THE JERUSALEM POST - March, 21 2001


By Michael Freund

Israel is famous for many things, but civil discourse isn't one of them. In a political culture oddly reminiscent of American professional wrestling, with its outlandish scripts, bizarre characters and predictable cliffhanger finales, Israel's democracy is as vibrant as it is chaotic. But, whereas America's wrestlers deliver blows that are staged for effect, Israel's political pugilists strike with far more painful force.

Indeed, Israel's intellectual vanguard has wasted little time in directing its acrimony at newly appointed Education Minister Limor Livnat. Livnat was just settling into her new position when she came under fire for daring to suggest that the Jewish state ought to be teaching Zionist and Jewish values in its classrooms.

This "sin" was compounded by her decision to remove an inflammatory poem by a Palestinian militant nationalist from the Israeli school curriculum. Livnat further raised the Left's ire when she barred an Education Ministry textbook deemed unfit because it distorted Israeli and Jewish history.

Sadly, rather than criticizing Livnat on the merits of her decisions, many of her detractors have resorted to the lowest of schoolyard tactics: name-calling. Examples, unfortunately, abound.

Columnist Gidon Spiro compared Livnat's actions to the repressive measures adopted by the Chinese Communist party against its foes (Kol Hazman, March 16). Hebrew University Prof. Eli Poudeh warned that if Livnat continues on her current course, "the Education Ministry will turn into, in the words of George Orwell, the Ministry of 'Truth' " (Ha'aretz, March 19).

Even more distressing is that some of Israel's leading writers have joined the fray, tossing aside thoughtful analysis in favor of mudslinging. Tom Segev, considered to be one of Israel's top journalists, labeled Livnat the "Batwoman of Zionism" and asserted, "Her fury transforms her into a sister of the Buddha-smashing Taliban in Afghanistan" (Ha'aretz, March 16). Columnist Yoel Marcus invoked the shadows of the past when he wrote, "What will she do next? Burn books in the downtown districts of Israel's cities?" (Ha'aretz, March 16).

It is simply astonishing that a government minister is attacked for trying to instill in Israeli schoolchildren the most cherished values and beliefs of our people. That, after all, is why schools exist - to teach not merely the mechanics of mathematics, but the qualities of good citizenship. And to be a good citizen in Israel means to appreciate and understand the country's history, traditions and heritage.

Equally astonishing is the manner in which this "debate" is being conducted. Those opposing Livnat have vilified her rather than criticized her. They claim to be coming to the defense of our children's education - but the manner in which they do so only sets a poor example for those very same kids.

It is clear that Israel's schools desperately need a strong injection of Zionist and Jewish values. Israeli youth need to be reminded why they are here and why the State of Israel is far more than just another Levantine state with decent cable TV.

To infuse Israeli students with a greater sense of attachment to the country, we can start by insisting that every schoolroom be adorned with a large Israeli flag next to the blackboard. There is no reason why the national symbol should be virtually invisible in our nation's schools.

Similarly, the singing of "Hatikva," the national anthem, should become a regular part of every school's routine. Growing up in the United States, I recited the "Pledge of Allegiance" at the beginning of every school day, and I remember it still. With its beautiful words and stirring music, "Hatikva" should resonate off students' lips every morning.

Another untapped resource is Israel's wealth of national and historical sites. Though occasional school trips incorporate such places in their itinerary, it is essential that they become a more frequent part of the curriculum. Nothing can be more powerful or educational than to visit the sites of our people's triumphs and tribulations.

Finally, we need to remind ourselves and our children that nationalism is not a dirty word. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century French philosopher and a favorite among Western liberals, wrote, "Do we wish men to be virtuous? Then let us begin by making them love their country." How sad that his would-be intellectual heirs in Israel seem to have forgotten this basic truth.

(The writer served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999.)

(c) Jerusalem Post 2001

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