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Between Courage and Despair

August 23, 2007 By:
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Avrum Burg

One of the most talked about items in the Jewish world this summer has been an interview published in Ha'aretz with former Knesset Speaker and Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Avrum Burg.

Burg, once the idol of the Jewish left and considered to be an eventual frontrunner for Israel's leadership, sat down for a chat with his old Peace Now comrade Ari Shavit, who is now a prominent journalist, to discuss his new book Defeating Hitler (now out in Hebrew but not yet published in English) in a piece that ran on July 6.

What Burg said to Shavit shocked much of the Jewish world. This son of one of Israel's founding fathers and a former leader of his country now seems to have renounced Zionism and opposes the very idea of a Jewish state. Worse, his contempt for Israeli society seems to be complete. Echoing the tactics of contemporary anti-Semites, he compares it to Nazi Germany.

Ignoring the reality of the tangible threat from Hamas, Hezbollah and an Iranian regime that seeks nuclear weapons, Burg sees only Jewish paranoia. Just as perversely, he idealizes the European Union (where he has obtained French citizenship) as a "biblical utopia" in spite of the rapid growth of anti-Semitism within its borders.

One-way Dialogue
Burg's views have earned him scorn from across the political spectrum. Though many Israelis share his frustration with the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, surely his apostasy had more to do with his own personal issues and political disappointments than anything else.

Yet, I was reminded of Burg's screed by a conversation I had with some people who were supposed to be the most hopeful in the country: fellows of the Galilead Fellows project. Founded by the Abraham Fund and funded in part by the United Jewish Communities, it brings young Jews and Arabs together to develop leadership for a peaceful future. Based in Israel's north, where approximately half of the population is Arab, the effort makes sense. We met in Sakhnin, an Arab city where the Israel Emergency Fund of the UJC supports a laudable project that helps the local disabled population.

At an event for visiting journalists, I had the opportunity to speak at length with a couple of the Jewish participants in Galilead and what they said led me to believe that perhaps Avi Burg wasn't quite as out of touch as I had been told.

Since the theme of the evening wasn't merely the goal of "coexistence" between two peoples but to promote "equality," I asked one of the fellows what that would mean in the context of an avowedly Jewish state, albeit one in which non-Jews still have equal rights under the law.

The response was more or less what Burg said in Ha'aretz. Her reply was that she saw no need to continue with Zionism or a Jewish state. She saw the conflict with the Arabs as being entirely Israel's fault. Indeed, if she had any hostility, it was for the Jews of the neighboring town of Karmiel who saw their role in the region as helping to preserve the Galilee for the Jewish people.

But more chilling was the response of the other Jewish fellow at the table. Eschewing the radicalism of her friend, the other participant in the project simply said that unless the conflict ended, she was no longer interested in living in the country.

Such sentiments, though hardly widespread, are beginning to be heard more and more among Israeli elites, especially in the arts, academia and journalism. But as easy as it is to highlight these articulate extremists, there is no reason to think that most Israelis agree.

The reaction of the country to the challenge of last year's Second Lebanon War was in some ways actually quite encouraging. As a military spokesperson who conducted me and other journalists on a tour of the now quiet border with Lebanon reminded us, last year's army reserves call-up was an indication of the country's resilience. The rate of response was well over 100 percent with not only virtually all of those required to do so showing up to serve but with many volunteers arriving at the depots and demanding to be given a rifle or a job.

One need only look at the town of Sederot and the surrounding settlements, where seven years of Palestinian Kassam rockets have made life there a living hell for its people to discover Jewish courage and perseverance. A day spent there gave me ample evidence of anger with Israel's government. But unlike the intellectuals who have lost their faith, its citizens were united behind the imperative that they would never give in to the enemy and abandon their homes.

Education The Key
Unlike Burg, most Israelis are clearly not giving up. But what then is to be done about the elites? Dialogue projects like Galilead are well-intentioned but clearly do nothing to reinforce Zionist values. One group that is worried about this disconnect is the Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem that has been working for more than a decade trying to promote a rededication to Zionist values via the study of history and ideas. Their notion has been that the best way to preserve Israel is to promote ideas that underpin the country's legitimacy.

Shalem's president Daniel Polisar told me in his Jerusalem office that the divide between the mass of Israelis who are deeply patriotic and the elites who have lost faith is a critical issue that must be addressed.

Part of the problem, he says, is that although institutions of higher education are growing in Israel, there is a void in terms of liberal arts since virtually all college degrees are earned in specialties. For example, law students earn a law degree without being required to do an undergrad degree in an academic course first. The result is a generation of lawyers -- and lawmakers -- who have not studied courses that could give them an ideological foundation for their nation.

His answer is to create an elite liberal arts college that will attract Israel's best and brightest and give them a course load, taught in Hebrew, that will combine the great books required curriculum (modeled after that taught in universities in the United States such as Columbia) of the West and a comprehensive tour of the treasures of Jewish and Hebrew civilization.

"There's a rapidly growing awareness that the problems of Israel and the Jewish people today exist in the realm of ideas," Polisar asserts. His Shalem College will, he promises, open its doors in the fall of 2010 to 1,000 undergrads from Israel and the Diaspora.

Polisar believes "Great societies require great insights of thought and learning." That can only be provided for Israel by a break with the existing academic culture, which will train a new generation of leaders steeped in Jewish and Zionist values that the critics of Israel's legitimacy have either forgot or never learned.

This is but one attempt, albeit a highly ambitious one, to ensure that voices such as Burg and my friends at Galilead are not the future of Israel. But so long as the ordinary people of Sederot and their kindred spirits amid the thinkers at Shalem are similarly willing to keep fighting, there is no reason to despair about the future of the Jewish State.  

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