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Creating Common Cultural Identity in a Diverse Israel

Benjamin Ish-Shalom and Elazar Stern are the quintessential odd couple.

Professor Ish-Shalom, dressed formally in a suit and tie with wire-rim glasses, sideburns and slightly disheveled hair, looks every bit the academic. The founder and rector of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem: The Academic Center for Jewish Studies and Leadership, Ish-Shalom speaks with the precision of a man who for 16 years taught Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University.

Brigadier General Stern wears a short-sleeved, open-collared, Israeli army uniform shirt — he admits not knowing how to tie a necktie — and has the neat, close-cropped hair of a career soldier. The chief educational officer for the Israel Defense Forces, Stern is plainspoken and personable, offering sometimes-rambling anecdotes to make a point.

But the two have more in common than the knitted yarmulkes on their heads. The two are leading an ambitious new effort to transform the Israeli army into a vehicle for teaching its soldiers Jewish and Zionist values, training unit commanders to double as educators. They hope that the army can build what Ish-Shalom calls a “common language” for an increasingly diverse and fractious Israeli society.

“From both of our perspectives — different perspectives — we came to the same conclusion: that this project is of great need for the IDF. And since we share an open-minded vision, and we share the same values of tolerance and pluralism, I believe we really succeed in working together,” said Ish-Shalom, who along with Stern met with the Forward during a recent trip to New York to drum up support among potential donors for the army’s new “Jewish and Zionist Identity Project.”

The project will integrate a new curriculum on Jewish and Zionist identity into all command training courses. Commanders in turn will be expected to educate their soldiers on these issues.

The army’s chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, initiated the project, and the army has allocated $1.5 million for its first year. Beit Morasha, the project’s chief educational consultant, is working to raise an additional half-million dollars to cover its own costs. The program’s official kick-off is scheduled for July 27 with a seminar for generals. Organizers expect 10,000 soldiers and commanders to participate in the program’s courses during the next year. Already developed are 40 educational units with titles ranging from “Between the Prophecies of Ezekiel and the Vision of Binyamin Zeev Herzl” to “The Sabbath as an Educational Tool for Social Building.”

“It is not a top secret that the Israeli society is passing through an identity crisis,” Ish-Shalom said. “Our youngsters have to face serious spiritual, intellectual and existential challenges. They are going to fight for their country and endanger their lives.”

“The educational system in Israel,” he added, “unfortunately does not meet these challenges.”

Ish-Shalom said that fewer and fewer high school students take their matriculation examinations in Bible, and most new recruits to the army have never even visited Jerusalem. Meanwhile, he said, nearly a quarter of new recruits are immigrants to Israel, largely from the former Soviet Union, many of whom “have no Jewish background [or] Jewish education.” The army’s program, he added, “is their first opportunity to meet these concepts and to really to get to know their culture, their heritage.”

Stern — in keeping with his motto of “A nation builds army builds a nation” — called the army “the best organization to promote every issue” because it encompasses recruits from nearly all sectors of Israeli society, most of whom serve at an age when “you can still influence them.” Stern, a 46-year-old father of five, said that the opportunity to “build bridges within the Israeli society” is a main reason he decided to become a career officer.

Stern, the son of Holocaust survivors — “I consider myself also a survivor,” he said — is the first Orthodox Jew to serve as the army’s chief educational officer. He has served in the army for 27 years, first as a paratrooper and eventually rising to division commander. He was commander of the officers’ training academy, a perch from which in 1995 he accused several Orthodox rabbis of having “crossed the line of Israeli democracy” after they called on soldiers to disobey any orders to evacuate settlements.

In the nearly four years that he has been the chief educational officer, he has managed to garner quite a bit of attention — and, at times, criticism. He has taken aim at the army’s previous code of ethics for its lack of focus on Jewish identity. he has allowed mixed-gender choirs to perform at the annual army-sponsored televised Bible quiz, dismissing concerns about offending Orthodox Jews who believe men should not listen to women sing. He has suggested that immigrant soldiers who are not Jewish by Orthodox rabbinic standards suffer from an “identity problem” which sometimes reduces their motivation, and that the conversion process should therefore be made more accessible.

Ish-Shalom, 50, a father of six who describes himself as Modern Orthodox, has been exposed to Israel’s religious diversity since childhood. “I grew up in the midst of both populations in Israel — religious and nonreligious,” he said. “My own family has religious and nonreligious members, and I had religious education together with secular education, and I really know very well both worlds.”

Ish-Shalom said he founded Beit Morasha 13 years ago to remedy “a lack of understanding between the different segments of the Jewish people… by educating a new type of Jewish citizen” who is both “rooted deeply in their tradition and their heritage” and “sensitive to various segments of their people.”

For the past four years Ish-Shalom has served as chairman of the so-called “Joint Conversion Institute” set up by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency. Run by representatives of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements to prepare candidates for conversion, the effort, he said, has so far yielded 750 converts, although the numbers would be much higher if not for rabbinical courts imposing preconditions on prospective converts that are “not halachic” and “not realistic.”

Stern has collaborated with Ish-Shalom on the army’s conversion program, whose participants now number several hundred. “We must create for [immigrant soldiers] a conversion process that they will think much more friendly than the process outside of the army,” Stern said.

Stern suggested that the past two and a half years of conflict have opened “windows of opportunity” to tackle the difficult issues of identity.

“Because now, with the current situation in Israel, we must sacrifice and pay such an extensive price for living here,” he said. “It’s a window of opportunity to deal with identity and what’s the reason for us to be a nation and to be ready to pay the price that we continue to pay.”

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