buyers, who have started buying in the pre-auction (at, saying ‘I am so happy to support a school in Jerusalem.’”
The generosity represents a tremendous, intercontinental vote of confidence in Hershberg himself, a leading figurative painter whose works can be found worldwide, be it in the Israel Museum, the Marlborough Gallery in New York which represents him, the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa or the Imagawa Contemporary Art Collection in Osaka Japan. Raised in Israel until he was nine, but trained as an artist in the dazzling New York scene of the 1970s, Hershberg and his artist wife Yael Scalia moved to Israel in 1984, where they raised six sons.
In addition to his world-class paintings, which bring a colorful clarity to everything from a cow’s tongue to a chameleon, and an absolute poetry to his landscapes, Hershberg has a strong, countercultural vision of what a good art education entails. Appalled by the sloppy indulgence in much of the art world valuing trendiness over inner need, tradition, or refinement, Hershberg is delightfully old-fashioned. He believes art students should learn by being in conversation with the great masters, with the great artists who preceded them.  He teaches his Master Class students by having them draw from the human form and transcribe masterworks, trusting that once they master the skills and a full command of pictorial language, they can soar ahead on their own. And they have. Over fourteen years, the school has taught hundreds in its master class and evening classes. Today, those students carry on the great tradition of figurative painting, teaching others, working with top galleries, even displaying their own work in museums.
“We have sown the seeds of an actual visual culture that never existed here before,” Hershberg explains. “There was no painting that was perceptual or observational or representational that was engaged in a serious dialogue with the masters of the past.  Originally, Israeli art was a way out of doing that, stifled by the ethos of ‘Want of Matter’” – the stark, naive, once-dominant Israeli art movement – “and all a reflection of that chasm.” When Hershberg established the JSS, he explains, for the “first time Israel had a school that was steeped in visual culture – with a pedagogical culture of teaching. No one had that kind of training before, it was practically taboo here.”
This bold approach and quality results have generated enthusiastic endorsements worldwide. Artists praise it as “one of the best schools for art, anywhere,” and “the real deal.” The realist painter and blogger Larry Groff, from San Diego, said that learning from Hershberg “was a profound experience and opened up whole new directions for my work.”
The word “Jerusalem” is an essential part of this Studio School’s identity.  It is a national institution, suited to the nation’s capital, drawing Israeli students from across the country, from Mattat in the Upper Galilee to Beersheba in the south, many supported with generous scholarships. It is an important part of the century-long story of Zionist rebirth, which included an artistic and aesthetic renewal, with an annual landscape marathon that every year draws a leading artist from abroad to coach the students as they paint on-site in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of today and the Jerusalem of old. And it is a typically Israeli symphony of clashing symbols somehow harmonizing with each other in this old-new land, this special-normal place, including the school’s majestic Hall of Casts, 32 plaster replicas of classical sculptural masterpieces situated in its humble home in industrial Talpiot across from the dreary Hadar mall. “We want to acknowledge Jerusalem as a world class cultural center, not Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem has the rich past, the associations,” Hershberg says. “New York is always ‘go’; Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, these classical cities are ‘on pause,’” allowing people to absorb, to experience, to remember.
In supporting the school, where my wife Linda is a student and a new board member since the recent administrative reforms, she and I appreciate the opportunity to practice what she calls “Art Zionism.” Too much of today’s conversation about Israel obsesses about conflict, crisis, challenges. In doing its thing, in expressing Israel Hershberg’s vision, in teaching young Israelis how to be great artists, in putting Jerusalem on the map in the conversation about what great art is and what quality art education should be, the JSS offers a safe, non-political, thoroughly normal and yet exceptional platform for supporting Israel – and beautifying the world. Zionism dances between the past and the present, the old and the new, the cutting-edge and the traditional, the mundane and the profound. The Jerusalem Studio School helps point the way to a new conversation and appreciation about what Zionism is — and can be.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

Birthright Israel is a profound and transformational experience

By Gil Troy, Haaretz, 5-18-11

(In response to “Birthright Israel tours are insulting young Jews’ intelligence,” April 29 )

Anshel Pfeffer is a thoughtful, passionate journalist. But in his recent caricature of Taglit-Birthright Israel he succumbed to writing-by-punchline, painting a superficial portrait of an experience that is much richer than he suggested.

