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Protecting the Zionist Narrative, At Last

June 9, 2009

nakba60In Perspective: Protecting the Zionist narrative at last

Jun. 4, 2009

Imagine that Germany, embittered by incessant reminders of what happened during the Holocaust, passed a law forbidding German Jews from publicly marking the destruction of European Jewry. Or that the US Congress, tired of hearing Native Americans recite their tales of woe, made it illegal for them to mention their losses on July 4. If Turkey passed legislation like that, directed at Armenian memories of 1915, we would hardly blink an eye. But if a genuine democracy followed suit? We would scarcely believe our ears.

So why are we not more distressed by legislation before the Knesset that would criminalize marking the “Nakba” on Independence Day? What kind of a democracy makes it illegal for a group of its citizens to mark the losses they have suffered? And in what kind of democracy can such legislation be proposed without massive waves of protest?

So why no protests here? Surely, few of us pretend that Israeli Arabs didn’t lose very much in 1948. We know they did. Is it that we’re still at war with the Arab world (unlike America and its native population, for example), or that marking the Nakba is tantamount to asserting that Israel is illegitimate, which we cannot and will not abide?

Perhaps. But we’re also witness to something new. It’s a belief in the ability of hastily written laws to correct problems created by decades of failed Zionist education. For years, Israel has done virtually nothing to even try to inculcate loyalty to the state among parts of its haredi population, Arab communities or a younger secular Jewish generation smack in the middle of the country. But instead of asking ourselves what our children ought to be taught, what they ought to read and discuss during their education, some Knesset members prefer to bury our failures beneath legislation.

Yisrael Beiteinu ran its recent campaign largely on the issue of loyalty oaths, claiming that some Israelis (Arabs, mostly) were insufficiently loyal to the state. It was right about the problem, but wrong about the solution, and the Knesset rejected its proposal. So now, the party has a new issue. Israel, it says, is losing the battle over the Zionist narrative. About this, it is also absolutely right. Once synonymous with the greatest human drama of national rebirth, Zionism today is too often a term of disparagement. A new narrative about Zionism has emerged; in this narrative, Israel is a violation of human ideals, not their realization.

SO WHAT is the proposed response to our failing efforts in the battle to tell our story? Let’s just make it illegal for anyone to tell a competing version.

It would be funny, if it weren’t so frightening. Silencing one’s foes has never been the hallmark of self-confidence.

But what if instead of silencing those who disagree with us, or even hate us, we invested in education? Imagine that we actually cared enough about our own past to try to preserve it and to teach it. “What?” you ask. “Israel has made a virtual art form of remembering the past.” But that is only partially true. We’ve done an extraordinary job of preserving the memory of the Holocaust, but a much poorer job of remembering how we built a country to recover from it.

Now that Israel is more than 60 years old, the people who were instrumental in creating this country are dying at a dizzying rate. In recent days, Shlomo Shamir, the last living member of the 1948 General Staff, and Yehoshua Zetler, commander of Lehi forces in Jerusalem, both died. But how many young Israelis know who Shamir or Zetler were? How many know that Shamir was the only general to have commanded units from the air force, navy and ground forces (on the Iraqi-Jordanian front)? Or that he completed his high school matriculation exams at 55 and went on to university? How many Israelis still know anything about the infamous Acre jail in which Zetler was imprisoned? Very few. But now, it’s too late to record their stories for future generations of Israeli students.

EVEN MORE distressing than how little we know is how little we’re doing to try to remember. For the most part, Israelis have paid no attention to the need to preserve this historic legacy.

One person, at least, is trying. An oleh named Eric Halivni has been working on a project called Toldot Yisrael that aims to record the stories of the country’s founders – the men and women who fought, lobbied, farmed, taught and did everything else necessary in the extraordinary human drama called the creation of the State of Israel. But he, too, is being stymied by Jews’ disinterest in their own history. His hopes of creating a video archive containing thousands of interviews have languished due to lack of funding. With heroic dedication, he’s managed to film about 80 interviews thus far, but that’s not nearly enough.

Scanning his small but precious archive is a history lesson come alive. Who knew that Norman Lamm, later president of Yeshiva University, worked in a bullet factory in upstate New York when he was a chemistry student at Yeshiva College, to do his share to create the Jewish state? Toldot Yisrael filmed Lamm telling his story.

Imagine if young Israelis could watch Miriam Ben-Peretz, professor emeritus of education at the University of Haifa, recalling the morning her then-young husband departed with theĀ lamed heh, never to return. Or Yitzhak Navon, later to become the fifth president of the state, recounting how, as a young man in the Hagana, he monitored the airwaves that night and heard the boasting celebrations of the Arabs who had just butchered the 35 men. Fifty percent of Israeli Jews don’t know who the lamed heh were. What will teach them? The Nakba law or a project like Toldot Yisrael?

Yisrael Beiteinu has inadvertently done us a great service, for the Nakba bill begs us to ask: What is really going to win the battle to right the wrongs in the way that Zionism is now perceived? Do we silence Israeli Arabs who obviously have what to mourn, or instead celebrate the lives and accomplishments of Jews across the globe who believed in the rebirth of the Jewish people, and who then devoted their lives to making it happen?

We all know the answer. The only question is whether we still possess the honesty, foresight and determination that winning our story’s battle will require.

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