Seeing and meeting is believing

Eighth graders from 40 schools have been investigating the work and lasting impact of some of our departed prime ministers and presidents, focusing on their lesser-known achievements.

Seeing and meeting (photo credit: Courtesy)
Seeing and meeting
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dafna Arbel is a great believer in the hands-on educational approach. Arbel is deputy director of the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, one of three bodies behind the From the Leaders of the Past to the Generation of the Future project, which is now in its second year. The other official driving forces behind the nationwide scheme are the Israeli Cultural Center of the Education Ministry, and the Presidents and Prime Ministers of Israel Commemoration Department of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Over the past six months, eighth graders from 40 schools up and down the country have been devoting school time, and plenty of their spare time, to investigating the work and lasting impact of some of our departed prime ministers and presidents.
Pupils at each school chose a late prime minister or president and researched their history, their contribution to the country’s welfare and what, if any, of that work remains relevant to contemporary Israel. The leaders covered by the students include Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion, Ezer Weizman, Menachem Begin and Levi Eshkol.
This Sunday, the pupils will present their findings, in a range of formats, meet the other participants in the project from other parts of the country and take part in workshops at a national gathering at Jerusalem’s International Conference Center (ICC).
Arbel says that part of the thinking behind the project was to allow the pupils to get behind the official persona, and to learn something about the actual person, and about some of their lesser-known work.
“When people think of Golda Meir, for example, they immediately associate her with the mistakes she made with the Yom Kippur War. But how many people credit her with establishing the National Insurance Institute?” notes the deputy director. “And what about Levi Eshkol? People think of him as the prime minister who couldn’t decide on whether to launch the Six Day War, but he was responsible for founding Mekorot, and our national water carrier.”
Noa David certainly knows all about Eshkol’s efforts to ensure people all over the country had running water in their homes. Fourteen-year-old David attends Meitar Junior High School in Meitar, near Beersheba, and says she and her classmates learned a lot from their research on Eshkol.
“We chose Levi Eshkol because of his connection with the Negev, and the water project he started,” she says, adding that the accent was very much on enhancing the students’ knowledge in previously unexplored areas.
“We also chose Eshkol because we didn’t know much about him beforehand. We didn’t relate at all to what people said about him, about how he was indecisive about the Six Day War. That didn’t interest us, and we weren’t looking to try to improve his tarnished image. We just wanted to find out new things about him.”
David says they came across all sorts of intriguing aspects of Eshkol’s personality.
“We found out that he was less serious than other leaders. It’s not that he wasn’t serious about his role as prime minister, but he generally kept a lighter perspective on the affairs of state. I don’t think most people give him credit for the great things he did.”
The students’ work on the From the Leaders of the Past to the Generation of the Future project took all sorts of forms, and involved a lot of getting out and about.
“The children went to museums, like the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, and Ben-Gurion’s hut, and spoke to all sorts of people,” explains Arbel. “They had to show a lot of initiative to get the information they needed.”
That included getting as close to firsthand knowledge about the chosen figures as possible.
“Some students went to a senior citizens’ home to meet [Ezer Weizman’s widow] Reuma Weizman, and others went to meet [Eshkol’s daughter] Tama Eshkol Shochat,” Arbel adds.
David was in the contingent that went to Shochat’s home.
“That was an incredible trip,” says the eighth grader. “Tama lives in Tel Aviv so most of us went there. Beforehand we wondered what questions we should ask her – should we ask her about her life with her father, or about growing up and living in a politician’s home. Her husband [former finance minister Avraham Baiga Shochat] was also a politician.”
David says she and her colleagues on the project came home with some informational nuggets. You can’t compare reading about someone and learning about them from their daughter.
“We found out a few things about Eshkol we didn’t know before. Of course we’d done plenty of research before we went to meet Tama, but there are things you can’t find in books or on the Internet.
Mainly you could say that we discovered the man behind the politician, about Levi Eshkol the human being. That was fascinating.”
Naturally, the students at all the schools received the full backing of their teachers.
“They were great,” says David.
“Sometimes we missed classes or even exams because of the work on the project, but the teachers helped us catch up with what we missed. And we did a lot of work on the project after school and also during vacations. We were happy to do that. It was great to get so involved in the work.”
Arbel says that the project was also designed to fill a gaping hole in the national school curriculum.
“There was no ministry-sanctioned part of the study program devoted to learning about past prime ministers and presidents. That is a very important factor: children learning about Israeli history and about Zionism.”
Arbel says that, in contrast with the project’s inaugural year, she and the other people behind the program were keen to make the students’ work as relevant as possible to life in contemporary Israel.
“It is one thing for a school pupil to read about something historic, but it brings it much more to life when they realize that the historical figure they are learning about started something that is important to them, and their families, on an everyday basis. We wanted to bring the whole topic to life.”
Judging by the efforts of David, and her colleagues on the project, that has clearly been achieved, and will, no doubt, be even more evident this Sunday at the ICC.