Taglit-Birthright Israel offers young, frequently alienated, Jews a jumpstart in their Jewish journeys. To assume that its tours are “one-size-fits-all,” “saccharine,” “sanitized,” or “infantile,” as the writer charged, is to miss the profound educational process, both formal and informal, underlying the experience.

Taglit-Birthright Israel weaves together sites, experiences, and discussions that provide a concise “bird’s-eye” overview of Jewish history, Israel as a modern Jewish and pluralistic state; Israel as a rich laboratory for Jewish arts and culture; and glimpses of the role environmentalism plays in contemporary Israel.

The Taglit-Birthright Israel Jewish experience is far more vibrant, exuberant and welcoming than the Judaism many experienced before, and the interactions that participants have with tour educators or medics, bus drivers, or each other create soul-stretching, mind-blowing, identity-transforming conversations.

Finally, participants’ encounters with Israeli soldiers are far more than the “fun treat” for overworked soldiers that Mr.Pfeffer alleges. I have witnessed numerous intense, often emotional, encounters, where soldiers shared some of their traumas and participants realized how similar yet different the two groups are.

Since Taglit-Birthright Israel began 11 years ago, demographers have discovered lower intermarriage rates and higher rates of both Jewish and Israel engagement among participants. Anecdotally, the overwhelming majority of more than 250,000 Birthright alumni testify enthusiastically to undergoing substantive, and usually transformational experiences. I began as a Taglit-Birthright Israel skeptic who wrote a critical article about the program when it was first launched. I now chair Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee.

Prof. Gil Troy

Professor of History at McGill University

Bold change is an opportunity

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 3-24-11

Question: “How many congregants does it take to change a light bulb in a synagogue?” The answer is: “Change? You vant we should change the light bulb? My grandmother donated that light bulb!”Change is never easy – personally or communally. Most of us like our lives, habits, institutions – or at least are so addicted to them we fear the unknown. As informal, democratic structures keeping our traditions alive, Jewish communities frequently resist change – even when they need it. And Jewish institutions are particularly loath to change themselves – particularly when they are still functional. Usually, we change when it is too late – failing to move deliberately ahead when strong and instead scrambling chaotically, reactively, when weak.

Aware of the challenges in changing, the Montreal Jewish community has, nevertheless, bravely launched the unification of JPPS-Bialik and UTT/Herzliah into a new, innovative, centre of educational excellence to create Montreal’s New Community School.

The visionaries behind the initiative understand the difficulties involved in combining two educational institutions, each with a proud past and distinct personality. The challenge is ensuring that 1 + 1 does not equal 1 – shrinking two institutions into a third, but to make 1 + 1 = 3, creating an institution that is bigger, better, bolder than the two were separately, when 1 + 1 only yielded 2.

The Montreal Jewish community needs a flagship school reflecting the character of Montreal’s unique community. In the 20th century, Quebec’s linguistic obsession yielded schools often defined by the languages they emphasized. A new school suited for the 21st century starts with the assumption that Jewish identity is about who we are not what language we speak. This school will reflect the central value of klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish People, that broad connection we feel one to another by sharing that noble title “Jew,” while making them deep, passionate, literate Jewish patriots, committed to our shared sense of community with a common heritage and common values.

Simultaneously, we have diversity within the unity. The new school will accommodate – and nourish – different languages, different traditions, different levels of observance, different communities of origin – while maintaining high standards of excellence and a tone not just of mutual respect but of community solidarity. Students will go deep, reaching into the particular traditions, ideas and Jewish expressions they bring from home, that anchor them, while also going broad, weaving their particular thread of home heritage and observance into the rich communal tapestry that unites Montreal Jews – and Jews worldwide.

