Monday, December 21, 2009

What Did You Learn In School Today?

The thing about a social experiment, no matter how successful, is that it tells you only what might be. In a way, this only increases the pathos of what is.

A few days ago, I paid a visit to an experimental school in Jerusalem called 'Hand In Hand.' The school now has over 500 students, in a beautifully appointed building, supported partly by the Ministry of Education here, but also by donors and NGOs from abroad. It has classes for every year from kindergarten through high school; it will matriculate its first class at the end of next year. You walk around the school and see children of all ages scurrying around with one another, sharing lunches and gossip, rushing to finish homework before classes, eyeing strangers with that eager-to-please-and-what-are-you-doing-here look. In short, you see nothing remarkable. Which is just what makes it so very remarkable.

For this is Jerusalem's only integrated school, Jews and Arabs together, in a curriculum that is half Hebrew and half Arabic. Things like this school are not supposed to happen in a place where Arabs are "colonialized" and Jews "have no partner." History and social studies courses are taught in both languages and the virtues of the Zionist movement are taught alongside the Naqba, the disastrous displacement of Arab villages, especially after the cease-fire of 1949. The curriculum emphasizes empathy, not a conclusive understanding of justice. You get the sense from watching the students that this is enough.

TWO FEATURES OF of this experiment deserve particular attention. First, the curriculum really is taught half in Arabic and half in Hebrew (the fifth grade science class I visited was in Arabic), which means half by Arab teachers, half by Jews. Jerusalem is, after all, a bilingual city, and Israel is a country with a large and growing Arab population; Israel is also in the heart of a very large Arabic speaking region, so it makes sense, even for English saturated Israelis, to have a working knowledge of Arabic in any conceivable condition of peace.

At the same time, it is the pluralist ethos of the curriculum, not the relative proportion of Arabic to Hebrew, that should scale; in this sense, the curriculum is an experiment for the whole country. (Not every public school in America will teach Spanish alongside of English in anything like this proportion, but every school should be teaching the importance of multicultural empathy. In the 1950s, very few did. Today, after the civil rights movement, almost every school does.)

Second, and related to the first, the bilingual nature of the school does not portend a binational state in which the Hebrew language, and Jewish culture more generally, are slowly effaced, giving way, presumably, to some force created by the larger number of Arabs in the region as a whole. On the contrary, it is clear in the higher grades that students naturally default to Hebrew, since this is the language of higher education: the language of business and science and information technology.

This is entirely consistent with what has been happening, not in Greater Israel, but in greater Tel-Aviv, for the past 40 years. For most Arab children in the school, the Hebrew language, supported by a corresponding international English, is the language of "modernization," much as German was the language for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is the language, as my friend Sayed Kashua (whose children attend this school) has told me, in which one can speak about parents and sex without blushing, or speak about liberty and democracy without cringing. For the Jewish children in the school, the Arabic language is the language of cosmopolitan openness. It does not threaten, or beckon--at least not much. It gives Jewish kids the chance to get a head start on breaking the little idols of the household, much as our father Abraham did when he went searching for the promised land--much as Israeli youth do, when they finish their army service and go off to Nepal or Machu Picchu.

SOME JEWS, EVEN secular Jews, will look at the school and see the natural affections of the children as ominous. Without quite acknowledging this, they've implicitly bought into the old orthodox Jewish fear that the only way (what may vaguely be called) "Judaism" can survive is through indoctrination: protecting children from outside influences, exposing them to ritual after ritual, attaching to them with loving strings. Deep down, such attitudes reflect the truly pathetic idea that Jewish civilization--the texts, the poetry, the legal exegesis, the music--cannot compete over the long haul. One taste of shrimp and you're a goner.

All of which feeds into the second fear, that the school's atmosphere will engender intermarriage. When Jewish parents pull their older children from the school--and a good many have, the school's head of development, Ira Kerem, told me--it is mostly because they are afraid their children will fall in love with Arabs. (Arab parents often betray a corresponding fear, but leave their children where they are because few Arab schools in greater Jerusalem are of this high quality.)

Anyway, this fear of intermarriage is actually just the first fear, of cultural competition, in microcosm: if both parents are not Jews, so the argument goes, then how can you be sure you will have "a Jewish home"? How can you be sure that Jewish ways of talking about the divine, or celebrating life cycle events, or looking at the past, will not be subject to any kind of challenge?

IT MAKES NO sense to point out, I suppose, that mixed marriages, like mixed schools, like mixed countries, produce the most resilient cultural strains--in this case, values drawn from Jewish history or philosophical reflection that stand the test of skepticism; Jewish rituals whose beauty can appeal even to those coming to them fresh. (As the father or step-father to three couples in such marriages, I can say it is often a privilege to be the beneficiary of the negotiations).

