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Zionism's New Challenge

By Assaf Inbari

Why we need a Jewish melting pot.


That said, certain symbols have been enduring and vital. Memorial ceremonies for fallen soldiers, for example, have always evoked an authentic feeling of camaraderie among most citizens, and certain songs, whose lyrics and melodies captured the prevailing national mood, have become pivotal, formative themes for millions of Israelis. And the Hebrew language has undoubtedly done more to unite us than anything else. Indeed, if Israel is a melting pot, Hebrew is the chef’s mixing spoon: Polish and Moroccan, Russian and Ethiopian, British and Argentinean-all of these people become Israeli upon achieving mastery of the Hebrew language. As a result, Israeli society is that much less tribal-and that much more unified.
In this respect, at least, the melting pot has been rather successful, especially considering that it has just begun to boil. Nevertheless, the fusion of various ethnic groups, as important as it may be, is not the same as the fusion of the three Jewish nations-secular, Haredi, and religious Zionist-into a single people. For the success of the ethnic fusion depends on a successful Jewish amalgamation. Most Sephardi and Ethiopian immigrants, for instance, consider themselves either religious or “traditional.” Their Jewish identity is worth no less-indeed more-to them than their ethnicity, and it is this identity that distinguishes them from secular Western Jews. Russian immigrants, by contrast, are by and large secular, and their culture is Russian, not Jewish. But precisely because the “Russian and Israeli cultures are missing a common language,” as the writer Anna Isakova puts it, “can the only common language be provided by turning to Jewish culture, to our common heritage.”18
We ought to be aiming for a united nation, not a uniform one. Ben-Gurion dreamt of a secular homogeneity, much as the Haredi rabbis dream of a halachic homogeneity. But such dreams destroy whatever chance we may have of a multi-dimensional national unity. Uniformity steamrolls over cultural identity. Unity, on the other hand, is a cross-cultural partnership, which is always greater than the sum of its parts.
In the mid-1970s, from the Yom Kippur War and Ben-Gurion’s death in 1973 until the Likud party’s rise to power in 1977, the dream of secular homogeneity was shattered, and the dream of multi-culturalism took its place. When Ben-Gurion’s melting pot broke apart, we were all left holding on to the pieces: Our glorified military leaders and heroes. Yitzhak Rabin, Yigael Yadin, Rafael Eitan, Avigdor Kahalani, Rehavam Ze’evi, Ehud Barak, Efraim Eitam, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Amram Mitzna, Ariel Sharon. For the last 30 years, the vast majority of those elected to party leadership, if not the premiership itself, are ex-generals. What does this say about the Israeli electorate?
Naturally, a society under constant threat of war casts its lot with those experienced in the art of battle. But that is not the whole story. Put simply, the ex-general is the “ultimate Israeli.” He is Ben-Gurion’s melting pot sabra in the flesh. He is also, unfortunately, impervious to the question of Jewish national identity. Education, media, culture-the factors that truly shape both individual and collective identities-are the last things to concern a military man, if indeed they concern him at all. But perhaps they do not concern us very much, either, since we are the ones who keep electing them.
Indeed, the one-dimensional ex-general is the perennial favorite of a multi-cultural society. Absent a multi-dimensional identity of its own, such a society naturally looks to its military leaders for reassurance-and thus avoids those nagging questions about national values, goals, and mission. “This is a sick and polarized society,” said veteran politician Yitzhak Ben-Aharon shortly after Rabin’s assassination. “It has nothing to believe in. With a sincere, sweeping type of mourning, we’ve latched on to Rabin as a way to believe in something.”19
His observation was correct not only with regard to the candle-holding youth in Rabin Square, but also to the Israeli public that, three years before, had elected Rabin because it had nothing to believe in. Indeed, Rabin offered no platform other than his personality: No agenda, no ideology, no concrete promises of any kind. No one could have guessed-let alone Rabin himself-that in the years to come he’d be shaking Arafat’s hand. Just as no one could possibly have guessed that, ten years hence, prime minister Ariel Sharon would uproot Gaza’s settlements-the very ones he’d helped to build-after taking office. Rabin was elected because he stood for nothing. We chose a person, not a worldview.
Rabin’s first government fell on the same night that Maccabi Tel Aviv won the European Championship Cup, asserting its status as “the nation’s team.” Thousands of Israelis thronged to what would become Rabin Square, cavorting in the fountains just feet from where a prime minister, in a few years’ time, would be shot in the back. Rabin was assassinated in the Piazza of the Melting Pot Delusion. And he was murdered, in no small part, because Ben-Gurion’s melting pot was never Jewish.
 
