Last week, police charged a group of Israeli boys with repeatedly abusing a
12-year-old classmate, often in the schoolyard. Some of the accused insisted the
girl consented to the gang rapes, which they filmed and posted
This outrage prompted dejected headlines in Haaretz proclaiming
“School system at loss over how to effectively educate against gang rape,” along
with one writer’s absurd suggestion that “The way to curb teen gang rapes” is
“through gender studies as a required school subject.”
The boys’ behavior
is disgusting; their teachers’ impotence, dismaying. A society which cannot
raise moral children is broken. Our educational system is worthless if it
produces dotcom giants but moral pygmies. Our hi-tech wizardry means
nothing without old-fashioned morality.
Parents and teachers are failing.
“Gender studies” and guilt trips won’t work. While youngsters should learn about
women’s perspectives, “gender studies” are too frequently too doctrinaire.
Berating children without cultivating their consciences will produce moral
monkeys who occasionally mimic the right behavior but lack the necessary moral
muscle when facing unexpected dilemmas.
Just as humans need oxygen to
breathe, sex education requires substantive values education to work. Sex
education is too frequently taught in an ethics-free zone, to avoid being
“judgmental,” “traditional,” “inhibiting.” Against today’s toxic pornographic,
anything- goes, if-it-feels-good-do-it Internet and celebrity culture, that
approach is useless.
We can do better. We must teach young people a sense
of right and wrong clearer and stronger than today’s transactional, relativistic
“niceness.” We should cultivate a sense of outrage, denouncing evil. And
we should reinvigorate the notion of role modeling, constantly stretching
ourselves and others. Unfortunately, as modern society became morally
derailed, many Israelis rushed to join the train wreck.
decades, millions trashed moral structures developed over millennia. Even the
modern Zionist ethos of self-respect yielding mutual respect has been abandoned
en masse. Instead, modern individualism prizes self-expression and
self-indulgence as the ultimate goods. Yet individuals flourish when they care
about others, commit to big ideas, and connect to something beyond
So addicted to securing “freedom from” – the delicious
liberation from oppressive constraints – we often overlook the equally delicious
notion of “freedom to,” the meaning derived from the “Three C”s of caring,
committing and connecting. Embracing that “freedom to” helps individuals behave
better, feel freer and stop feeling so empty, alienated and
A Jewish state that cannot help produce good people and
good citizens is a failure. Hebrew, a blue-and-white flag and Jewish holy days
as holidays are not enough; we need a Zionist ethic too. Just as Jewish rituals
help bring alive Torah teachings, the state’s symbols should instill Jewish and
democratic values. Our tribalism must facilitate transcendence; the thick web of
rituals and traditions should anchor us in a better way of life.
I am not
a statist just to create state power; I am a nationalist seeking to stretch us
as individuals by cultivating our cosmic communal goodness honed over
We must recapture the moral conversation from self-promoting
rabbis, self-involved politicians and self-indulgent celebrities. That Israel’s
rabbinate today is better at alienating Jews and guarding its prerogatives than
welcoming Israelis into the rich, ethical 3,000-year-old Jewish conversation is
appalling; sincere rabbis should rebel against these hack rabbis who will even
hire a convicted sex offender buddy to teach at a yeshiva. We need moral
superheroes not kosher police. Rabbinic reformers must save the rabbinate from
That corrupt Israeli politicians confuse not being convicted with
vindication is absurd; honest politicians and outraged voters should shun
crooked pols no matter what the political price. And that too many Israelis
worship superficial celebrities rather than cherishing enduring values is
unacceptable; we need liberation from this modern enslavement, which recently
led parents to host, at their son’s bar mitzvah, a famous singer who parties
with underage girls. All the parents I know try raising their children with some
sense of categorical right and wrong. Yet, many of these morally- rooted
toddlers become teens adrift, steeped in our nihilistic popular culture, lacking
supervision or moral anchors as counters. This parental negligence borders on
Israelis should use our majority’s reverence for tradition
to reinvigorate our national moral code. Religious Israelis should look to
Torah, emphasizing how we treat each other, finding the godliness in goodness.
The minority of truly secular Israelis could study the traditional kibbutz ethic
or HaShomer Hatzair’s updated Ten Commandments as a modern moral
The vast and growing majority of Israelis who appreciate tradition
could learn Ethics of the Fathers, encountering traditional rabbinic wisdom
strikingly relevant today or Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s teaching about “Hadar,” personal
discipline and glory broadcasting individual and communal pride. Arab Israelis
could read the Koran or the Christian Bible. In future rounds, different
communities could switch texts, learning from each other.
With that in
mind, cursing “Sylvester” as a Jew-hater who helped ban Jews from Jerusalem in
324 CE, recalling that Janus, the two-faced Roman deity who inspired the month
of January, represents humans’ capacity for good or ill, and acknowledging that
we all live awash in secular influences, let’s have a massive Jewish ethical
teach-in today, January 1.
Let’s temporarily turn off all the televisions
and video games and cell phones and computers that broadcast so much cultural
rot – with revolting, insensitive, sexual messaging. Instead, parents and
children should learn moral texts rooted in our tradition about being good and
doing good. Let’s force our children to stop wallowing in the toxic, sexist,
desensitizing filth beamed into their ears and bombarded before their eyes.
Instead, let’s dip with them into the wisdom and virtue of our greatest teachers
and humanity’s eternal truths. Maybe then, we all might have a happy and decent
secular new year.
The author is professor of history at McGill University
and the author of eight books on American history including, most recently,
Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by
Oxford University Press.