The phrase New Montreal Community School says it all. “New” – it will be cutting edge. “Montreal” – it will reflect Montreal’s uniqueness as one of the most Jewishly literate, committed, activist, Zionist, multi-lingual, diverse communities in North America. “Community” – in an age of extreme individualism, disposable relationships, and the lure of the here and now, Judaism is about community, continuity, commitment – which cultivates and roots an individual. And “School” – by learning together, volunteering together, living together, students can benefit from the greater resources one thriving educational centre can offer while maintaining their particular identity. And in age of fragmentation, when everyone wants to know if you go to a Reform school or a Conservative school, if it is Ashkenazi or Sephardi, to be able to answer, “Yes, it is a community school,” could be a great peoplehood platform, a great way of reminding us that the core values, the defining narrative, the central rituals, the rich civilization – the Montreal Jewish community – uniting us is more significant, resonant, lasting than whatever differences we might have.

Other communities have succeeded with community day schools – Boston, London and – dare we say it – Toronto. Montreal’s time has now come to create this while preserving Montreal’s special character.

Another light bulb joke: “How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: “30. One to change the bulb, and 29 to discuss it, yelling conflicting instructions to the person changing the bulb.” This bold change is an opportunity to have a communal conversation about what community means, what Judaism means, and why we should send our children to Jewish day schools in the first place. Rather than staying on the sidelines complaining, parents, students and alumni should line up to help write this great new chapter in Montreal’s history, saying, “Hineni, here I am, how can I help?”

Ian McEwan Missed the Real Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, February 22, 2011

The delegitimization campaign tries to rob Israel of its normalcy, poisoning the conversational stream about Israel so everything becomes about settlements, occupation, conflict, violence.  This Palestinian conceit makes everything about Israel be about Palestinians, exaggerating their hardships, caricaturing Israelis as uniquely evil, rooting every Middle East problem in one local conflict. Those of us seeking a peaceful two-state solution should explain that both a delegitimized Israel and a Palestinian culture of victimization are obstacles to peace.   Woe-is-me self-pity and righteous indignation discourage generosity; feeling demonized or demonizing your enemy prevents compromise.


To resolve this conflict – like all conflicts – truth, nuance, subtlety, complexity, criticisms, contradictions and moral clarity are our friends.  In that spirit we should welcome the British novelist Ian McEwan, who accepted the Jerusalem Prize at Sunday night’s opening ceremony of the Jerusalem Book Fair as a friend to Israelis and Palestinians. Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat sounded pathetic in telling McEwan: “We appreciate your decision to come to Israel despite many pressures.” She should have welcomed him more grandly, less defensively, to a country that “embrace[s] freedom of thought and open discourse,” which administers “the Jerusalem Prize as a tribute” to its “precious tradition of a democracy of ideas” – which was how McEwan described Israel.

In accepting the prestigious prize, McEwan impressed the crowd with his magnificent soul and eloquent tongue — an artist who believes in the novel’s liberating power and a novelist who believes art can reveal truth. Nevertheless, when he stopped talking literature to talk politics, he sounded naive.

Unlike most British intellectuals who simply condemn Israel, McEwan acknowledged that “hostile neighbors” threaten Israel. He condemned Hamas’s charter for incorporating “the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and repudiated “the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns … of an extinctionist policy towards Israel.”

Still, seeking “balance,” his indictment of Israel was sloppy and superficial. He said “It is nihilism to make a long term prison camp of the Gaza Strip,” exaggerating Gazans’ suffering and implicitly blaming Israel when the 2005 disengagement could have spawned a free, prosperous Gaza had the Palestinians built one. He blamed “Nihilism” for “unleash[ing] the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories,” when it was self-preservation. And he claimed “East Jerusalem is steadily being drained of its Palestinian inhabitants,” when East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population jumped from 66,000 in 1967 to 268,000 in 2008. B’tselem reports 22 houses demolished with 191 people displaced in 2010, hardly a “drain.”

