The Crisis of Israeli Culture

By Yigal Alon

In a 1972 speech, the minister of education called for the rediscovery of Israel's spirit.

And then there is our indifference towards our surroundings. There is a jarring difference between the care we take to beautify the inside of our homes, and the filth and neglect we find outside, in our yards and on our sidewalks. It is a kind of esthetic split personality. And, lest I be accused of favoritism, I will not overlook the unaesthetic appearance of a large number of our schools, courtyards, and playgrounds. I realize that this is a budgetary problem as well, but we have all seen that even a humble cabin can be made esthetically pleasing, inside and out, and surrounded by manicured lawns and gardens. In this connection it is impossible not to mention the cheap and tasteless flashiness of the nouveaux riches and their imitators, for whom everything is skin-deep, and everything is done solely to impress others. Another example is the new, showy artistic productions, upon which, with your indulgence, I will not bother to expand.
Some of these phenomena are rooted in ethical problems, both personal and public, and some in esthetic ones. But all of them are evident in both high culture and low culture.
Colleagues, members of the Knesset, I am afraid the picture I have painted does little to gladden the heart. However, it is said, “When worry fills a man’s heart, let him speak of it.” (Proverbs 12:25) I do not pretend to offer a complete picture. I could have also enumerated our major achievements in the fields of higher education and scientific research, which have received international acclaim. I could have spoken about our musical life, the envy of great nations with more continuous musical traditions than our own, although there are those who already worry, justifiably, about whether we will continue to have an audience for serious music in our country. I could have mentioned our great achievements in the plastic arts and in dance, or our extensive theatrical offerings and our publication of original books in ever-increasing numbers, and so on. The time for this discussion will come, when I present the Knesset with the budget for the ministry I have the honor to head. However, as I noted at the beginning, my goal is to remain focused on the issues specific to our culture and our way of life.
I will now proceed to an issue that makes Israeli society and culture unique: The problem of pluralism.
There are two peoples living side by side in our country: The majority are Jews and the minority, albeit a sizable one, are Arabs. I will begin with the problem of the minority, which is further divided into Christians and Muslims, Druze and Circassians, sects, clans, and Bedouin tribes. Does Israel have room for a unique Arab culture? The answer is yes, absolutely. It is a fundamental right of any minority to teach its children—in its own language—about its culture, religion, and heritage. Together with Israeli Arabs, we long for the peace that will enable them to develop full and close cultural ties with their brethren in neighboring countries.
The Jews, too, are divided, according to country of origin and cultural background; by ethnic groups and classes and parties; into secular and religious. The secular community may be further broken down into different worldviews, streams of thought, and movements actively engaged in building the country; the religious community may be broken down into different schools of thought, and into those who take an active part in building the country, and those who do not.
Is it justified for our educational system to be divided into different streams? Again, the answer is yes. Everyone must be allowed to live and to teach his children in accordance with his faith, so long as there is a shared foundation. It is a basic right of parents in a democratic society to have a say regarding the religious framework in which their children are educated. I can testify that it is actually the largest group among us, which advocates the idea of labor as essential to the survival of the Jewish state, that has not succeeded in transmitting to its children the idea of labor as a value to the degree it deserves.
As with culture, in education it is not diversity and different emphases that we should fear, but rather the possibility of blurring our self-image, of fostering a lack of individuality and an amorphous kind of mediocrity. I have never believed in the shallow concept of Israel as a “melting pot.” I would prefer to speak of ethnic groups and immigrant communities learning to live together, rather than assimilating into one another. Although our life may at times seem as heated and turbulent as a melting pot, people are not inarticulate metal, nor are intellectual and cultural traditions raw materials to be melted down and shaped anew. No one has the right to engineer the spirit, nor can the spirit be engineered.
Even if one may speak of a melting pot, there is clearly more than just one. What would the Israeli melting pot contain? If we say, everyone who lives in Israel, then we are naturally including Arabs. But if we mean a Jewish melting pot, which one? Religious? Secular? Again, even these groups are further divided into sub-groups, according to their roots and their history. This situation has obvious implications for our culture: Communities and individuals all have the right to preserve their uniqueness, so long as this is what they desire.
