Natan Zach’s announcement that he would be joining a Gaza-bound flotilla might
well have passed unnoticed.
After all, Zach – one of the last great poets
of the independence era – is now 80 years old. Long revered for his artistry and
scholarship, he’s also made no secret of his politics.
years ago that he would not cross the Green Line, adding that he hoped his books
would not be sold there, either.
But this is Israel, where few nonstories
are allowed to pass without someone fanning the barely flickering flames. This
time, a member of the Likud’s Knesset faction reacted with outrage and
immediately wrote to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar demanding that Zach’s
poetry be removed from the high-school curriculum.
Suddenly, the nonstory
had become a story.
What matters about the story is neither Zach nor even
our high-school curriculum. What matters is the story’s sobering reminder of how
low intellectual life here has sunk. When someone says something with which we
disagree, we evoke the magnificent Soviet tradition, calling for his eradication
from our collective memory.
He’s a great poet? We include him in the
highschool curriculum. He plans to join a flotilla? We deny he ever existed.
Stalin would be proud.
It would be laughable, were it not so
What happened to the fierce exchange of ideas that was once
Zionism? Have we forgotten the days when individual kibbutzim had separate
schools for their Mapai and Mapam children, because parents could not bear
having their children corrupted by a competing ideology? But those children
shared a kibbutz, played together, ate together and presumably, heard each
In those days, the response to ideas was an alternative
idea, a competing vision of what society should be. Those were the days of
Gordon, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, even of politicians like David
Ben-Gurion who left us voluminous writings, rich with erudite vision for the
Jewish state. And where are we today? How has Zionist discourse gone from being
about ideas to being about the basest form of retribution? The causes are many,
but not least of them is what has happened to ideas in higher
In 1996, 18.5 percent of undergraduate students were pursuing
a degree in the humanities.
Twelve years later, that number had dropped
by more than half, to 8.1%. And the trend shows no signs of
What areas have grown at the expense of the humanities?
Business and management have risen from 6.7% to 10.2%. Law has gone from 6% to
9% (a 50% increase). Engineering and architecture have grown.
witness to a society in which broad education, the celebration of ideas and the
recognition of their power has all but disappeared.
LAST WEEKEND, I was
at Columbia University, speaking to students. Late Friday night, what looked
like about 400-500 students piled into an auditorium. I told them that I didn’t
want to discuss flotillas, or West Bank building. Those, I reminded them, are
the noise, not the signal. What we really have to understand about the Middle
East are the ideas that are at play in Israel’s marginalization, and the ideas
necessary for its defense.
Lo and behold, when I spoke about the
political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, they followed. Someone had
already taught them to think that way. I mentioned Galatians (as a contrast) and
guess what? The freshmen had just read it. Plato’s Republic
? They’d read that,
too. And the same with Locke, and de Tocqueville.
And Hobbes. And
That is not to say that everyone agreed with what I
said. Some pushed back. But when they did, their questions, too, were based on
books that they’d read, ideas they’d cultivated, a vision of society that they’d
It is that sort of education and the students it produces
that has made America great. But that kind of conversation cannot flourish in a
country in which less than 10% of students study the humanities. Whether or not
Natan Zach ultimately boards a flotilla is utterly unimportant.
matter is whether we can produce a generation of students who, when they hear
something about which they disagree, can debate the ideas at hand, rather than
merely seeking to silence those with whom they disagree.
steps are being taken. The best pre-army mechinot
are attracting the very
brightest high-school graduates for an intense year of study and reflection
before those students head for the army. At the Shalem Center, we are well under
way in our plans for creating the country’s first liberal arts college, with a
core curriculum not that dissimilar, in some ways, from what Columbia has been
doing for almost a century.
We’re going to offer an undergraduate
education on a par with America’s most excellent private liberal arts
But repairing Israel will require more than that.
need high schools in which the brightest students can receive educations as
excellent as those the finest American prep schools. Nor will one liberal arts
college suffice. We at Shalem will know we’ve been successful when others begin
to copy us, and to compete with us.
Most important than the solutions,
however, is a society-wide recognition of the depth of our problem. The People
of the Book has produced a society in which students no longer read. The People
of the Book has built a world-class army, but a third-tier educational system.
Who could have imagined that? Altneuland. Der Judenstadt.
Auto-Emancipation. Rome and Jerusalem
. There was an era in which our kids
could identify those books, knew what they said and could debate the ideas
expressed in them.
Can we restore those days? Can we restore books and
ideas to the center of the society we’re still building? The answer to that
question will determine not only what kind of future this country has, but
whether it has a future at all.The writer is senior vice president of
the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and the author of
Saving Israel: How the Jewish
People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), which won a 2009 National
Jewish Book Award. He blogs at http://danielgordis.org.