Randy's Corner Deli Library

28 July 2008

Our Dwindling Spirit

View from the booth by the window, view of the ocean:

That Israel's spirit is dwindling is no surprise. This is a refrain which I have heard personally from people just returned from Jerusalem. There is a pall cast over the country, beset as it is with problems that a peaceful and stable democracy in a stable part of the world could deal with. But Israel does not have the luxury of existence and life in a part of the world that welcomes their drive and determination to make something out of nothing, which is what they have done.

With in excess of 60% of Israelis not practicing Judaism or who no longer identify with Judaism at all, is it any wonder that there is a paucity of budding Bubers in philosophy departments in Israeli universities? There are plenty of Israelis who have no use for Judaism, as they view themselves as being redeemed by the very fact of their living in Israel. The truth, it seems to me, is that for the vast majority of Israelis, Judaism is not viewed as an important part of their lives; for too many, Judaism is represented by the Haredim and settlers who have made Jewishness seem, well, quaint, and at the same time out of touch with reality, the cause of more problems than it resolves. Dangerous, even, to the continued existence of the State. In a world which is changing far too rapidly and in uncertain ways, the only thing that Israelis can offer the world that will pay the bills to live in it is of course the ability to create and to discover.

Today, Shai Agassi is making a bid to make Israel the first westernized country to run its automobiles completely on electricity. Is the focus on current problems that people of Buber's generation did not have to face necessarily counter to Jewish principles? It would seem to me that those Israelis who claim to have no affiliation with Judaism can never escape who they are - or what the perceptions of the world are of them - as Jews, living in a place that is constantly in bitter bloody fights with its intractible and growing enemies at its borders and, as we have seen over the past few days, even within them. They have a responsibility to themselves, their families and their country to make advances where they are needed. Does Israel need philosophers? Probably. But that is a requirement for a country that can afford to have its best minds studying Plato and Sartre. Or Talmud for that matter. Can Israel's best and brightest afford, in any sense of the word, to take their eyes off of immediate concerns to ponder the meaning of Judaism in 2008, with Hezbollah on the North and Hamas in Gaza and Iran ever present everywhere? With Syria's allegiances in play between Iran and reality? Science and engineering are existential for Israel. Undertaken to preserve Israel, does it matter that the people doing the preservation do not outwardly identify as Jews? I think not. As long as the job gets done - that Israel is preserved for future generations, what people call themselves is immaterial. Living is proof of success.

It seems to me that what Israel really needs right now are not philosophers necessarily but a new class of Jewish politicians who can lead the country into the future. It is shocking to me that there can be serious discussion about philosophy and philosophers in Israel when it seems that the entirety of the government is either indicted or under suspicion of bribery or sexual peccadilloes or abuse. Who will take the place of the old guard? Shimon Peres, for all his 85 years, and all his smarts and reason, is 85 years old. This does not represent the future. People like Ehud Olmert, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are known quantities and have had their time to make life better for Israelis, though certainly their failures are not entirely their fault. The only new name of which I am aware is Tzipi Livni, but she is in the process of being marginalized by Mr. Olmert, prepared as he is to move the Minister for Transportation, Shaul Mofaz, into the P.M. spot after the forthcoming elections. Who else is there? Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Israel does not have a qualified partner for peace as no P.A. leader can guarantee that they can control their own people. There have to be new ideas in place. The ideas coming out of Israel today, in my view, are shopworn and tired, understandably so. The problems coming from the other side are the same as they have been for quite some time. Perhaps it is time to change the perception of the problem, to force responsible Arabs to take some of the load off of Israel. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are wealthy sheikdoms who have only one thing in mind: to maintain control of their wealth. An uncontrolled Arab mob has the potential to destabilize all of those countries and more. It behooves the wealth in the region to take affirmative steps to bring the neanderthals among them into the 20th century, if not the 21st.

At some point, philosophy becomes useless - an academic discussion - if it is not put into action. After 5000 years of Hebrew and Judaism, we probably have enough philosophical discourse to last another 5000 years. I only hope that Israel can make it another 60. With a reserve of strength, nerve and will, I hope that Israel can raise its collective heads high enough to see and feel a horizon instead of the constant heavy and loud breathing of enemies at and within the gates. It is a heavy load. Pray that the bearers are strong enough to resist the temptation to give up.

Randy Shiner

Our Dwindling Spirit
By Aaron Ciechanover
Tags: Israel, Judaism
In her opinion piece "Shakespeare is not a moneymaker" (Haaretz,July 25), Na'ama Shefi lamented the demise of the Israeli spirit in academia. Making income the number-one goal of academia has sidelined Shakespeare and Plato. I can only agree with every word she wrote and add that in Israel, the Jewish state, the study of Judaism, archaeology, literature and Israeli and Jewish history are fading in a process that endangers our very existence.

For over 2,000 years in exile, carrying the torch of hope and yearning for political and religious freedom has kept Judaism rooted. Erosion of these principles may now unhinge our ideological, religious and historical claim to being here. Indeed, we are witnessing the dwindling down of our academic leadership and the failure to produce heirs. There are few successors to academics such as philosophers Martin Buber and Gerhard Scholem, historians Joseph Klausner and Jacob Talmon, archaeologists Benjamin Mazar and Yigael Yadin, and poet Leah Goldberg, just to name a few of the groundbreaking thinkers who taught at the Hebrew University. The university's humanities departments have shrunk and no longer attract many students.

Their very existence is in danger. Universities are becoming trade schools bereft of any Israeli or Jewish spirit. It is of particular concern that the disappearance of fields that are not profitable does not stem from budget cuts. Rather, they result from a deep shift in principles and culture felt both at home and on the streets and which have caused the younger generation to abandon them. So we can't put all the blame on the universities. They cannot fight against the sweeping cultural changes; perhaps not even the country's leadership, if such a thing exists, could do so.

It is unfortunate, however, that Shefi quoted me saying things that I never did in order to support her argument. As for the comparison between the brain drain from Israel and the flight of Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany, that comparison was never made and my words were taken out of context. What I meant to say was that cultural and scientific creativity is very sensitive to pressures and reacts to them by escaping elsewhere. I mentioned Germany's Jewish scientists as an extreme example and said unequivocally that I was not comparing them to the situation in Israel. But even though I felt I was taken out of context I apologized in the media to anyone who may have been hurt by what I did not say. On the subject of a broad education, I have made myself clear time and again. I quote from an interview I gave with my colleague and fellow Nobel Prize laureate Robert Aumann to Sever Plocker, only one example in many: "An educational deterioration exists on all levels. Those with academic titles are inarticulate, lack cultural depth and are ignorant in general and Jewish history. Where are the great thinkers of the past? I see a direct link between the demise of the Israeli spirit and that of the nation.

Without advanced humanities and Jewish studies, quality scientific research will not be carried out in Israel, not in physics, chemistry, mathematics or medicine." Only recently, in a speech I gave at the Open University, I spoke about the road that connects Jewish prayer and winning the Nobel Prize; the road between a broad education and succeeding in the tumultuous world of science.

Aaron Ciechanover is a Nobel Prize winner and faculty member at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.

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