This is not to claim that Israel is beyond criticism – zero demolitions and displacements are ideal. But incorrect albeit trendy criticisms undermine McEwan’s search for “creative” paths to peace. More deluded was his claim that Jerusalem “lacks … small talk,” because “politics enters every corner of existence.”  Perhaps when a famous novelist defies boycott threats to visit, he only hears politics. But Israel’s charm – and part of the conflict’s messiness – comes from being a country of small talk, middling lives, and tall tales, making it livable for Arab and Jew alike.

No, Mr. McEwan, Israel is not only defined by the conflict. Seeing Israel through that lens exclusively is like seeing England only throughLondon’s fog – everything appears grayer, grimmer.

Israel’s rich, complex, sometimes depressing sometimes inspiring but surprisingly normal life was demonstrated dramatically in Tel Aviv, the same night McEwan spoke in Jerusalem. A premiere of “Strangers No More,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school showcased an Israel of messy problems and creative solutions, of soaring aspirations and impressive achievements.

Bialik-Rogozin educates more than 800 children from 48 different countries who have landed in Israel as refugees or as children of migrant workers.  The film follows three students through a school year – one 12-year-old from Eritrea never attended school before. This school of hugs and hope accepts kids the world has rejected into a loving, stimulating, embracing multicultural refuge where Hebrew functions as the cultural touchstone and linguistic safety zone. “In education, there [are] no strangers,” the principal, Karen Tal, explains. “Everyone has a special story,” their own traumas. “We cannot change the past.” But “we can influence our future.”

This prophetic principal, these gallant teachers, undertake heroic efforts for “their kids,” making house calls, buying them bicycles, arranging visas for parents. “This is my life, this school,” Mohammad from Darfur exclaims. “I feel like I’m with my family here.”

The legendary hi tech investor Yossi Vardi supports the school. Vardi is a myth-busting pioneer with a heart of gold and a platinum rolodex, er contact list. Years ago, he proved you could make money with Israeli start-ups. Now, by mobilizing his many friends and considerable resources to teach these kids, he is showing that Israelis can take responsibility for themselves philanthropically – and that not everything about Israel is about Palestinians.

Noting that for the last three years, an Israeli film concerning some aspect of “HaMatzav,” the situation, was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the President and Founder of S-Curve Records, Steve Greenberg, ended the evening by praising the film – and Vardi’s army of do-gooders — for focusing on the real Israel. Even more important, Greenberg said, these visionaries prove that no matter what Israel’s challenges, the Jewish impulse toward “Tikun Olam” can mend the world – making great art out of life’s difficulties while using great art to heal life’s difficulties – just as McEwan and other great novelists do.

Vardi’s army proves that Israel is not merely an Embattled State or a Start-Up Nation, but what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute call a Values Nation.  Vardi’s people, like many Israelis, live in prose, making small talk – while also making grand, healing gestures which ennoble us all and reveal the real Israel.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

Oases of Israel excellence at IASA and elsewhere

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-19-11

Tragically, an Israeli epidemic of mediocre teachers, undisciplined students, unsupportive parents, unyielding bureaucrats and unchallenging curricula is spawning many dysfunctional classrooms and failing schools. Although we also see fabulous teachers, stimulating classrooms and well-run schools, the educational mediocrity my children have experienced has been our greatest disappointment in Israel. Shrieking teachers, wild classrooms and pointless tests demoralize students. 

When I complain about Israeli education, most Israelis say, yiheyeh beseder, it will be OK. They insist good families nevertheless raise good children; besides, the army straightens every one out. This characteristic insouciance, while admirable, also yields a sloppy improvisational ethos celebrating the cut corner over the job well done.

Traditional Mapai socialism confused individual ambition with indulgent elitism, high standards with bourgeois values. Today, while Israel could use more Ben-Gurionesque collectivist idealism, Israel needs centers of excellence to stretch our minds, our souls, our selves, individually and collectively.

In Jerusalem, poetically located between the Malcha mall symbolizing modern Israel and the Biblical Zoo, lies one oasis of excellence, the Schusterman Campus of the Israel Center for Excellence through Education. The campus honors the Oklahoma-based miracle-workers Lynn and the late Charles Schusterman. This marvelous initiative unites American philanthropic do-gooders like the Schustermans and IASA’s founder Robert Asher with visionary Israelis to change the world. 

