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Guest Column: Getting beyond argumentation
Daniel Gordis
05/29/2008
Yes, statehood is an extraordinary accomplishment, but first and foremost Zionism was about ideas.
Recently, I found myself thumbing through one of my heavily worn copies of The Zionist Idea, longingly reviewing the array of thinkers that Arthur Herzberg, of blessed memory, had thought to assemble in one volume. The truth is, I took it off the shelf looking for something specific, but it took only a minute or two of flipping through the dog-eared pages to completely forget what it was I'd been searching for. Instead, I began to wonder: Is what Zionism has wrought worthy of the grandeur of that volume? I'd never given much thought to the title that Herzberg chose for his anthology. But, it suddenly struck me, The Zionist Idea was actually a stroke of genius as a title, for it claimed then, and reminds us now, that part of the greatness of Zionism lay in the ideas it produced. Yes, statehood itself is an extraordinary accomplishment, as are many other elements of what's been produced here. But first and foremost, as Herzberg essentially continues to remind us, Zionism was about ideas. ONE HUNDRED years ago, the Jewish state was nothing more than an idea. Some believed it could be realized, while others did not. Some thought it a terrible and dangerous notion, while others believed it was the only hope for a Jewish future. But as Herzberg's now-classic volume continues to illustrate, the very idea of Jewish statehood engendered scores of other ideas. For decades, the early Zionists debated issues ranging from the political to the cultural. Almost talmudic in the breadth of its conversation and the energy of its disagreements, the first phase of Zionism was one of those periods in which the Jews did well what they've long done best; they engaged in the honing and exchange of ideas. HOW THE mighty have fallen! Now that the "distractions" of the 60th anniversary celebrations have ended, Israeli society is confronted once again by an array of issues ranging from the diplomatic to the potentially criminal, from preparations for war to - some would say - the possibility of peace, from nuclear proliferation to rumors of agonizing prisoner exchanges, and our reaction is... virtual silence. To be sure, Israeli television and radio offer a seemingly endless array of pontificating experts. Some are interesting, most are not. But what almost none of them offer us is ideas, anything even remotely verging on the profound, that might prompt us and our society to move from either deafening silence or deadening argumentation, and instead to a revival of the sorts of debates to which Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Ahad Ha'am once treated us. Where are the thinkers guiding us as we settle into the tragic realization that we may not live to see peace? Now that many Israelis believe (perhaps correctly) that there is simply no peace to be had, that what is at stake is not borders - or Palestinian statehood - but the very right of the Jewish state to be, how shall we proceed? In the days after the 1967 Six Day War, most of us would have imagined that if Israel had treaties with Egypt and Jordan and relative quiet with Syria, regional peace would be at hand. But yesterday's formidable enemies are today's sideshow; today, it is Iran and her satellites, Hizbullah and Hamas, that most threaten Israel, and on those fronts, we might as well be back at Khartoum - no negotiation, no recognition, no peace. What sort of education system do we need to respond to that challenge? How does one raise a generation of children who no longer believe they'll live to see peace without getting them to hate the "other" as deeply as our enemies do? Can we produce young men and women so passionately Zionist that they will risk everything for this country in their youth and live their adult lives here, all the while remaining sufficiently open to the possibility of peace that were it to become possible one day, they would not be so callous that they would squander the opportunity? Can a young generation robbed of the possibility of peace grow into sophisticated adulthood without serious discussions of the legitimacy of the use of power? Can we produce a generation of leaders without asking them to wonder why Plato's Republic places soldiers immediately below the rulers? What did Plato mean to suggest about the moral imperative of defending one's citizens? How might reading the Republic shape the views of a young Israeli generation that increasingly sees matters military as something to be avoided at virtually all cost? Does the classic Jewish distinction between obligatory and optional wars have anything to say about how we ought to respond to the relentless shelling of civilians in towns situated in sovereign Israeli territory? There is, to be sure, a moral obligation not to use excessive power, but might there also be a moral imperative not to spurn its use? YET HOW many of our high-school students read deeply and think clearly about issues like this? Appallingly few. How is it possible that 60 years after its creation, Israel still does not have its first liberal arts college? We've become pundits instead of philosophers, and respond to moments of moral magnitude with silence or simplicity rather than with sophistication. The people of the book has created a state that robs its young people of the opportunity to learn to think. One day, someone is going to want to produce the sequel to Herzberg's volume. What does Israel have to do now so that we might produce a generation of young people capable of saying something worthy of being included? The writer is senior vice-president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His next book, On Saving Israel, will be published by Wiley later this year.
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