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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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.

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When Dads Are Barred from their Daughters’ Basketball Games – Improvise Reasonable Accommodations

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-3-12

On Sunday night, the Efrata national religious elementary school hosted two other national religious schools – Yehudah HaLevi and Evelina — at a girls’ basketball tournament. Although the hometown heroines from grades three and four got shellacked in the first round 34 to 6, it was a delightful scene. Five brothers, with silly hats, a tom-tom drum, and much exuberance, cheered their sisters. This being Jerusalem, encouraging calls from the Moms and Dads to “get that rebound” or “take that shot,” rang out in Hebrew and English. Yet, alas, this being Israel, the very presence of the cheerleading brothers and fathers was controversial. This was an improvised, alternative tournament.  The original official Hanukkah tournament limited entry to “Nashim BeLvad,” women only.
This story lacks the drama of other headline-generating events. There are no spitting-bullies or offensively-inappropriate yellow stars, no rocks thrown, not even voices raised. But this incident is instructive. Like the Bet Shemesh neighborhood conflict, this struggle is dividing the religious world. Like more and more episodes, it started with a subtle shift, a creeping assertion of the most expansive religious interpretation into the most innocent of realms. Yet, unlike so many occurrences, its happy ending reflects the kind of civic engagement and problem-solving we need to make this diverse, chaotic, old-new, Jewish-democratic, disputatious, audacious, hi-tech shtetl called Israel work.
“Why are they sexualizing our daughters so young,” asked Naomi Wurtman when she received the flyer advertising the original tournament. Naomi is the friend and fellow Efrata parent who invited me and my daughter to Sunday night’s game. She circulated an email saying “I have no need for my nine-year-old to be turned into a sex object and every need for her father to be able to proudly watch his daughter play a sport.” The broader issue, of course, is “the censoring of girls and women out of every sphere of life in Jerusalem.”  Other offended parents mobilized.  Although the tournament was not organized by the school, such gender segregation violates the unspoken covenant, the basic ground rules, for parents sending their children to national religious schools.
Ultimately, the solution, with the principal’s blessing, reflected what Quebec calls “reasonable accommodation.” Two tournaments took place, accommodating two parallel populations. This solution was better than letting the more extreme minority impose its demands, because competing values are at stake. Living together does not mean the most maximalist religious interpretation always wins. Members of the national religious community should not always feel trumped – the most rigorous reading of Jewish law is not necessarily the right or righteous one. (A lesson many religious people should remember when they look left).  At the same time, Jews in particular should make sure the majority respects minority needs.
The current tensions around the ultra-Orthodox can be resolved with vision, leadership, and civic action. For starters, all Israeli Jews should affirm two mutually reinforcing principles – the Jewish value of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, and the democratic value of every citizen, in fact, every human being, having basic rights and essential dignity. Anyone who appreciates those values could not spit, curse or throw rocks at fellow human beings, no matter their age, gender, lifestyle or dress code. Anyone who appreciates those values would work hard to respect their fellow citizens’ and fellow Jews’ freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. A country committed to those values would make some of the concessions Israel has made to the ultra-Orthodox, while also setting some limits.
This generous vision requires bold leadership.  Benjamin Netanyahu should stop acting like a ward heeler and act like a national leader, stop tending the coalition and shape a communal response. Here, the virtuous move is the shrewd move. He could marginalize Kadima and Labor if he could start defusing the growing tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. But to do that, our risk-averse prime minister must take risks.
Using the power of the purse, and exploiting the hierarchical nature of ultra-Orthodox society, Netanyahu should call a summit of leading Haredi rabbis. He should threaten their precious Yeshiva subsidies and other government goodies if they don’t start policing their hooligan extremists. He should also demand a new social contract between Haredim and the Jewish state, detailing responsibilities not just rights, and imposing some core courses in basic skills into their educational curriculum.  If Netanyahu plays this right, even if this coalition falls, he could settle in for a long spell as prime minister.
Finally, Israelis should follow the examples of the Efrata parents and of civic activists like Jerusalem City Councillor Rachel Azaria – even as she remains in herem¸ excommunicated from Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition for courageously confronting gender segregation on Jerusalem’s streets.  Israeli citizens from all sectors should protect their rights, their prerogatives, as the Efrata parents did – as the Bet Shemesh parents are doing. They may occasionally have to work harder to come up with the right solution, the reasonable accommodation, the creative improvisation.
And we all should start building bridges too. In particular, national religious Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews have much that unites them not just issues dividing them. They should seek out points of contact, at Shabbat tables and in other settings, to share pleasant experiences not just talk through points of tension.  I, for one, would relish the opportunity to spend a Shabbat meal with a Haredi family, to aid my campaign to stop my children – and too many friends – from viewing all of “them” as unpatriotic parasites feeding off the state who exploit the Holocaust and young kids to score cheap political points.
Basketball can wait. Let’s be good Jews and start by eating together, talking together, learning together, accommodating each other.
Odelia Wurtman and Dolev Gorlin.  Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman
Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”