On the Heritage Trail

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Unlike Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not have to take a stroll on the Temple Mount to provoke Palestinian Arab leaders into threatening mayhem. Instead, Netanyahu simply announced a comprehensive plan to strengthen Israel's national heritage by rehabilitating and preserving archaeological and historic sites, developing historic trails, and conserving photographs, films, books, and music of archival value. "A people," he declared, "must know its past in order to ensure its future."

Unveiled on February 2, the plan was greeted with a yawn by the mainstream Israeli media, mixed with a few deprecating remarks about Jewish chauvinism, and was largely ignored by Palestinians. Not until three weeks later did Arab riots break out in Hebron and spread to Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount, where dozens of Palestinian youths locked themselves in a mosque after hurling rocks at visitors to the plateau.

What happened in the meantime was this. Right-wing Israelis protested when it emerged that neither the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron nor Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, both of them integral to the civilization and sacred history of the Jews, was on the list of designated sites. On February 21, Netanyahu duly announced their inclusion. But the two sites (whose status remains otherwise unchanged) are in territory claimed by the Palestinian Authority, which views Israeli Jews as colonialist interlopers. PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas promptly warned that Netanyahu's "provocation" could "lead to a holy war." Forget could, said Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh, urging an intifada: should.

Yet the projected enterprise, whatever missteps may have attended its inception, is both entirely normal and entirely legitimate. It is also an urgent need. The state of Jewish identity in the Jewish state is, paradoxically, shaky. In the private lives of many, Judaism has decreasing significance. Many secular youngsters attend schools where neither Jewish subjects nor Jewish values are high on the curriculum. Meanwhile, among their insular ultra-Orthodox counterparts, civics and Zionism are hardly taught at all. And then there are the post-Zionists, some of whom fully embrace the Arab narrative and see the establishment of their country as "original sin" while others shun any emphasis on the specifically Jewish aspect of their national history.

This, then, is the context in which Netanyahu's call should be understood. Nor is his a lone voice. Natan Sharansky, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, has launched his moribund organization on a new mission: to build the Jewish people into a connected family—and to link Israelis to their Jewish roots. Both men are saying that the culture, traditions, and historical consciousness handed down through the generations comprise the birthright of the Jewish people. Is this national heritage to be lightly abdicated, and in the name of what?

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