'If the Torah isn't for everyone, it isn't for anyone'

Knesset Education Committee chairman Michael Melchior talks about the ills of Israeli society.

michael melchior 88 (photo credit: )
michael melchior 88
(photo credit: )
Rabbi Michael Melchior wears many hats. He serves as chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, head of the Knesset caucuses for Arab-Israeli cooperation and the environment, head of the left-wing religious Meimad party, chief rabbi of Norway and rabbi of a congregation in the southern part of Jerusalem. He is the honorary head of several non-profit organizations, participates in inter-religious dialogue that lands him in places such as Qatar and Alexandria and has initiated a chain of schools in which religious and secular children study together. For the start of the school year, Rabbi Melchior spoke to The Jerusalem Post about education in Israel, the religious-secular divide and peacemaking. The hottest social issue right now seems to be the 2007 budget. It has been said that even though the budget presented this week (and quickly withdrawn and amended following public outrage) was merely the Finance Ministry's opening position in the negotiations, the post-war cut to released soldiers' benefits and the hike in student tuition showed a psychological disconnect from the national mood. How do you see the budget presented this week? I truly don't understand it. Everything is ad hoc. There hasn't been a single serious discussion of what we want to do. Everything in politics is done for tomorrow's headline. Why hasn't the prime minister sat down and said, "Let's plan out the budget for the coming years?" Why was it just presented as an arbitrary fact that had to be dealt with? Before I was in government, I thought those in the Knesset must know things I don't. Then, when I was in the Knesset, I realized nobody knows anything, so I thought those in the Cabinet must know what's going on. Then I was in the Cabinet, and nobody knew anything there either. Now I trust in God. What do you suggest? Before getting to the step where you present the budget, you hold comprehensive discussions in the government over what you want to do, where the country is going. First, those running the country must decide what our priorities are, where we want to be in a few years. Then we can start with the numbers. It's not done that way. Once we had a discussion in the Knesset Committee for Child Welfare, which I was chairing at the time, about a medication for childhood diabetes. The drug would cost the government NIS 9 million. A Knesset study said that the total cost to the state of not distributing the drug to the children was around NIS 85 million. I'm not talking about humanity, empathy... just economics. I told the Finance Ministry boys that I was giving them a gift. They would pay me nine million, and I would give them back 85. Then they started explaining to me that I don't understand: the 85 million comes out of the NII budget, which isn't their budget. And it's accumulated over years, while the nine million comes off the budget immediately. So they didn't approve it. For another example, we lowered one percent of the Value Added Tax. All the social cutbacks proposed in the latest budget will save less than half the amount lost to that one-percent decrease. What would have happened if we hadn't lowered the VAT, if we had had another NIS 3.5 billion to devote to education? We could have done wonderful things for the children. If the budget-making process is just haggling over a finished document produced in the Finance Ministry, then is it fair to say that Finance Ministry officials are, in fact, running the country and crafting policy? Absolutely. Nobody can beat them. Of course, this is not their fault. It is the fault of the political leadership's failure to take responsibility. In what way? Once the ministers enter a ministry, they become the defense attorneys of that ministry, and the Finance Ministry takes advantage of this. "You're the minister of education," they say. "I'll make a deal with you. You don't look at what's happening to welfare, defense, the trains... it doesn't interest you. You need to come out of this better off." So they sign deals with each ministry individually. If Amir Peretz were the Minister of Education, would he be fighting so fiercely for the defense budget? I'm not saying it's not right to fight for your budget, but it creates a situation in which there's always a majority in the Cabinet against the one who doesn't play by the rules, because everyone wants to protect his budget. Then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was smart to give Avraham Hirchson the Finance Ministry, and to hand Defense to Labor? As I said back then, Olmert will never let anyone except his most loyal friend sit in the Finance Ministry. He understands its power. A minister can't transfer a secretary from one department to another without permission from the Finance Ministry, and they don't give permission without getting something in return. It's turned into a dependency that has paralyzed the ministers from doing what they want to do. But there's a question even about the Finance Ministry itself. How