A Jewish melting pot requires two simultaneous developments: A secular Jewish awakening, and a religious process of halachic renewal. The following are two possible ways these might be accomplished; the first in the realm of education, and the second in the realm of the arts.
Halachic thought is the cornerstone of Jewish thought, and it is profoundly neglected by Israel’s secular school system. The Bible is taught in every Protestant school in the world; it is, by now, hardly “ours.” The Oral Tora, by contrast, is the Jewish Tora, and the secular establishment’s failure to teach it has turned Israel into a strange nation of Protestant Hebrews. Certainly, the Oral Tora ought to be a staple of every Israeli high school curriculum. It should be a required subject, not an optional course that students are permitted to ignore. At least as many hours should be devoted to the study of the halacha as are devoted to the study of the Bible.20
Is this cultural coercion? Perhaps. But there is no education without coercion. A tradition does not fall from the sky. It has to be taught. We learn math, language, civics, science, and history through precisely the same kind of “coercion.” If our children are to be Jews, and not Protestant Hebrews, the Oral Tora must be one of the core subjects in secular Israeli schools.
Of course, as is the case with all subjects taught in school, there is an interesting way to approach the study of halachic texts, and there is a tedious way. If, for instance, the oral tradition is presented as material to be learned by rote-no different from, say, the multiplication tables-students will climb the walls out of boredom. Fortunately, however, the oral tradition naturally lends itself to a more absorbing approach. The Jewish individual is a legalistic entity. Judaism defines every human action, every natural urge-eating, working, making love-in both positive and negative legal terms. This is kosher and that is treif; this is ritually pure and that is ritually unclean; this is permitted and that is forbidden. Nothing is simply neutral. The legal, Jewish way of thinking should be taught as an existential attitude. Here, the method is the point; as such, the goal should not be the recitation of laws. Rather, it should be the acquisition of a whole new set of cognitive tools.
And while we’re on the topic: Why don’t Israeli high schools teach law? If thinking Jewishly means thinking legalistically, shouldn’t high school students be learning the fundamentals of both civil and criminal law, as then-education minister Amnon Rubinstein suggested in 1995? How many Israeli students-indeed, how many Israeli adults-know the difference between civil and criminal law? Between crime and misconduct? Between illegal actions and those that are merely unseemly? These differences are of vital importance, but the majority of Israelis are ignorant of them. After all, ignorance of the law is convenient. It absolves us, much like the status quo, of the need to formulate common values and objectives.
Not surprisingly, then, the legal system has become a clearinghouse for all of Israel’s social dilemmas, chief among them the issue of what our self-defined status as “a Jewish and democratic state” actually means.21 Aharon Barak, then-chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, observed in 1997 that
establishing the scope of application of this saying [the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”] will keep us busy for a long time. By us” I am referring to Israeli society as a whole, not just its legal community, since this saying reflects what is unique about the State of Israel and about Israeli society. We are not like all the other nations; we are not like any other country.… Every stratum of Israeli society will have to ask itself what the values of Israel as a Jewish country and as a democracy are.22
Which just goes to show: Even a chief justice famed for his judicial activism does not believe that the legal system is the appropriate body to determine the ethical content of Israeli public life.


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