Message for young Jewish leaders: Engage, think and argue

In your 10 months with us, we have not shown you a perfect Israel.

July 3, 2013 22:05
Israeli youth celebrate outside the Damascus gate on Jerusalem Day

Israeli youth celebrate on Jerusalem day 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The following is an excerpt from a speech given at the graduation ceremony of the 2012-2013 class of the Israel Government Fellows program of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. The group comprised 23 university graduates from the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Russia, France, the Netherlands and Austria.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri spoke to us a few weeks ago about Herzl’s novel Altneuland. And this is indeed an old/new country. A 65- year-old state for a 3,000-year old people. Across this city there is archaeological evidence of Jewish history going back almost to the very beginnings of Jewish life here.

Israel is a modern democratic state, and it is the nation state of an ancient people.

It is a state with remarkable achievements to its name: Building a modern economy; becoming a world leader in hi-tech and medical technology; developing a thriving cultural life with internationally acclaimed novels and award-winning movies.

All of these would have been extraordinary and admirable for a 65- year-old country that didn’t have to devote so many resources to defending its citizens from hostile neighbors; that hadn’t set itself the task of ingathering hundreds of thousands of its Diaspora population from every corner of the globe.

Whether or not you believe in miracles, this is a country of miraculous achievement.

But, in your 10 months with us, we have not shown you a perfect Israel.

That reality remains for the future.

What I hope we have done is to get you thinking about what we have to do get there.

At the end of this ceremony we will close with “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem. I want you to just think for a moment about one line: l’hiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu – To be a free people in our land.

A free people. Zionism wasn’t just the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, it was the return of the Jewish people to being the masters of their own fate. For 2,000 years, we were a powerless minority, and we all know what that meant for too many Jewish communities, on too many occasions. But it also meant that our responsibilities were limited.

Now, we are a free people. But free to do what? With freedom comes responsibility.

How should we run our economy? What role should religion play in public life? How do we relate to our Arab minority? What about the future of Judea and Samaria, the settlements, the Palestinians? Iran? Each of you has your own view on how Israel is managing these challenges.

We have not presented you with one answer. We’ve thrown you headfirst into the debate going on here in Israel between Right and Left, between Jews and Arabs, between religious and secular. You are Jewish leaders of tomorrow. You will decide for yourselves where you stand on these issues. It is not for me or anyone else to tell you what to think.

But I do ask you to remember three basic tenets when making these decisions.

Tenets that I think are fundamentally Jewish: Be true to yourself, never stop asking questions, and don’t settle for easy answers.

The great medieval rabbi and philosopher Maimonides said: “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”

In other words, the majority opinion is not automatically the right opinion. Be true to your convictions, don’t follow the popular trends blindly. But, and this is where it gets more complicated, don’t be a slave to them either. Maimonides also said: “Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.”

What do you do if you’re confronted with new facts which challenge your convictions? Ignore them? That’s the easy way but it’s not the honest way, and it’s not the Jewish way.

A more contemporary Jewish philosopher, Rabbi David Hartman, who died earlier this year, spent a lifetime warning against those voices – often the loudest – offering blackand- white solutions and superficial answers. This was, he said, fundamentally un-Jewish, “grounded in the false need for thinking: ‘I’ve got the final word, I don’t have to think anymore.’” That’s not us. Thinking is what we do. Looking for the nuances and asking the difficult questions is what we do. Throughout our history and tradition, we are a people who argue and debate. Jewish religious law developed not from the blind acceptance of our holy text, but our intellectual engagement with it.

The Talmud is literally a book of arguments, as the rabbis debated what exactly God had in mind with each law and each story in the Torah.

And it’s not only from religion that we can find this innate Jewish trait.

Throughout history, the greatest secular Jews, from Spinoza to Freud, and – of course – Herzl, challenged the majority opinion, the established truths of their day. As a people, we insist on free inquiry, and we do not accept the easy answer that tells us we don’t have to think anymore.

Nowhere is this approach more important than here in the State of Israel, with so many difficult questions and challenges to face. How do we balance our need for security with our moral commitment to uphold human rights? If we take a shallow approach and push for human rights at the expense of security, we could end up with no state. If, on the other hand, we make security the only concern and distance ourselves too much from human rights, we might have a state, but will it be one worth having? When you are making leadership decisions – as I’m sure you all will be in once capacity or another – I hope you will take with you from this program that the best way to do so is yes, to apply your own values, but also to listen and learn from different opinions and considerations, to be confident in your own beliefs, but not so arrogant as to assume that you have all the answers.

And, I hope that you will go forward as young Jewish leaders, with an unbreakable, eternal connection to the State of Israel.

This does not mean believing the country to be perfect. But it means appreciating it for all that is and does that is wonderful. And it means caring enough to want to help improve those things that are not as wonderful as they should be.

And it means feeling that as Jews, it is your home.

The writer is the director of the Israel Government Fellows program of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center (, an elite leadership program that brings Jewish university graduates to Israel for a year’s internship in the Israeli government and prominent think tanks, and high-level educational seminars.

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