Out of the Bomb Shelter, Back to School in Israel

There was no shortage of potential headlines for Israel's Sept. 1 papers. The government had announced what the international press dubbed a “land grab” in the West Bank, and the Obama administration was very unhappy. Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, stationed in Gaza-adjacent communities to reassure still-nervous residents, were suddenly withdrawn. Residents were furious, and felt betrayed, again.

But the lead headline, as it is on every Sept. 1, was that schools had reopened. Makor Rishon, in print, like YNet, online, reported the number; 2,105,394 students were heading to class. Several papers, including Times of Israel, discussed the challenge facing teachers: Students essentially had no vacation, and many had literally spent the entire summer running in and out of bomb shelters.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a variety of reasons for ending the conflict -- the stalemate was becoming unpopular and the barrage on Israel’s south seemed militarily unstoppable -- much of the press had long noted a seemingly surprising consideration: Israelis were worried that the continued conflict would delay the school year. School, to many, mattered as much as any other consideration.

Some of the worry was logistic. How could students be safely bused to school, Haaretz asked, with the rockets still falling? Education Minister Shai Piron headed to the south, Times of Israel reported, to meet with residents and teachers and to assure them that the children would be safe. But few people were assuaged by the government’s promises (It had, after all, also promised to put a stop to the rocket fire, and for years, it turns out, had downplayed the significance of Hamas's tunnels under the Gaza border). Israel Hayom reported that with parents so nervous, the opening of the school year itself was in doubt. With the war still raging, it was children who even dominated one of the last press conferences. The death of Daniel Tragerman touched the country and evoked a sense of vulnerability in a way that no other civilian casualty had -- and with the focus back on children, talk turned to whether the war might actually delay classes. That, for many, was a nonstarter.

Education here is a national obsession. Teachers’ salaries are alarmingly low, which is badly hurting the quality of teaching, but school remains virtually sacrosanct. That’s natural. From the beginning, the Zionist revolution understood that its ultimate weapon would be the written word, not the gun. Theodor Herzl, who had been campaigning for years to get Jews behind his idea of a Jewish state, got much more traction when he published his ideas in novel form in 1902, in a book called "Altneuland." Vladimir Jabotinsky, the creator of Revisionist Zionism (also the mentor of Menachem Begin, and thus the intellectual wellspring of today’s Likud party) was not only a political activist, but also a journalist, playwright, translator, poet and novelist. Zionism’s most significant figures have long been men and women of letters.

Language itself was a central Zionist preoccupation. A century and a half ago, Hebrew was more or less a forgotten language, relegated to the ritual and liturgical. It was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a national mythical figure after whom major Israeli streets are named today, who devoted his life to reviving a language that millions now take for granted. As immigrants, many of them illiterate, poured into the newborn Jewish state in its earliest years, it was teachers -- underpaid and often ill-trained, but deeply committed -- who transformed that human mass into the citizens who would eventually produce the Israel’s high-tech revolution and its unparalleled number of Nobel prizes per capita. Many leaders of the Soviet Union refusnik movement of the 1970s and 1980s were Hebrew teachers, who taught clandestine classes.

Poets such as Hayim Nachman Bialik and Natan Alterman became larger-than-life figures in the mythology of the emerging state. Today, novelists including Amos Oz (often mentioned as a Nobel Prize possibility) and David Grossman have rock-star status that they have leveraged to become players in the national political conversation.

In a recent ranking of world universities, Israel -- a country of just 8 million -- has three universities ranked in the top 250. Israel’s Arab neighbors far and near (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran), with combined populations of 250 million, have not a single one. As entering first graders were showered with candies and song in synagogue on Shabbat morning, and the 2 million plus children heading to school were the subject of yesterday’s top headlines, it was -- on the heels of a destructive and agonizing summer -- impossible not to wonder how different this region might be if our neighbors shared Israelis’ passion for teaching and for learning.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem.

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