powerful is the minister compared to the ministry officials? It's a fascinating question. Does this affect the education system as well? Of course. Why are test scores dropping? Most of the enrichment teaching hours, the extra help a lot of kids need, have been canceled, and even the primary teaching hours were cut. An elementary school pupil today has six hours less a week than what he had five years ago. In high school, it's almost nine - an entire school day cut out of our education system. The status of the teacher in Israel has collapsed. When the starting position for a teacher with a Bachelors degree is NIS 650 a month less than minimum wage, it says something about what you think of teachers. Then we forgot about classroom construction and packed more students into the existing classrooms. We cut more and more hours, even extracurricular activities. And along with the education cuts, we allowed a catastrophic social problem to develop that left over a third of these kids under the poverty line. That's what happens when you have no national, long-term planning, when you don't look beyond tomorrow morning's newspaper. How do we turn the educational system around? We're starting from a very difficult place. The government has to decide that educating the next generation is the main national project. This takes reform, structural changes, giving principals a central role, raising the teachers' status, building schools and infrastructure. And we have to radically change the pay scale for teachers, to make it a profession people will want to pursue. This can't be done in one year. That's obvious. But the government has to say that the budget cutbacks won't touch education. We may have to fire people, reshuffle bureaucracies. That's legitimate and doable. But first we have to say that education is our top priority. There is no tool that's better for a country's economy, welfare, reducing social gaps, increasing the Jewish-Zionist narrative and identity. Can the current political system, with its current structure, conduct that kind of careful planning and prioritizing? It can if it wants to. I don't see that it wants to. But there were periods when Israel was the top of the world in education, even when the government was bankrupt. Some say our problem is the system of elections. But that's a mistake, a confusion of the problem and its symptoms. The problem isn't the system, but the people we elect and the lack of depth and perspective in the national dialogue. If you could only fix one thing, what would it be? You have to give principals the power to act. We have to start trusting the principals. You can't centralize everything in the Education Ministry. You have to let them work with long-term plans, five-year plans. Believe me, a good principal will work wonders in that time. But you have to give him the opportunity, the resources. You mentioned raising teachers' salaries. How much is needed? How do you go about implementing it? The system has been bad for so long, it's almost impossible to fix. You have 130,000 teachers. Give each one just NIS 1,000 a month, which isn't nearly enough. That will cost you 130 million a month. Add to that employer expenses, you hit two billion a year. Now, they don't need just another NIS 1,000. In my opinion, their salaries have to be doubled at least. It will have to be on a scale much larger than two billion. It has to happen gradually, but it has to happen. Many people have lamented the void in the curriculum on issues of Jewish studies and Jewish identity. That's one of the symptoms of the fundamental disease in the Israeli education system, what I call its "original sin" - the separation between the religious and the secular. This division has led to two results. The secular side lost its Jewish connection, even in the most pluralistic sense. Generations raised on this education feel more Israeli than Jewish. Their ignorance is amazing, by any standard, about the Jewish narrative, Jewish thought and text. This happened together with the religious public's monopolizing of Judaism, which made Judaism narrower and narrower. The Torah, which includes everything, including a society, a way of life and a democratic regime, shrank until it became cult-like and not Am Yisrael. If you only learn with students who think and look like you, this has destructive consequences. If the Torah isn't for everyone, it isn't for anyone. So the Torah lost its internal checks and balances between the particular and the universal, and many social problems resulted from this. We don't live together anymore, we don't grow together, we don't exist near each other, and there is no basic narrative that gives us a joint fate and a joint destiny in Israeli society. That's why those I can pray with don't understand my political world, and the people I deal with in my political world don't understand my prayer. Specifically, there are complaints from American Jewish organizations that Israeli children don't learn about the Diaspora. One of the things lost in this process was the idea that we're part of a people with its heart in Zion, but some of its body, and even sometimes the brain, is in the wider Jewish world. That got