Educational and cultural integration does not imply the rejection of individualism. Nor does it mean simply nurturing the weakest among us, but rather maximizing the potential of every individual and group. Integration means a meeting of equals, despite their differences, on the basis of what they have in common, in order to preserve what they have in common. Mutual influence and cross-fertilization? By all means. But there is a difference between cross-fertilization, on the one hand, and negation or imitation of the other’s culture, on the other. For someone who imitates a culture wholesale–as opposed to integrating it into his own–is erasing his own identity. Put simply: Unity, yes; uniformity, no. For us, pluralism demands, first of all, openness to the other, to those who are different, and mutual respect among those who differ. Where mutual respect and openness are lacking, intolerance spreads; intolerance breeds suspicion, suspicion leads to alienation, and it is only one step from alienation to violence. Every segment of our people has something to give to the others, and something to learn from them. Our pluralism is a historical fact, and the wisdom of coexistence a basic condition of our existence. I consider this problem to be even more serious than the external threats to our existence.
In time we will achieve a synthesis, for every culture is a synthesis of past and present. When we do, it will no doubt reflect the complexity of our situation, an inevitable result of our special circumstances. To accelerate this process, however, we will have to strengthen our independent Jewish roots, which are shared by our entire people, and to integrate them with the highest universal values.
Honorable Speaker, it is not by chance that I have refrained from mentioning the problem of language. The Hebrew language is, without a doubt, the most important element of our culture’s foundation. Without it, our people would long ago have been silenced. To be cut off from our language is to be cut off from the whole of our great spiritual and literary heritage.
The Ministry of Education and Culture has done tremendous work in the area of language instruction. But no one should delude himself into thinking that with one or two thousand words we will succeed in passing on the different elements of our cultural heritage to the thousands of adult immigrants to our country. It is clear that in addition to teaching the language, we must offer them a common cultural framework, using pluralistic means rooted in language—such as a sort of “pocket library for the Jewish people” containing the best of our literature, Jewish history, and the history of the land of Israel and of Jewish settlement in the land, all in the immigrants’ native tongues. This is one way to accelerate the cultural integration of adult immigrants in Israel, and like education, it will lead to greater social integration as well. If we do not make this effort, there is a danger that, culturally, they will continue to live the inner life of an immigrant.
I do not fear for the future of Hebrew in our land. Its future is assured by the Hebrew school system, and by its being the mother tongue of the younger generation. What is not certain, however, is that their parents will read Bialik and Agnon, Burla and Hazaz, Shlonsky and Alterman, or the new generation of writers, unless they are translated. Indirectly, the translation of our country’s great literature will also serve as a cultural bridge between Israel and the diaspora.
There are additional ways to accelerate cultural integration. Theater, for instance. I cherish artistic freedom no less than academic freedom, and we dare not interfere with it. However, it is difficult to understand why, in a land of ingathered exiles, the Hebrew theater has not seen fit to stage new productions of the best of our own original repertoire. After all, there is always a new audience, thirsting to see a reflection of itself and its people in the looking glass of national culture. It would also be valuable for young people who have not yet seen and enjoyed these plays.
Another method is television. If there were a second channel, we could dedicate it to educational programming, for the enrichment and cultural edification of the entire population, above and beyond the artistic and cultural programs that already appear on the existing channel. Important steps have recently been taken in this direction. We could do great things with another channel, even though the accountants might see it as pointless. In Israel, there is indeed a shocking disparity between the investment in “bricks and mortar”—in mute buildings—and the investment in human culture.
Members of the Knesset, just as today’s youths are tomorrow’s Jewish people, the investment we make in culture today will determine how the culture of tomorrow looks. I will confess that for many years my ministry has been much more a Ministry of Education than a Ministry of Culture. The time has come to ensure a greater balance between the two.
Just as a political democracy that is not social is only a partial democracy, so too, a political and social democracy is not complete unless it is also cultural. That means investing in arts and culture. This is a kind of equilateral triangle whose sides together create a fully integrated democracy, a model society, at the center of which is the material and spiritual well-being of the individual, his personal and public dignity, his self-confidence, his rights within society, and his obligations to it. Or, in one sentence: It is an ideal society that puts man at its center.
* An organization of volunteers who guarded Jewish settlements in Palestine in the early 19th century.
** A cultural movement that started in the late 1930s, which rejected the Jewish heritage and identity in favor of a primordial, secular relationship to the land. Canaanism found expression in the works of literary figures like Yonatan Ratosh, Binyamin Tamuz, and Aharon Amir, and artists like Yitzhak Danziger and Rudi Lehmann.

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