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Return education to Israeli priorities

The decision of the Jewish people to return to nation building, as expressed in the rebirth of the State of Israel, has created two core challenges and raised question of survival for what?


View this video lecture by Rabbi Michael Melchior on a related subject, titled: "Major Educational Challenges of Israeli Society"


The decision of the Jewish people to return to nation building, as expressed in the rebirth of the State of Israel, has created two core challenges. The first is how to enable Israel to be economically and militarily viable in the Middle East.

The second is articulating the purpose of our survival, and building institutions that will enhance quality of life and serve the ends for which the state is so necessary. These two focuses are intricately connected; there is no ability to think about who we want to be if our survival is in question. There is no value to survival without asking, "Survival for what?"


However, in the reality that is the State of Israel, these two focuses often are viewed as competing. Much of the history of Israel is of a state focusing its primary resources – financial, human and visionary – on the challenges of physical survival, leaving the larger purpose and values for which the State of Israel must stand as second-tiered agendas at best, with little political attention and cachet.


As we enter 2008, while there is still a sense of ongoing physical threats and existential dangers, there is no doubt the State of Israel has turned the corner in our quest to insure our physical survival. However, this victory has not yet created a dramatic shift in the consciousness of the leadership and citizens of this country to the need to refocus our agenda on the issue of, "Survival for what?"


Educational system ignored


We are continuing to ignore those features of our society that will help define and shape the quality of life here in Israel. Nowhere is this more evident than in the place the educational system has within the political and national consciousness.


One of the defining features of Jewish individual and collective life is the essential value we place on knowledge and education. Talmud Torah, which began as the exclusive study of Jewish sources, became the fundamental value under which knowledge – Jewish and general, sciences and humanities, pure and applied – became central to how Jews lived their lives.

As the prophet Zachariah says , speaking of God’s message to Zerubavel, "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit." We are a people whose primary strength, whose unique place in history is defined by our spirit, our ideas and our values. The rabbis of the Talmud stated, "Talmud Torah kneged kulam" ("The study of Torah surpasses them all." – Talmud, Tractate Shabbat ). This has become the Jewish way.


However, our academic institutions lie on the brink of irreparable crisis , and our elementary and high school systems, when not striking , are not producing a love of learning, creativity of thought, and excellence of knowledge worthy of our history.


We have won the great battle for our survival; while we can never become lax, we must, nevertheless, reap the dividends of this victory. These dividends must include a reshaping of the national discourse and consciousness.

It is time for all of us as Jews to recognize we can no more afford a mediocre educational system than we can afford a mediocre military. While the latter lesson was amply learned in the last Lebanon war, the first lesson has not been inculcated into Israeli consciousness.


My intent here is not to offer yet another outline of practical suggestions, but rather to speak of the need to change the public discourse. With our universities narrowly missing being shut down for an entire semester, the issue is not merely that of salaries and the efficient running of academic institutions, but whether we recognize that the ongoing production of ideas and development of thought are at the core of what will make Israel a Jewish state.

We need a public discourse that teaches the State of Israel and its citizenry to leave the shelters in which their minds have descended, to stop thinking merely in terms of survival, and to bring back to the fore the issue of, "Survival for what." In such a world, education is as critical as the next missile system.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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