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What Matters — And Doesn’t — About Natan Zach’s Flotilla

October 22, 2010

Natan Zach’s announcement that he would be joining a Gaza-bound flotilla might well have passed unnoticed.

After all, Zach one of the last great poets of the independence era is now 80 years old. Long revered for his artistry and scholarship, he’s also made no secret of his politics.

Zach announced years ago that he would not cross the Green Line, adding that he hoped his books would not be sold there, either.

But this is Israel, where few nonstories are allowed to pass without someone fanning the barely flickering flames. This time, a member of the Likud’s Knesset faction reacted with outrage and immediately wrote to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar demanding that Zach’s poetry be removed from the high-school curriculum.

Suddenly, the nonstory had become a story.

What matters about the story is neither Zach nor even our high-school curriculum. What matters is the story’s sobering reminder of how low intellectual life here has sunk. When someone says something with which we disagree, we evoke the magnificent Soviet tradition, calling for his eradication from our collective memory.

He’s a great poet? We include him in the highschool curriculum. He plans to join a flotilla? We deny he ever existed. Stalin would be proud.

It would be laughable, were it not so pathetic.

What happened to the fierce exchange of ideas that was once Zionism? Have we forgotten the days when individual kibbutzim had separate schools for their Mapai and Mapam children, because parents could not bear having their children corrupted by a competing ideology? But those children shared a kibbutz, played together, ate together and presumably, heard each other’s views.

In those days, the response to ideas was an alternative idea, a competing vision of what society should be. Those were the days of A.D.

Gordon, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, even of politicians like David Ben-Gurion who left us voluminous writings, rich with erudite vision for the Jewish state. And where are we today? How has Zionist discourse gone from being about ideas to being about the basest form of retribution? The causes are many, but not least of them is what has happened to ideas in higher education.

In 1996, 18.5 percent of undergraduate students were pursuing a degree in the humanities.

Twelve years later, that number had dropped by more than half, to 8.1%. And the trend shows no signs of stopping.

What areas have grown at the expense of the humanities? Business and management have risen from 6.7% to 10.2%. Law has gone from 6% to 9% (a 50% increase). Engineering and architecture have grown.

We are witness to a society in which broad education, the celebration of ideas and the recognition of their power has all but disappeared.

LAST WEEKEND, I was at Columbia University, speaking to students. Late Friday night, what looked like about 400-500 students piled into an auditorium. I told them that I didn’t want to discuss flotillas, or West Bank building. Those, I reminded them, are the noise, not the signal. What we really have to understand about the Middle East are the ideas that are at play in Israel’s marginalization, and the ideas necessary for its defense.

Lo and behold, when I spoke about the political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, they followed. Someone had already taught them to think that way. I mentioned Galatians (as a contrast) and guess what? The freshmen had just read it. Plato’s Republic? They’d read that, too. And the same with Locke, and de Tocqueville.

And Hobbes. And Samuel Huntington.

That is not to say that everyone agreed with what I said. Some pushed back. But when they did, their questions, too, were based on books that they’d read, ideas they’d cultivated, a vision of society that they’d thought about.

It is that sort of education and the students it produces that has made America great. But that kind of conversation cannot flourish in a country in which less than 10% of students study the humanities. Whether or not Natan Zach ultimately boards a flotilla is utterly unimportant.

What does matter is whether we can produce a generation of students who, when they hear something about which they disagree, can debate the ideas at hand, rather than merely seeking to silence those with whom they disagree.

THANKFULLY, SOME steps are being taken. The best pre-army mechinot are attracting the very brightest high-school graduates for an intense year of study and reflection before those students head for the army. At the Shalem Center, we are well under way in our plans for creating the country’s first liberal arts college, with a core curriculum not that dissimilar, in some ways, from what Columbia has been doing for almost a century.

We’re going to offer an undergraduate education on a par with America’s most excellent private liberal arts colleges.

But repairing Israel will require more than that.

We need high schools in which the brightest students can receive educations as excellent as those the finest American prep schools. Nor will one liberal arts college suffice. We at Shalem will know we’ve been successful when others begin to copy us, and to compete with us.

Most important than the solutions, however, is a society-wide recognition of the depth of our problem. The People of the Book has produced a society in which students no longer read. The People of the Book has built a world-class army, but a third-tier educational system. Who could have imagined that?

Altneuland. Der Judenstadt. Auto-Emancipation. Rome and Jerusalem. There was an era in which our kids could identify those books, knew what they said and could debate the ideas expressed in them.

Can we restore those days? Can we restore books and ideas to the center of the society we’re still building? The answer to that question will determine not only what kind of future this country has, but whether it has a future at all.

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