It is the end of summer, so thousands of young Israelis have now completed the
first few weeks of their initiation into the IDF. As their parents exchange
stories they’ve heard from their newly inducted children, one gets a fascinating
peek into some of the challenges facing Israeli life.
On one base, an
army rabbi addressed the new recruits: “You have come to a school for the
killing of terrorists,” he told them. The young man who related this story was a
bit perplexed. The rabbi was technically right, but was that all he had to say?
“Nothing about Israel or why we’re here in the first place?” the young man
The kid was right. Those soldiers should have heard more,
especially from the base’s rabbi. But they didn’t.
There is no denying
the permanence of the war in which Israel is entrenched evokes hopelessness,
then bitterness, then ugliness. As the new school year begins, it is therefore
worth asking ourselves who in this society is going to change that; what
educational institutions need to be created so that a more sophisticated,
nuanced and decent Israeli discourse can evolve.
Why the urgency? Because
the war in which we find ourselves is not going to end. The terms you use don’t
matter. You can say “West Bank,” or “Judea and Samaria.” You can call it
the “occupation,” or the “ancestral land of the Jewish people.” You can believe
that the Israelis captured it in war but should now relinquish it, or you can
believe that God bequeathed it to the Jewish people. It makes no
For here is the reality, like it or not: The Israelis are
here to stay.
I say this not because the Israelis should be here to stay,
and not because we shouldn’t. I say it because it’s simply likely to be
Just days ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated that
Jerusalem is a Christian and Muslim city and that there will be no peace until
the Jewish settlers depart Jerusalem. All the Jews want, he continued, is to
“destroy the Aksa Mosque and to rebuild their alleged temple.”
calls our Temple “alleged.” It’s tempting to dismiss his comments as simply
playing to his crowd, but that would be a mistake. For if that is what his crowd
needs to hear, then with whom, exactly, will the deal be forged? If not with the
“citizens” of the Palestinian Authority, is it with those in Gaza who voted for
Hamas? Most Israelis say we could withdraw to the 1967 lines tomorrow and would
not end the conflict. It would simply bring it closer to our homes and to the
runways of Ben-Gurion Airport.
I say this with no glee. With two sons in
the army, the knowledge that my children’s children will likely also go to war
is devastatingly sad. I wish matters were otherwise, but they are not. Yet there
is nothing that the Israelis can do to change the Palestinian myopia. All we can
do is to survive, and to struggle to maintain our decency in the
I wonder about those someday-to-be grandchildren. Will they
really go to war? Or will they choose to leave, not because the specter of war
makes life here unbearable but because of the ugliness of this society? Those
who wish to minimize the horrific recent Jerusalem “lynch” point to the fact
that Jews rarely attack Arabs. That’s basically true – though not as true as
they suppose. But still, that’s scant consolation. For even if the actual
attackers were among the dregs of society, which appears to have been the case,
that can surely not be said for the dozens of onlookers who did nothing to
Nor is it just the occasional horrific incident. Drive in the
West Bank, particularly in areas far from the Green Line, and you see graffiti
everywhere, including just outside Arab villages, which says “mavet la’aravim”
(death to the Arabs). You can see it in certain places inside the Green Line,
too. Is that what we’ve become?
Talk to our soldiers. It’s not just that
horrifically unsophisticated army rabbi who spoke about a “school for the
killing of terrorists.” The problem runs deeper. In army parlance, “Arab” has
come to mean not only “enemy,” but “worthless.” There’s a fine line between
speaking about Israel’s enemies and having conversations that devolve into utter
racism. In times of war, the line understandably gets crossed even in decent
societies. Good, honorable American soldiers developed a visceral hatred of
Germans and Japanese during World War II. You could hear “Kraut” and “Jap” (and
worse) everywhere you went.
But that war ended and America moved on. Our
problem is that Israel’s war is not going to end; not in our lifetimes and
possibly not in the lifetimes of our children. So our educational challenge is
tougher than was the challenge for the United States. The US “merely” had to win
the war and assume that the moral danger would pass. Israel does not have that
luxury. We face an educational challenge that most other countries do
not, and we have not even begun to address it. Even among Jews, discourse in
this country is harsh, ugly and mean.
SO HERE’S what matters: Who is
going to create educational institutions that will consciously foster ongoing
and serious discourse between Left and Right, between secular and religious,
etc? In what institutions of higher education will we seek interaction with the
other and work to frame civil discourse? Where will Israel’s best students study
great books and ideas, Western and Jewish, and think together about what kind of
society to build here? Not because we will agree with each other, but because at
the very minimum, we need to learn to see the other as human, and because we’re
in this together.
Can Israel create more passionate, patriotic citizens,
religious and not, right-wing and left, who are nauseated by graffiti that says
“mavet la’aravim”? Can we foster a society that is willing to send its sons and
daughters to war, but who, if they saw an Arab being attacked in the streets of
Jerusalem, would rush to his or her aid? Do the present universities in Israel
see creating a new Israeli civic leadership as part of their challenge, their
They don’t. Ask them; they’ll tell you so unabashedly. So
someone is going to have to. Not in summer or pre-army one-year programs, but in
extended multiyear programs for the very best of Israeli students in the
intellectual primes of their lives. Shouldn’t the Jewish state have at least
some institutions which have that as a goal?
All the prattle about “ending the
occupation” is simply not useful, for there is nothing we can do to end it. What
we can and must do, however, is to frame a new question, one that should concern
both Left and Right, religious and secular, dove and hawk: What kind of a
society is emerging here? Is this a place in which our grandchildren will want
to live if they have a choice?
If the answer to that question is “perhaps not,”
then let us be brutally honest: It won’t really matter if we can hold our
enemies at bay, because the country we’re protecting won’t be worth having in
the first place.
The writer is senior vice president and Koret
Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His book Saving Israel
won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. His latest book, The Promise of Israel:
Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, has just