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The Crisis of Israeli Culture

By Yigal Alon

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


Statesman and military leader Yigal Alon was born in Kefar Tavor in the Lower Galilee in 1918. During the Arab riots of 1936-1939, he became active in the Hagana—the pre-state underground defense force—and   in 1941 helped to found its commando unit, the Palmah. Alon commanded a series of decisive operations in the War of Independence, and came to be regarded as one of the IDF’s most important field commanders. Elected to the Knesset in 1954 as a member of the Workers’ Unity Party, Alon served as minister of labor from 1961 to 1968, and was a member of the inner cabinet that set Israel’s strategy during the Six Day War. From 1969 to 1974, he held the post of minister of education and culture, and from 1974 to 1977 he was Israel’s foreign minister.
The following speech was delivered to the Knesset in 1972 to mark the 23rd anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli parliament.
 
Mr. Speaker, honorable Knesset. On this, its birthday, the Knesset is to be congratulated for holding a special session on culture in Israeli society, a topic which, if I am not mistaken, has never been discussed in any formal manner in these halls before.
If we were to judge the state of our culture by the attention it has received from the Knesset, we would find little reason to celebrate. Perhaps there are no objective criteria for such a judgment, but certainly the symptoms are not lacking. One is the growing withdrawal of philosophers, writers, and artists from involvement in setting the future course of our society, even in those areas in which they have the most to contribute. This is not because of indifference on their part. There was a time, not long ago, when their voices not only were heard, but played a leading role. Whether they have removed themselves from the public discourse or were forced out—and I fear it is more the latter than the former—their lack of involvement may not harm them, their thought, or their works, but it impoverishes us.
Who is to blame for this crisis? Is it their fault, or is it ours? Do they now simply have less to offer in shaping our society and culture, or should we view their absence as evidence that our society has become weaker, more alienated from cultural concerns, and therefore from matters intellectual as well? Or perhaps it is a combination of both?
“The creative spirit,” wrote President Zalman Shazar on the occasion of Haim Nahman Bialik’s fiftieth birthday, “draws its sustenance from the same wellsprings from which the nation’s heroic achievements emerge. Fortunate is the generation whose creative spirit and heroic achievements emerge at the same point in history, with great force, and in concert.” Indeed, it is precisely the coordination between creative acts and the creative spirit—without which the acts are meaningless—that has been undermined in our society.
This development should cause us concern, as should the fact that the men of creative spirit—philosophers, writers, and artists—are not being heard in this debate, just as they have not been heard in other matters that concern this parliament. This, too, is symptomatic of an absence of the kind of coordination that Shazar wrote about, and indicates a perilous alienation of the intellectual, the creator of culture, from the trends and movements in Israeli public life.
Honorable Knesset, although this discussion is taking place on the Knesset’s birthday, I hope that discussion of this subject will not be limited to celebrations only. For the cultural and spiritual values of our people are not like the festive Sabbath challa, but more like our daily bread—indispensable to both man and society.
With your permission, then, I would like to focus on a few questions that are unique to Israeli society, and to show how they are manifest in a number of areas. I will avoid, to the extent I can, addressing the problems of education, although all education worthy of the name is both the bedrock of culture and the gateway to it, on the individual, national, and universal levels.
What I will say here should not be viewed as a clearly worked-out or finalized set of ideas, but rather as the kind of thinking aloud that will, I hope, serve more as an introduction to a broader discussion than as a conventional platform for parliamentary debate.
The word “culture” has many different meanings, especially in Hebrew, which does not make the fine but critical distinction between “culture,” on the one hand, and “civilization” or “enlightenment,” on the other. These concepts do not necessarily overlap in full, though they are interrelated. Yet in our language, there is a wonderful expression that is not used in other languages: Tarbut haim, a “culture of living.” I will therefore devote the first part of my speech to this expression, and to how it manifests itself in everyday life.
 
My fellow Knesset members, we are the heirs of an ancient people, with a rich intellectual and cultural heritage second to none. Our society, however, is still in its infancy, and like any new creation, is not yet fully formed. It sees itself, and rightly so, as the legitimate heir to the entire intellectual and cultural legacy of the Jewish people through the ages. Yet sometimes it behaves as though everything in it has been created from scratch. Continuity and revolution, tradition and innovation mix together in dizzying confusion. On the one hand, there is a deep and powerful sense of history within Israeli society; on the other, a no-less-powerful tendency towards the ahistorical. The latter is particularly strong among those who were born or educated here; within them these two tendencies strive together, coexisting in one culture like two chambers of the same heart.
I will not dwell here on the historical roots of this conflict. It is enough to say that it did not begin here: It can be seen in our literature of recent generations, and as early as the Second Aliya it was visible in one form or another. It was given clear and concrete expression, however, in the lifestyle of the members of Hashomer,* who, having turned their backs on their Western past, and in their enthusiasm to revive their ancient, Eastern identity, adopted the external trappings and romanticized way of life of the “Wild East.” And indeed they had faithful heirs: The barefoot pioneers, members of the Workers’ Brigade, who were mighty in spirit and refused to accept reality as they found it, instead rolling up their sleeves to lay the foundation of a different reality for themselves and their people.
It was Avraham Shlonsky, himself a member of the Workers’ Brigade, who best described their world and their state of mind in his satirical work, “From Tomato to Symphony”:
Thus danced the children who had rebelled, who carried the weight of their past; and their present, longing for a different future, was impatient to move on.
Their past—city and town, their childhood home, its lifestyle and customs, and a classroom, with its concepts and values—all of these were suddenly rejected in their passion to change and cut themselves off, which they needed to do in order to begin laying down new roots: In new surroundings, with a new morality, with a hierarchy of values turned upside down. With a kind of mental “burning of the hametzֹ.
We tried to discard the entire culture, so bowed down were we from study. We made ourselves ignorant and went barefoot, to please ourselves, and to spite others.
From the beginning this was a kind of anti-culture, deliberately rough and masculine; an antithesis that was barely conscious of how closely tied it was to the thesis against which it rebelled. Yet in the end, when they got over their “childhood malady,” these pioneers laid the foundations of a living Hebrew civilization, whose society and institutions are awe-inspiring.


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