I shall spare you the ordeal of playing the broken record on what was wrong with the Oslo accords. Still: we’re in between September 13 (the date on which the Israeli Government and the PLO signed a Declaration of Principles 16 years ago) and Rosh Hashanah, and there is something to be learned about the Oslo legacy.
Oslo has been debated ad nauseam, and this debate is as tiresome as it is irrelevant. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a Catch-22 situation. It is both unsustainable and unsolvable. Most people, by now, realize that. This conflict, however, is manageable -provided Israel completes its physical separation from the Palestinians, outsmarts them on the diplomatic chessboard, and neutralizes their regional troublemaking backers.
Peace, of course, would be preferable. But saying this is like saying that it is preferable to be handsome, wealthy and bright than ugly, poor, and dumb. Saying it does not make it happen. Moreover, it is a fact that Israel has managed to thrive and be a success story despite the lack of true peace.
Shimon Peres made the bizarre claim in this book The New Middle East (published in the wake of the 1993 Oslo agreement) that “true power -even military power- is no longer anchored in the boot camp, but on the university campuses.” Though clumsily stated (I happen to doubt the ability of our academic nerds to protect us from an Iranian nuclear bomb), Peres’ idea contains an element of truth. What is anchored on Israeli university campuses, however, is not true power, but true weakness.
I have had the privilege of teaching in Israeli universities for the past eight years, and have always been struck by the fact that my students are confused when I ask them to think. This confusion confirms what I experienced as a graduate student in Israel. We were asked to learn, but not to think. To repeat, not to be critical. All the professors were on the same political wavelength (guess which one), and they did manage to produce formatted and dogmatic students that knew their field but had no culture and critical mind. Israeli campuses introduced me to something new: intellectually boring Jews.
Faced with uncritical and ignorant 20-somethings who just finished the army and only care about getting a degree and a job, Israel’s most radical professors have it easy. And what they have to say hardly makes our universities a source of national strength: Young Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria are like the Hitlerjungen (Moshe Zimmerman, Hebrew University); Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is one of politicide (Baruch Kimmerling, Hebrew University) and ethnic cleansing (Ilan Pappé, formerly from Haifa University); the very existence of a Jewish people is a “myth” invented by Zionism (Shlomo Sand, Tel-Aviv University); there never was a unified Israelite monarchy in biblical times (Israel Finkelstein, Tel-Aviv University); Israel is an apartheid state that should be boycotted by the world community (Neve Gordon, Ben-Gurion University), etc.
In a way, Peres was right: Israel’s future depends not only on the vitality of our economy and on the strength of our army but also, indeed mostly, on what young Israelis know about their past and think of their country -in other words on the ideas they encounter on campuses. This is where Israelis and Diaspora Jews must concentrate their efforts in the coming years. The Shalem Center’s initiative to set-up an alternative, College-type institution in Israel is a good start in order for our country to survive its academic nuts.
Ideas, values and faith transcend physical death. The fate of the Ramon family is here to prove it. Ilan Ramon’s mother was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Although he was a secular Jew, Ilan sought to follow Jewish observances while in orbit (he requested kosher food and observed Shabbat in space). Ilan also took parts of Jewish history and faith with him in space: A pencil sketch, “Moon Landscape”, drawn by 14-year-old Petr Ginz, who died in Auschwitz; a microfiche copy of a Torah Scroll saved from the Holocaust; a barbed wire Mezuzah designed by Aimee Golant; and a landmark dollar of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis” he said.
Both Ilan and his son Assaf tragically died while heroically serving their country, but they are survived by the values and ideas they believed in and fought for.
May we be up to the task of preserving and perpetuating those values and ideas. And may the Year 5770 give us the opportunity to do so without the trials of the Year 5769.