Besides, such attitudes not only fail to come to grips with the cultural competitions of globalization, in which Israel is inevitably embedded, but are anti-Zionist in the most original meaning of the word: the meaning given depth by the cultural Zionist pioneers who welcomed the idea that Jewish life would, given a language and land, freely breathe in what was best in the world, and breathe out what was best about the Jews.

And as for the long haul, a story. Yesterday, driving back to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv, I put on Mahler's Second Symphony, the "Resurrection" (not my usual driving music, I confess, but my Gordon Lightfoot CDs were in the trunk). As I was cruising along, it suddenly occurred to me what Mahler of all people might have thought of someone listening to his monumental work, digitized and fed through crisp speakers, in a German car going 75 miles an hour between two cities in the Jewish state: about the hubris of anyone back then assuming he or she could predict what the 20th century had in store. The only thing about this that would not have surprised Mahler, I think, is that the driver's understanding of simple human rights was pretty much the same as his--the only thing that hadn't changed.

"With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!"

Mahler might have added, hand in hand.

12 comments:

Dana said...

Intermarriage and mixed culture is the best thing that can happen to israel. The alternative is going back to the shtetl and some implosion of a so-called "hebrew culture" into a narrow, unimpressive, loud mongrel - a testimony to a people who failed to rise above parochialism, ethnocentrism and profound, deeply embedded contempt for other "non jewish" cultures . I'm all for maintaining local cultures and traditions, as it is done in America. But the greatness of america is in exactly in the mixing of cultures, promoted and reinforced by intermarriage, aspiring to universalism. what's good in jewish culture will survive such mixing - and has. what isn't, oh well, no great loss.

But Israelis who pull kids out of school for fear of love for the 'other' are betraying everything that is or was good in judaism, choosing instead the narrow-minded, parochial, populist rubbish that's overcome the airwaves of israel under the pretense of "hebrew culture".

Good for the school though. may there be many more like it, and may all the people of israel and palestine be free to choose to marry who they like and live where they want.

Y. Ben-David said...

The "Hebrew Republic" in its infancy. Interesting how the kids will respond to having a half day hearing the message that Zionism was a monstrous crime committed against the Palestinian people leading to the Naqba and the Jewish kids in the class being told that the land their houses are on is stolen Arab land, and then the second half of the day being told that that Zionism was a wonderful fulfillment of the Jewish people's ancient longing to return to its ancient homeland. Of course it could be that the Jews will not want to confront the Arab parents and thus agree in the end only to teach the Arab "narrative" for the sake of "peace". Maybe they will also teach Prof Shlomo Sand's thesis that the Jewish people are a fraud, that there is no Jewish people and the Palestinians are the real heirs of the Biblical Hebrews. That would be very "progressive" of the Jewish parents to teach that to their children. The Arabs would no doubt support that as well.

On the other hand, we are told that the Arab kids will enjoy being taught Hebrew so they can "talk about sex" and ultimately adopt the secular, materialist, consumerist culture that Bernie believes the Hebrew language and "Hebrew Republic" is offerring the Arabs, since he really believes this culture is "superior" to that the Arabs come from. Well, I wonder how the Islamic movements and other conservative Arabs will like having their children enticed away from their own culture so that Bernie's entrepeneural friends can have new customers for their Western consumerist culture that the rest of the Arab/Muslim world rejects.
This is nothing more than a school representing a modern Crusader culture and it will disappear even faster than the original Crusader state.

William said...

Yes, YBD, if there's one thing the crusaders were big on, it was sending their kids to the same schools as the arabs. In any case, the crusader states lasted nearly 200 years, which is quite a bit longer than Israel has.

Joel A. Levitt said...

‘Hand In Hand’ and the other efforts like it are the hope of the future. They provide a chance that Jews will stop hiding from other cultures and that Arabs will discover that Israelis are not monsters.

Thanks Dr. Avishai. I will provide whatever support I can to ‘Hand In Hand’.

Larry said...

I loved the whole account, it's inspiring without being gloppy. But what I especially loved - what I'd give Bernie a big hug for if we were ever on the same continent - was the comment about intermarriage:
"IT MAKES NO sense to point out, I suppose, that mixed marriages, like mixed schools, like mixed countries, produce the most resilient cultural strains--in this case, values drawn from Jewish history or philosophical reflection that stand the test of skepticism; Jewish rituals whose beauty can appeal even to those coming to them fresh."

If I were rich beyond the dreams of Midas, I'd put the whole thing on a giant billboard forever.

