Who's Sadat? Or, Defining Israel Literacy Upward

By David B. Starr
Monday, March 4, 2013

At a Shabbat dinner not too long ago, I referred to the excitement caused by “Sadat's trip to Jerusalem” in 1977.  "Who's Sadat?" asked my neighbor--a rabbinical student.  I was shocked.  I had already read and been alarmed by Daniel Gordis' 2011 article in Commentary about young rabbis turning against Israel.  Still, I had imagined that even the rabbis he described (and I'm still not sure how representative they are) knew something about what they were rejecting.  But if this young man, who was by no means an anti-Zionist, didn't know something so basic, what could one conclude about the rest of his age cohort?  

I can't say what percentage of the younger American rabbis are able to identify the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, but I do know that the rank and file of American Jewry is becoming less and less well informed about Zionism and Israel—and so is its leadership, professional and lay.  While this is lamentable, it is also, in a way, a sign of strength.  When Israel was new, small, and weak, it needed the Diaspora to furnish immigrants, money, and political support.  In the days when they were worried about Israel, Diaspora Jews kept their eyes focused on it.  Now, however, when Israel has become a more mature, stable society, by far the strongest state in its region, it commands much less attention.  And since, as Hillel Halkin observed some years ago, American and Israeli Jewry live largely separate lives, why should we be surprised if the former loses sight of the latter?

There are, of course, other factors in play here.  To some extent, ignorance of Israel reflects assimilation and ignorance of things Jewish in general.  Some unassimilated American Jews are much more interested in their own spiritual journeys than they are in something as down-to-earth as Zion.  Others, who do care about what happens here below, don't like what they see coming out of Israel—a country that they perceive, sadly enough, as more than anything else an occupier and an oppressor.

But whatever the cause—benign neglect of Israel or alienation from it—the result is usually the same: a shameful lack of knowledge.  Shameful, however, is not the same thing as inevitable.  Is there anything that can be done to alter the current situation?

Adult educational programs can remedy many of our current ills.  As the founding dean of Boston’s Jewish adult education program, Me'ah (Hebrew for “100,” the number of hours in a two-year Me’ah course), which has served in recent years as a national model, I have seen how a concerted effort can go a long way toward establishing a higher level of Jewish literacy, not least among skilled professionals working in Jewish communal institutions.  Something like Me'ah could no doubt help to increase Israel literacy in a similar fashion, and it could have a ripple effect similar to the one that Me’ah has had on the entire Jewish community of Greater Boston and other areas.    

To achieve its goals, such a program needs two things: educational excellence and an openness to what I’d term “strangeness” rather than “relevance.”  Educational excellence requires a coherent philosophy, as well as a curriculum that embodies and elaborates that philosophy.  This curriculum must be attentive both to historical context and the content of ideas.  The people who present it are of crucial importance.  Me'ah has succeeded because it has featured top-flight instructors, people with deep expertise in their subjects as well as a readiness to take their adult students seriously.  Me'ah has always demonstrated a strong commitment to the autonomy of the learner: no hidden agendas lurk in the program or the teaching.  Me'ah-style education on the subject of Israel would have to be provided by genuine experts who strive not to indoctrinate but to teach in an open and honest fashion.  

Second, it is necessary to come face to face with strangeness.  From its inception, Zionism constituted a revolutionary challenge to the Diaspora and its way of life.  The special character of the Zionist idea cannot be understood without confronting its preference for Jewish sovereignty over the integration of Jews into other nations.  In many of its iterations, Zionism has placed a higher value on the community than the freedom of the individual.  The serious study of Zionism and Israel therefore requires Diaspora Jews to distance themselves from some of their most cherished ideas and think critically not just about texts and ideas but about what it means to have a Jewish nationalist worldview.

Right now, I am aware, increasing money and effort are being poured into Israel education. But they are not being invested wisely.  Most new efforts speak of "encounter", "engagement", or "experience"—that is, creating events, led by rabbis, educators, or communal professionals, at which people can share their opinions and feelings.  This may serve some useful purpose, but how do these encounters enable people to build skills and knowledge?  What do people learn in their meetings about who Ben-Gurion was, what he did, and what difference those deeds made in his time and for ours?  And do encounters, engagements, or experiences really afford their participants an opportunity to exercise their personal autonomy as human beings, learners, and Jews?

A relatively new concept made its way into Israeli educational life a few years ago—the idea of gibush, which could perhaps best be translated as “crystallization.”  Gibush conveys the sense that learning should be civic in nature.  One enters an educational experience not just for the experience itself, or for personal growth, but to learn how to take responsibility for something larger than oneself. The group forms the individual, and vice versa. Deep education organized around Zionism and Israel should take this notion to heart, and focus on pointing the individual toward Jewish history, Jewish ideas, and Jewish purposes, not via comfortable chat but by bringing learners into the conversation that constituted a key part of Zionism from the beginning.  What is anti-Semitism, and is it inevitable?  What right do the Jews have to resettle Palestine?  How ought they to relate to their Arab neighbors?  What kind of a state should the Jews construct?  All of these questions, and many more, preoccupied thinkers like Leon Pinsker, Ahad Ha'am, Berl Katznelson, and Rabbi Abraham Kook.  One must read their writings and get to know them.  And one must know not only what the Zionist thinkers said but what Zionists actors did—Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, the successive waves of immigrants, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin.  Nor should I leave out, just because he wasn't a Zionist, Anwar Sadat.  

David B. Starr is the founder of Tzion, a new program for teaching the history, texts, and ideas of Zionism and Israel.  Dr. Starr also teaches at Gann Academy and in the Jewish community.

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