On an angle: Life education

Mature citizenship requires more than teaching each and every teenager to view him- or herself as a potential casualty.

cemetary 311 (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR / FLASH 90)
cemetary 311
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR / FLASH 90)
Shoshana Ziegler bends over the headstone, clears off the dust and smoothes the gravel around her brother’s gravestone, one of the thousands of identical gravestones in the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem.
She brushes loose grass off her long skirt and stands straight.
Ziegler is a tall woman, dressed in the loose, flowing clothes so popular here in Jerusalem. Her gray hair is fashionably short. She says she is 80, but she seems much younger.
“I don’t really remember him very well anymore,” she says. “It’s been so many years – my entire lifetime. I married, had children. I have grandchildren. I’ve had a comfortable life and my husband and I have a wonderful life now that we are retired. Moshe didn’t have time to have a life.”
Moshe Amari, Ziegler’s brother, was killed in the War of Independence in the Old City of Jerusalem. “He was 21. I was a girl then and I’m an old woman now,” she says, almost matter-of-factly.
“Our parents are long gone. I promised them I would visit his grave, and so I do, before every holiday. But who will come after I am gone? Moshe didn’t live long enough to have anyone, and my children and grandchildren never knew him.”
According to a new initiative by the ministry, high school students will tend the graves of fallen soldiers.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Ziegler says thoughtfully. “Moshe died for the country, because the country was fighting for its independence.
My parents never got over his death. They mourned for the rest of their lives, but still, they allowed me to really live. They allowed me to be happy. The young ones should be young as long as they can.
They should be young and do the silly things that kids do. They’ll have plenty of time to be soldiers.”
In a pilot program, currently implemented in at least four cities throughout the country, students are contributing to the perpetuation of the memory of fallen soldiers by adopting a memorial monument or gravesite. The program is the initiative of the Education Ministry in coordination with Yad L’Banim, the organization that represents the family members of soldiers who have fallen in the line of duty.
According to the ministry’s publications, it is part of a wider educational effort to “strengthen Jewish and Zionist values,” teach students “to appreciate their Israeli culture and heritage” and “strengthen and deepen the connection between youth and bereaved families.”
As an Israeli, I am pleased that the educational system seeks to inculcate values and not merely to transmit knowledge. I recognize, of course, that the inculcation of values is an inherently and deeply political exercise, a democratically legitimate attempt to impart a worldview by elected officials. But as the mother of two children, one currently serving in the IDF and one about to enlist, I find the worldview reflected in this initiative deeply troubling.
According to a long-standing directive from the Ministry of Education, every school maintains a memorial plaque to honor the graduates of the school who have died in military service. And it behooves us to remember them. I don’t know what these soldiers thought, or if they thought, about the wars in which they died. And it doesn’t matter what we think about those wars, either.
Whatever the existential or political circumstances that led to these wars, these soldiers are lost to us and we should honor them.
But if we put up memorial plaques to honor the dead, while ignoring the achievements of the living, then we are, intentionally or not, teaching our children that death is the only defining achievement worth remembering, worth emulating.
There should be a memorial plaque. And there should also be a plaque of honor for those graduates of the school who have made contributions to society and community. Let’s teach our kids to emulate those who have created new ideas, invented medications that save lives, helped alleviate poverty, contributed to equality and pluralism.
And let’s teach them to emulate the former students who have succeeded in overcoming personal or social adversity to achieve what was important to them.
But our schools don’t set aside a day to honor those people. During their twelve years in school, our children are exposed to a glorification of death. I do know that our lives as Jews and Israelis have been permeated by death and persecution. But that does not mean that we should be teaching a simplistic and fatalistic version of Jewish and Israeli history as a continuous saga of tragedy.
School ceremonies in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, of fallen soldiers, and the victims of terrorism follow a very set pattern.
Everyone wears a white shirt and dark pants (usually jeans) or skirt.