Visitors most notice the 200 or so students attending the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA, “Madaim ve’omanuyot” in Hebrew). This high school is a magical mix of Zionist summer camp and Harvard. Students hail from 100 different communities, including Christians and Muslims, religious Jews and secular Jews. Tuition assistance guarantees that anyone admitted can attend, harmonizing excellence with egalitarianism. Even with high standards, frequent tests, and crushing workloads, the school is a surprisingly happy place, featuring class talent nights, silly bonding games, and a warm family feeling uniting students and staffers. 

“This school is much more intense than other schools I attended,” says one satisfied student. “The teachers have high expectations. There are consequences if you don’t do your work.” But students feel motivated, she explains, because these teachers are so creative and dedicated: “they don’t just teach to the bagrut,” the matriculation exams that undermine so much high school learning, “they are teaching for the sake of learning.” Science entails intensive lab work supplementing classwork. Literature class often involves following authors’ footsteps. Recently, Meir Shalev guided students through the battle sites in A Pigeon and a Boy. Describing the volunteer work in distressed communities, and the dormitory life with its group-building and values-clarifying activities at night, she sums up the school’s mission: “To be excellent in every way.”

Recently, when the Army’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashekanzi visited, the students followed through on their school’s culture of voluntarism by protesting cutbacks in pre-army volunteer opportunities. 

“This commitment to excellence in all dimensions is an expression of our Zionism.” Hezki Arieli, the chairman of the board explains. “When we founded the school twenty years ago, excellence was a dirty word in Israel, considered elitist. Today, Israelis – and people around the world – look to us, and to Israel in general, as a center of excellence.” 

Arieli spearheads the Center’s other initiatives, which include running educational summer camps; organizing in-school enrichment programs, Excellence 2K, in 250 Israeli schools; developing curricula; and teaching teachers. The Center now exports excellence to India, Singapore and North America, where 150 schools, half Jewish, half not, use the Center’s math and science curricula. “Once educators from Singapore asked me ‘how do you do it?’” Arieli recalls. “’We don’t just want to teach our children to pass tests, we want them to be creative like you, to be considered for Nobel Prizes like you.’” Arieli explained the Zionist ethos of “ein breira.” “We have no choice but to use our wits. If we lived in a rainforest we would not need this,” he said, stopping at one of the ubiquitous drip irrigation systems that make this desert bloom, “But without water, you devise a solution. Lacking natural resources, our only major exportable resource is brainpower.” 

Seeking a new image, early Zionists considered the People of the Book too passive, vulnerable, victimized. Today, as the Israel miracle matures, we understand that the secret of Israel’s success has been remaining People of the Book, surviving and thriving with our collective smarts. But what kind of book will our foundational text be? We fear our children are becoming the people of Facebook, addicted to false friends, fleeting experiences, virtual values. We need a new Torah for today, rooted in the best of our tradition, responding to contemporary realities, and facing the future boldly, creatively, humanely, Jewishly, virtuously. 

Fortunately, the Israel Center for Excellence through Education is one of many brilliant flowers blooming in Israel today. We see the zeal for aesthetic excellence in the renewed Israel Museum, which its director James Snyder explains, “not only brings together the best of the East and the West, but has become a model for other museums. Even before the economic downturn we decided to make our recent ‘campus renewal’ project a $100 million refurbishing initiative rather than a half-billion dollar or billion-dollar tear-down-and-rebuild project. Now, colleagues worldwide are studying our alternative model.” We see the zeal for spiritual excellence in cutting-edge synagogues like Jerusalem’s Shira Hadasha, which, while pioneering an Orthodoxy empowering women, has top quality volunteer cantors and sermon-givers. We see the zeal for intellectual excellence at the Shalom Hartman institute, which runs its own superb schools while pushing Israel, the world’s start-up nation, to become the world’s values nation too. 

I have firsthand knowledge of each of these oases of excellence, representing this growing trend. For, I am not only a happy Zionist but a proud (and relieved) parent. The satisfied IASA student is my oldest daughter.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”