A dose of nuance: On occupation and education

Is this a place in which our grandchildren will want to live if they have a choice? If the answer to that question is “perhaps not,” it won’t really matter if we can hold our enemies at bay, because the country we’re protecting won’t be worth having in the first place.

Bibi netanyahu (photo credit: JPost Staff)
Bibi netanyahu
(photo credit: JPost Staff)
It is the end of summer, so thousands of young Israelis have now completed the first few weeks of their initiation into the IDF. As their parents exchange stories they’ve heard from their newly inducted children, one gets a fascinating peek into some of the challenges facing Israeli life.
On one base, an army rabbi addressed the new recruits: “You have come to a school for the killing of terrorists,” he told them. The young man who related this story was a bit perplexed. The rabbi was technically right, but was that all he had to say? “Nothing about Israel or why we’re here in the first place?” the young man wondered.
The kid was right. Those soldiers should have heard more, especially from the base’s rabbi. But they didn’t.
There is no denying the permanence of the war in which Israel is entrenched evokes hopelessness, then bitterness, then ugliness. As the new school year begins, it is therefore worth asking ourselves who in this society is going to change that; what educational institutions need to be created so that a more sophisticated, nuanced and decent Israeli discourse can evolve.
Why the urgency? Because the war in which we find ourselves is not going to end. The terms you use don’t matter. You can say “West Bank,” or “Judea and Samaria.” You can call it the “occupation,” or the “ancestral land of the Jewish people.” You can believe that the Israelis captured it in war but should now relinquish it, or you can believe that God bequeathed it to the Jewish people. It makes no difference.
For here is the reality, like it or not: The Israelis are here to stay.
I say this not because the Israelis should be here to stay, and not because we shouldn’t. I say it because it’s simply likely to be true.
Just days ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated that Jerusalem is a Christian and Muslim city and that there will be no peace until the Jewish settlers depart Jerusalem. All the Jews want, he continued, is to “destroy the Aksa Mosque and to rebuild their alleged temple.”
Abbas calls our Temple “alleged.” It’s tempting to dismiss his comments as simply playing to his crowd, but that would be a mistake. For if that is what his crowd needs to hear, then with whom, exactly, will the deal be forged? If not with the “citizens” of the Palestinian Authority, is it with those in Gaza who voted for Hamas? Most Israelis say we could withdraw to the 1967 lines tomorrow and would not end the conflict. It would simply bring it closer to our homes and to the runways of Ben-Gurion Airport.
I say this with no glee. With two sons in the army, the knowledge that my children’s children will likely also go to war is devastatingly sad. I wish matters were otherwise, but they are not. Yet there is nothing that the Israelis can do to change the Palestinian myopia. All we can do is to survive, and to struggle to maintain our decency in the process.
I wonder about those someday-to-be grandchildren. Will they really go to war? Or will they choose to leave, not because the specter of war makes life here unbearable but because of the ugliness of this society? Those who wish to minimize the horrific recent Jerusalem “lynch” point to the fact that Jews rarely attack Arabs. That’s basically true – though not as true as they suppose. But still, that’s scant consolation. For even if the actual attackers were among the dregs of society, which appears to have been the case, that can surely not be said for the dozens of onlookers who did nothing to intervene.
Nor is it just the occasional horrific incident. Drive in the West Bank, particularly in areas far from the Green Line, and you see graffiti everywhere, including just outside Arab villages, which says “mavet la’aravim” (death to the Arabs). You can see it in certain places inside the Green Line, too. Is that what we’ve become?
Talk to our soldiers. It’s not just that horrifically unsophisticated army rabbi who spoke about a “school for the killing of terrorists.” The problem runs deeper. In army parlance, “Arab” has come to mean not only “enemy,” but “worthless.” There’s a fine line between speaking about Israel’s enemies and having conversations that devolve into utter racism. In times of war, the line understandably gets crossed even in decent societies. Good, honorable American soldiers developed a visceral hatred of Germans and Japanese during World War II. You could hear “Kraut” and “Jap” (and worse) everywhere you went.
But that war ended and America moved on. Our problem is that Israel’s war is not going to end; not in our lifetimes and possibly not in the lifetimes of our children. So our educational challenge is tougher than was the challenge for the United States. The US “merely” had to win the war and assume that the moral danger would pass. Israel does not have that luxury. We face an educational challenge that most other countries do not, and we have not even begun to address it. Even among Jews, discourse in this country is harsh, ugly and mean.
SO HERE’S what matters: Who is going to create educational institutions that will consciously foster ongoing and serious discourse between Left and Right, between secular and religious, etc? In what institutions of higher education will we seek interaction with the other and work to frame civil discourse? Where will Israel’s best students study great books and ideas, Western and Jewish, and think together about what kind of society to build here? Not because we will agree with each other, but because at the very minimum, we need to learn to see the other as human, and because we’re in this together.
Can Israel create more passionate, patriotic citizens, religious and not, right-wing and left, who are nauseated by graffiti that says “mavet la’aravim”? Can we foster a society that is willing to send its sons and daughters to war, but who, if they saw an Arab being attacked in the streets of Jerusalem, would rush to his or her aid? Do the present universities in Israel see creating a new Israeli civic leadership as part of their challenge, their responsibility?
They don’t. Ask them; they’ll tell you so unabashedly. So someone is going to have to. Not in summer or pre-army one-year programs, but in extended multiyear programs for the very best of Israeli students in the intellectual primes of their lives. Shouldn’t the Jewish state have at least some institutions which have that as a goal?
All the prattle about “ending the occupation” is simply not useful, for there is nothing we can do to end it. What we can and must do, however, is to frame a new question, one that should concern both Left and Right, religious and secular, dove and hawk: What kind of a society is emerging here? Is this a place in which our grandchildren will want to live if they have a choice?
If the answer to that question is “perhaps not,” then let us be brutally honest: It won’t really matter if we can hold our enemies at bay, because the country we’re protecting won’t be worth having in the first place.
The writer is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His book Saving Israel won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. His latest book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, has just been published.