lost because the religious Zionist public has said that it alone is the true Judaism. World Judaism isn't Jewish in the same way, according to this idea, so there isn't a feeling of connection or common purpose. Since the secular public has so little connection to Judaism, there's no meaning to being a people. The entire connection with world Jews becomes instrumental, advantageous for economic and political support, but nothing more. So this issue really doesn't interest anyone in Israel, because it's not part of the identity formed by the education system, public discourse or the media. It falls in the fracture between the religious and the secular.But it's a central issue of our identity, our existence, the long-term interests of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. How do we change this? We're doing many things. Birthright is one example. It doesn't just bring students from abroad to connect to their Jewish identity through an educational visit here, it also joins Israeli students and Israeli soldiers with worldwide Jewry, which is usually the first time they face their identities as Jews. I've met with thousands of the Israelis who participated. All of them tell me that this program did more for their Jewish identity than 12 years of schooling. It's a big compliment to Birthright, but a sad statement about our educational system. When I was in the Education Ministry, we developed an educational program on the Jewish people. In the Education Committee, in cooperation with the Education Minister, who I think ideologically identifies with these issues, we're working to implement it together, and to bring this into the education system. You describe a kind of political zero-sum game between the religious and secular that finds expression in education. The religious establishment claims a monopoly over religion, and the secular seems to categorically reject religious values. I blame the secular more than the religious for this. They surrendered their Judaism. Could the "monopolizing" itself be responsible for the Judaic ignorance of secular education in Israel? No. The secular public doesn't seriously deal with the state's Jewishness, what it means in all the fields of life, such as foreign policy and the treatment of minorities. There simply isn't any profound discourse. So they gave the monopoly to the religious. And the religious, including me, didn't know what to do with this control over Judaism, how to run it and develop it. It developed into some excellent things, like the volunteering spirit and the social sensibility of religious-Zionist youth. But it also turned into horrible things, particularly in the political realm, an extremism that seals shut the possibility of discussion in Israeli society over where we're going, because it makes it a religious matter. You can't argue over religion. For example, disengagement turned into a religious question. It can't be that it was about military strategy, since all the demonstrators were of one breed. Once you say it's Halacha [Jewish Law] and God decided, you block the discussion. You're talking about the most fundamental elements of religious-Zionist thought. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook, the teacher of religious Zionism's most important religious leaders, himself decreed that one must sacrifice his life before breaking the commandment to redeem the Land of Israel through settlement. Do you believe that religious Zionism's most fundamental tenets reject the very possibility of discourse? Absolutely. There is no other possibility when you say something is above the sanctity of life. It ruins the foundations of democracy and our existence as a moral society. At the core, it can't live alongside democracy. The central rabbis of religious Zionism have said this very clearly, but also the teachers. Any study done among religious Zionist teachers will find that 80% don't support the claim that the state of Israel has to be democratic. This is a new phenomenon. The Torah doesn't command a specific regime, and in the past we understood that democracy is the best way. Now it's different, especially if you speak about a democracy encompassing all of Israel's citizens, including non-Jews and secular Jews. Is religious Zionism, then, outside the public discourse? It's inside the discourse, but it prevents the really deep discussion from taking place. This is because, at the end of the day, their conception of redemption is built around territory. Territory will always be the measure of the coming redemption. They will yell over a social injustice, but they won't leave a government for it. They'll leave a government if you remove a stone from Netzarim or Kiryat Arba. The central axis, the gauge, becomes the redemption of territory, and the redemption of man comes much lower on the priority list. You do a great deal of work in interfaith dialogue. Why? One of the results of the religious-secular fracture in Israel is a worse relationship with the Muslim world. While there are totalitarian trends in the Muslim world that can't accept our living here, for the most part, in my experience of 20 years of religious dialogue with the Muslim world, the deeper