Y. Ben-David said...

Larry-
Sincere converts have always been welcome to the Jewish people. However, intermarriage statistically has meant born-Jews leaving and assimilating, not non-Jews coming in and sincerely converting. Of course, for people like Dana, that is good....as they see it , the fewer Jews , the better. Note how Dana calls much of Jewish culture and religion "rubbish", so the sooner it disappears, the better, in the name of "universalism", and this "universalism" is happens to be whatever values Dana and other "progressives" like Bernie have and the rest of us had better get on board....or else. Maybe what Dana believes is rubbish instead. What gives Dana and Bernie the right to decide what is "good" and "universal"? And if Bernie is advocating having families with some sort of mish-mash of observances, mixing celebrations of Xmas and Hanukkah, Passover and Easter, well this simply ends up giving the children case a major case of confusion of identities and values and they will likely end up chucking everything and being alienated from everything.

Dana said...

YBD, your comment is rather shallow as clearly, wishing for jewish 'culture" to disappear is not what I was advocating, and is certainly not what bernard is. I am happy to even distinguish between 'jewish' and 'hebrew' culture, the first being what we see in the US. and the second in Israel. The two, mind you, are not the same, as they have diverged in the course of the past 60 years, and are diverging ever faster, as we speak.

I see great positive in jewish americans following their hearts and minds and bringing their traditions and culture into main stream US, which has, by and large, been an enriching experience for both. Intermarriage in the US has been a complicated but mostly a highly positive experience, with at least as many non-jewish people coming to see jewish values as universally relevant, and even converting, as those who grew distant from judaism. I say those who abandoned judaism altogether would have done so no matter who they chose to marry, as this is a common dynamic in america among all culturally distinct groups. Sometimes, it'd surprise you to know that it is the children who, quite on their own, CHOOSE to partake in and learn about one parent's tradition, for entirely individual reasons that have to do with building a sense of a self belonging within a larger, older context.

All in all, jewish assimilation in america has been a remarkable phenomenon, as the country has been assimilated into jewish conscience as much as the reverse.

I bemoan the fact that this is not happening in Israel where the tendency is to look inward and backward to some mythical maccabbees for the secular and to antiquated customs borrowed from the worst of the middle ages for the religious (what I meant by shtetl). Insularity and rejection of the other is bound, in due course, to corrupt the 'hebrew' culture that bernard likes so much, encasing it in cement, with the best of it appreciated only by elites such as himself. The rest are left with a 'talibanized' diminished 'culture' of popular crass elements - mostly imported from the US - the worst of it, I dare say, recast in hebrew and spiced with a good measure of exceptionalism, parochialism and sheer arrogance. It is in this context I feel intermarriage can do lots of good, as it'd get the people involved to think and consider more deeply which values are common to all humans, and where does the individual stand in relation to the state. Thereby elevating the entire culture and potentially restoring a measure of civility and civilization to all.

Shoded Yam said...

Well said, Dana.

Y. Ben-David said...

Dana-
You don't know a darned thing about Judaism, intermarriage means a net LOSS of Jews in spite of what you claimed, and you called MY culture and religion (or at least part of it) "RUBBISH", something you would never say about Islam because then you would fear being called an "Islamophobe". You "progressive univeralists" never have a bad word for Pakistan, a religious-ethnocentric state created specifically for one religion and which led to the dispossession of the non-Muslim population that was there before the partition of India. This state massacred HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of their brother Muslim Bengalis in their civil war of 1971 (the Bangladesh war in what was then East Pakistan), but since Bernie feels free to trash religous Jews whom he dismisses as primitive "Judeans", you think you can call it and us "RUBBISH". Islamophobia NO, Judeophobia YES for you hypocritical "progressive universalists". YOU think you can define the correct "universalism" for the rest of us, just like Stalin tried to do as well. You are nothing but a bunch of closet totalitarians. We Jews have had the "priviledge" of living as a minority among non-Jews for two millenia and we see how those "universalists" treated us, so thanks, but no thanks, we don't need your new, updated PC "universalism".

potter said...

Agreeing with Dana,

Y. B-D. Jews who are averse to mixing need and have forever needed, for their own survival, their relationship to their fellow Jews who mix- who assimilate, intermarry, interface and live amongst others. The history of state of Israel itself is a prime example of this. There would be and will be no state of Israel without such Jews, seculars, mixed, and who reach out to the world. They do not harbor your fears or insecurities about it either. You cannot keep Judaism alive and growing submerged in formaldehyde.

Intermarriage only means a loss to those who think it so- if those that intermarry are deemed to be lost, and are consequently cast out, shut out, shunned, shamed. So who forces this loss?

In progressive shuls here i(n the US) you can see interfaith couples and their children being embraced by Jewish congregations and it's a spiritually elevating thing.

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