Avigdor Kahalani, one of Israel’s legendary heroes in war and peace, used to take large groups of Israeli youths on tours of the Galilee’s historic sites. At the end of the tour, he would gather them in a huge natural amphitheatre and unfold Israel’ s flag. “This is your identity!” he would tell them. “This is your pride! The symbol of your freedom, of your heritage, of your nation!” Hundreds of kids would roar with enthusiasm.
But not everyone was as enthusiastic as the kids. There were also cynics who responded with seething criticism to what they saw as a display of pompous nationalism.
I am reminded of Kahalani and his critics by the response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at this year’s Herzliya Conference.
The prime minister surprised Israelis by choosing to devote the bulk of his February 3 address not to Iran or to relations with the Palestinians — the types of topics that are usually the focus of speeches at the high-profile annual gathering of Israel’s policy elites — but rather to education. Specifically, he spoke at length about “educating children about the values connected to our identity and heritage, teaching children to know our people’s history, educating young people and adults to deepen our ties to one another and to this place.”
Netanyahu discussed the urgency of connecting Israelis to Jewish and Zionist history, of studying the Bible, of encouraging visits to sites of national importance and of enabling Israelis to hike and explore their country. “A people must know its past in order to ensure its future,” he said.
The response from the pundits was predictable: Ridiculous! Irrelevant! Lame! Covering the conference for Tablet, Judith Miller described reactions to Netanyahu’s speech as “angry” and “furious.” According to journalist Lisa Goldman, one conference organizer remarked, “That was embarrassing.”
But if Netanyahu’s speech is cause for “embarrassment,” it only shows how far some of his critics have fallen from the ideals of those who founded and built the state.
Israel’s founders realized the importance of education in the forging of the new nation. They paid tribute to Jewish heroes, from biblical figures to Zionist legends like Joseph Trumpeldor and Sarah Aharonson. They saw the historic sites throughout the Land of Israel as Zionism’s touchstones. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, hosted a weekly Bible study group and often met with academics, philosophers and writers to discuss the contributions — past and future — of the Jewish people to the world.
“This nation, that has been inspired by historic destiny and the vision of the messianic age, needs an education that isn’t focused only on the present needs, but also on the future,” Ben-Gurion proclaimed. “We shall not be worthy of the great history of our people if we don’t offer our youth the great vision of our prophets.”
But Ben-Gurion is gone, and his successors didn’t carry on his efforts to instill Jewish and Zionist values in the younger generations. Some believed that Zionism naturally flowed in the veins of every young Israeli, and that such efforts were thus superfluous. Others were of the opinion that education in Jewish values was too nationalistic, and that it would be better to concentrate on universal rights. The Israeli media, cynical, nihilistic and often vicious, contributed to the fading of the idealistic — and often endearingly naïve — beliefs of the state’s founding generations.
The results are clear: We have seen a drop in Zionist motivation and a legitimization of emigration from Israel, with 35% of Israeli youths saying in a 2007 poll that they would consider moving abroad. Growing numbers of Israelis — including popular actors, singers and sports figures — evade military service. Worst of all, there has been an erosion in our certitude in the righteousness of our cause and a diminishing of the feeling that we can be proud of our state, of our army, of our national institutions.
In the last poem he wrote before his death, Israel’s national poet, Nathan Alterman, described Satan’s efforts to destroy the people of Israel: “Then Satan said: I will not take his strength/Nor fetter nor restrain him/I will not weaken his will/Nor dampen his spirit/This will I do: Dull his brain — until he forgets that justice is his.”
A return to strong, pure Zionist motivation is possible only through education. For years, many of us have warned against the neglect of our heritage and our values by successive governments. We published books about our values and history and offered them as high school graduation gifts to our youth — but many school principals preferred buying them travel kits or fashionable backpacks. Political and social leaders kept shaking their heads glumly and declaring that something must be done for education. But nothing much happened.
Then, all of a sudden, Israel’s prime minister steps up to the podium at the Herzliya Conference and dares to make a speech on the importance of education as a major component of Israel’s national security. A speech that should have been given decades earlier, but wasn’t, in support of educational policies that should have been enacted long ago, but weren’t.
Perhaps critics of Netanyahu’s Herzliya speech would have preferred another tedious recitation of Israeli warnings about Iran’s nuclear program. No matter that this subject was discussed, dissected and analyzed in speech after speech during the conference. Another repetition by anybody, even by the prime minister, wouldn’t have added value.
The Iranian menace is real and ominous; Syria’s threats are distressing; the Palestinians’ reluctance on peace talks is disturbing; the Goldstone Report is revolting. But in order to face these dangers — and so much more — we need to have a highly motivated nation, aware of the miraculous nature of her revival in her land, dedicated to the goals of Zionism and to eternal Jewish values.
As far as Israel’s national security is concerned, Netanyahu’s speech was the most relevant of the 10th-annual Herzliya Conference.
Michael Bar-Zohar is the official biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres and a former member of the Knesset.