source of their concern is the danger that peace will threaten their way of life, the traditional society, their family values. They see us as a people who absorbs the cheapest morals of the West. When we talk about the "New Middle East," they think we mean taking the most debased and empty values of the West and forcing it in sophisticated ways onto their society. In the past few years, I've had conversations, both official and secret, with a whole series of Muslim leaders, including what we might call the "bad guys." They all agree that this is the main danger. Do you believe that the wider Muslim world - and not just a few leaders - can accept you? Once you begin a religious dialogue and create the possibility for making peace based also on religious principles, it's a whole different story. I, an Orthodox rabbi, a Zionist all my life, was secretly invited to Muslim conferences. You have to see what happens in such a dialogue. It isn't easy. This discourse has to be developed. But I saw that when you build trust, there's no limit to what can be done. The barriers collapse. Why are most Israelis convinced that the Arab world is largely controlled by people who want to destroy us? I'm not saying that if the Arabs could destroy us, they wouldn't do it. But they can't. Our population is too large. The latest aliya has helped to make us a critical mass in the consciousness of the Muslim world. This issue has developed. The three "no"s of Khartoum don't exist anymore. In the middle of the intifada, the Arab world in the Beirut summit, all the states, including the darkest dictatorships, accepted the Saudi initiative. In the final text, the Arab countries recognized the existence of Israel. Even on the right of return, they accepted a formula that requires the Israeli government's consent for return. I'm not saying it's enough, but it's a revolution. I think this should also be part of our formula with the Palestinians today, part of the beginning of serious negotiations. Everyone understands today that we can't work unilaterally, because it creates vacuums. But we need borders. You're calling for negotiations with Hamas? A: We need to negotiate with whomever can agree to these principles. Perhaps through a religious formulation of these principles. I think we have to arrive at a deep discussion. Both sides have to be courageous. Hamas has to decide what it wants. It didn't want to be in government, but it is. Now it has responsibility, and it should start using that responsibility. Does Khaled Mashaal run the organization or someone else? They have to decide. They have to choose a path. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh says publicly at every opportunity that the annihilation of Israel is the goal. I'm not Haniyeh's spokesman, and I won't defend him. The Hamas covenant is racist, anti-Semitic, illegitimate. That's obvious. If that's their policy as the Palestinian government, then there is no discussion. So they need to change before the discourse can happen? Yes. So do we. But they certainly need to change more. Some thinkers, such as Natan Sharansky, don't believe you can negotiate with a government that isn't democratic. What do you think? I am familiar with these theses. Sharansky is my very good friend. But, look, if we did what Sharansky says, we would still be in a state of war with Egypt and Jordan. Nobody asks him that. Is that really what he wants? Think what Israel would look like if we had to deal not with Nablus and Bint Jbeil, but with the Egyptian army and the entire Jordanian front. I don't understand how you can think this way. I'm a very big supporter of democracy. I believe it's the key to the future of the world; it's the only regime that works. Democracies don't fight each other. There's something about a democracy that makes you think of the welfare of the citizens, because you have to get reelected. At the end of the day, we don't have anything better. And I don't say the Arabs can't be democratic. But you can't condition every development in every field on one axis. We can wait for the days of the Messiah. But we can also have a piece of peace. Truth is all or nothing. 99% of truth is a lie. But 99% of peace is something. Many people want to see a constitution that gives an answer to some of the problems we've discussed. What do you think? I support a constitution, but I don't think it will solve the problem. We need a deeper discourse. I think the more important thing is the internal discussion: Why are we here? Where do we want to go? How do we make goals for ourselves? These are dilemmas, but they're Jewish dilemmas. Only for a very few years did we actually have our own independent state. Now, we've had it for 58 years, and the question is, do we live up to this tremendous historic challenge? There is potential here, and a Jewish people around the world that is willing and able to help. We have to fashion moral boundaries and political borders, whether peaceful or unilateral. And we desperately need a discourse on what we mean when we talk about being Jewish here. Israel isn't just a refuge. If we succeed in having that discussion, the discussion itself will be a great sanctification of God's name.