Israel At Seventy: Is The Right Winning The Culture War?

Nitzan Waisberg, a lecturer on design thinking at the Tel Aviv University business school, was born in Israel forty-four years ago, the daughter of a psychologist and a yoga instructor. She attended Jerusalem’s Bezalel School of Arts and Design and the Royal College of Art, in London; lived in Los Angeles, London, and Sydney; and consulted for companies like Procter & Gamble and Gallup. In 2012, she returned to Israel, leaving a teaching appointment at Stanford University. She was determined to bring “Bay Area optimism and Silicon Valley problem-solving,” she told me, to what she knew was a changing public life in Israel. (Her uncle is Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister.) She has four children—three of whom attend mamlachti, or secular, public schools in Tel Aviv—and she was naturally preoccupied with helping them adjust to their new life. “But I found I was living in an emotional bunker,” she said. “I came back to a country my grandparents founded, to raise my children. I didn’t recognize the place.”

Two years ago, Waisberg’s preschooler came home just before Rosh Hashanah, talking about a “big man” who had visited her class and talked about “dead animals.” A few days later, the teacher sent home a picture of an Orthodox rabbi blowing the shofar in class. “This was right at the beginning of the school year, just as my daughter was learning to trust her space, with no sense of who was in authority,” Waisberg said. “God knows what this guy said about Temple sacrifices.” Her second grader’s classes, meanwhile, were regularly interrupted to prepare for an extracurricular ceremony in which each child received a text of the Torah, girls got chocolate coins, and boys got yarmulkes. “They gave the children a paper with the word ‘Torah’ smeared with honey and invited them to lick it,” to indicate Torah study as sweet. She said that she doesn’t mind teaching children about traditions, but this was a custom from cheder—the Eastern European rabbinic schoolhouse from the Middle Ages—and, she said, “It was not presented as a history lesson.”

Waisberg’s older children had subtler experiences. “A fourth-grade class had an online lesson, ostensibly about biological categorization, but also dividing animals into shratzim and non-shratzim, kosher and non-kosher creepy-crawly things,” she said. “Introductory chemistry classes taught that molecules will bond, or not, the way grooms bond with brides, but not with other men.” Math classes taught Gematria, in which numerical values are assigned to the letters in Hebrew words and calculated to imply mystical coincidences with significant dates, such as Jewish holidays. “This is kind of cute if you do it once, like astrology,” Waisberg said. “But when you repeat Gematria every year, you have to wonder why.” Historical timelines advanced “identity with the land,” starting with the creation, then the flood, then exodus—eventually getting to the Holocaust. But “no kibbutzim, no Haskalah”—the Jewish enlightenment of the nineteenth century, out of which Zionism emerged—were mentioned. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was taught not as the act of a national-Orthodox fanatic but as just another sad example of “Jews fighting with each other over disagreements about God’s will.”

Israel celebrates its seventieth anniversary on April 18th, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is straining to exude a sense of mastery. Polls show the Prime Minister capable of winning another election, but, if the ongoing corruption investigations topple him, the ultra-nationalist parties that anchor his coalition—Likud, Jewish Home, and Shas—seem poised to prevail without him. Israel has an intimacy with the American President, reinforced by a ceremonial move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem; a stable democracy in the face of regional chaos; technological leadership in global markets; and budding, discreet alliances with Sunni regimes—an iron fist containing Palestinian terror. Skyscrapers are rising, high-speed trains are rolling, wastewater is being recycled. That is Netanyahu’s story, and he’s sticking to it. For people like Waisberg—descendants of those people who “founded the country”—the story is different. They feel left in internal exile, exasperated not only by Netanyahu’s preëmptions of a Palestinian state but, even more, by the encroachments of his Jewish one. “I was raised on modern Zionism”—the movement to transform Jews from a defensive religious people into a normal Hebrew nation—“a Jewish commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world," as a pre-state Zionist conference famously described it. Waisberg added, “My children are instead being indoctrinated into a neo-Zionist theocracy.”

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