Spring 1948. 12th graders at Herzliya Gymnasium strike to demand early graduation so they can join the war effort. The principal, Dr. Boger: “You must accept discipline! You are a brigade of Hebrew soldiers in the land of Israel. Who gave you the order to assemble here?!” A student called out, “Our hearts gave the order!” Dr. Boger was silent, as his eyes filled with tears.
– from a memoir by a member of the class of 1948
Zionism was, from the outset, not just a political movement, a rebellion against the exile; it was also an anthropological revolution, seeking to create a "New Jew:" not the pale, cowering "luftmensch" of the European middle ages, but a proud, strong, self-reliant, sun-tanned, productive maker of his own history. Thus, when Zionist settlement began in Palestine, educational institutions were a major priority, seen as tools for creating the new Jews who would build the renewed Jewish existence in the land. Among the first institutions to be founded was the Herzliya Gymnasium (the European term for an academic secondary school, grades 5-12) in 1905, which became a central landmark and symbol of the Hebrew renewal in the new Hebrew city of Tel Aviv. One of the leading educators there for many years, later the headmaster (after Dr. Boger), was Dr. Baruch Ben Yehuda, who struggled, along with his colleagues, to find the balance between the need for academic learning in the new society – and the need for fighters, pioneers, and laborers. Dr. Ben Yehuda was known for his dour demeanor and strict discipline. One of his more interesting experiments (never repeated!) was to serve as homeroom teacher for the same class for eight years, from grade 5 through graduation.
One of Dr. Ben Yehuda's daughters, Netiva, born in 1928, served in the Palmach and went on to become a scholar of slang and folk-music, a popular radio personality, a sort of pop public intellectual and general "character." The memoir she published in the '80s smashed a few idols and killed some sacred cows, especially regarding her experiences of sex, violence, and the associated moral dilemmas during her military service in the War of Independence. Rebel, free spirit, critical thinker confronts sacred military machismo…
Netiva died a few years ago. Her grandson Adam Verete is a popular and respected teacher of the humanities in a high school here in the Galilee. Recently, a student with right wing views was freaked out by comments Adam had made in class questioning the assumption of the perfect morality of the Israeli army. She took her freaking-out to Facebook, and not too many days went by before the teacher was summoned for a dismissal hearing. It now appears that the ensuing public outcry will end up saving his job, but this is not an isolated instance. Last year the [yes, popular, respected] supervisor of civics education, not a holder of left-wing views, was forced out by the ministry of education because of complaints about his support for curricular materials advocating critical thinking about issues of public policy.
Sometimes it feels as though the wheels of Zionist empowerment have begun to turn backwards. If the goal was to create a "normal," self-confident, democracy, in which the Jews would no longer have to be afraid of what the neighbors would say or what the rabbi decreed, in which there would be free and robust and critical democratic debate - somehow we have ended up in a place where flag-waving patriotism trumps critical debate, where every few months a new proposal for legislating political censorship pops up to occupy the Knesset members' time and energy – and where state rabbis define acceptable Jewish expression.
I know that suppression of debate is not unique to the political right, and that silencing of politically incorrect voices happens everywhere, even in Diaspora Jewish communities. It's just that here, we thought we were doing something different; but in the end, New Jews, Old Jews – we are still afraid. The more things change the more they stay the same.