There is a moment of silence. Across the country the siren is heard, and even the youngest children learn to stand at attention and bow their heads reverently. The more talented students are selected to sing a song, chosen (often by one of the teachers) from a carefully culled repertoire of “sad songs,” accompanied by a guitarist or playback. The principal makes a speech. Students read the names of the graduates who have fallen in battle or attack, or a poem. Everyone sings Hatikva. The ceremony ends. The kids go home.
Often the ceremony is genuinely moving; it is always emotionally intense. But alongside the well-scripted ceremonies, when are the students given permission and opportunity to reflect, to feel, to think, to ponder? To ask the un-askable questions that teenagers are supposed to ask, because they might not ask them when they get older: What is worth living for? And what is worth dying for? By emphasizing the army throughout their school years, we are teaching our children that the army is a positive value. And we are instructing them that the army is inevitable because war is inevitable.
But an army isn’t a value, it’s a necessity. And wars are not existentially inevitable; they are the result of political choices and decisions.
In my children’s former school, the parents of a boy who died in one of Israel’s wars established a family volleyball tournament in his name because he loved sports. It’s a fun, goofy annual event in which practically the entire school participates; even graduates come back to play or watch, many of them already in army uniforms. Each year, the soldier’s parents hand out the award trophies to the winning families and the local MVPs. Everyone remembers that the event is held in honor of a soldier who was killed – but they also remember his name, and they know that he had lived and had loved sports.
In Deuteronomy 30:19, we are commanded, “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Death shouldn’t be a way of life.
Life should be a way of life.
As and Israeli, I am pleased that the school system seeks to teach citizenship. But mature citizenship requires more than teaching each and every teenager to view him- or herself as a potential casualty.
According to new directives from the Education Ministry, the formal evaluation of school principals will be based, among other criteria, on the percentage of students from their schools who enlist in combat units. The Education Ministry has enthusiastically endorsed a preliminary bill that mandates the educational system to educate the children about the importance of military service or alternative national or civilian service. And army brass are pleased to tell us that apparently, these educational efforts, which have been at least informally in place for years, are bearing fruit: The numbers of soldiers volunteering for elite combat units has not decreased and, in some cohorts, has even increased significantly.
But while I am proud of our youth who are willing to make a commitment to their country, I am more concerned about their commitment to democracy. What is the Education Ministry doing about the fact that, according to recent survey data, more than 60 percent of our youth believe that a strong leader is more important than the rule of law? Xenophobic trends are growing here. More than half of our young people object to having Arab neighbors. About half would like to see Arabs prevented from being elected to the Knesset.
Teachers complain that the social studies curricula are being degraded and that, under the current educational administration, education for citizenship is increasingly politicized, emphasizing Zionism and nationalism at the expense of the study of civics and democracy.
Zionism and nationalism are certainly important, but so is preparation for enlightened shared citizenship.
The mandatory program of civics in our high schools is minimal at best; most students take only two years of social studies. And realistically, high school students only think a topic is important, or will only study the topic, if it is included on the matriculation exam that they must take at the end of the course. So it is particularly interesting to note what topics were not included in the past year’s exam, according to the Education Ministry’s own website, and these included: the status of national and religious minorities in Israel; the social convention; liberal and socio-democratic economic approaches; social rights; comparisons between non-democratic and democratic regimes; the debate over a constitution for Israel; Israel as a socially divided country, including an introduction to social pluralism; religious divides, including denominations in Judaism. In the Arab sector, students were not tested on human rights and minority rights in the State of Israel.
According to the initial documents, provided to The Report by the ministry, the goal of the program is to “enhance the heritage of individuals and groups that are part of the common ethos of Israeli society… Through this educational effort, we will bring our youth closer to the history of the State of Israel, the struggle for its existence and will strengthen the sense of belonging and willingness to contribute to society as part of the personal identity as citizens of the state.”
But our fractious society cannot form a common ethos built solely on the past or on death. And a sense of belonging and willingness to contribute to society cannot be instilled by fiat.
I want my children to be proud and committed Jews and Israelis.
I know that they will be proud, if they understand their past and committed, if they are able to look, realistically yet hopefully, towards a future based on the Jewish values of humanism and equality.