Universities are a liberal habitat. The air that education breathes is the absolute freedom to express oneself and say everything.
The other day, I visited such a university in the United States. The buildings are enormous and impressive, the facilities are state-of-the-art, and the students are very young and impressionable. Those seeking the reason why Zionism is having hard time on American campuses, while the pro-Palestinian movements are successful, will find that the main cause is imagination. The freedom to imagine and fantasize. To weave plots with a simple ending. To solve conflicts in the classroom with pen, paper and a map on a computer.
There is something encouraging about this freedom. It is only in universities that professors can analyze religious manuscripts without being terrorized by priests, rabbis or imams. It is only there that subversive ideas can be raised. But alongside this freedom, there is also a lot of hypocrisy. In the name of freedom, it’s hard to hear the ordinary and the simple. The old patriotism is erased, the voices of people who believe in good are disregarded, and there is a difficulty to hear about complicated problems and about dark cultures.
In recent years, I have visited American campuses several times in order to lecture about Israel. And each time, I am surprised to discover the ignorance. They are the finest minds, yet they find it difficult to deal with a complicated picture. They are the finest young people, yet they are so easy to influence with demagogy. Even students from Jewish homes, with a pro-Israel background, are finding it difficult to cope.
I’m telling you all of this because of the ongoing dispute in Israel over the exposure of high school students to Breaking the Silence representatives. The main argument made by principals who wish to let the organization’s representatives speak to their students is the freedom to listen to different opinions. That’s an important argument, but it has never existed in the world of basic education.
People educate their children according to a certain way. The French educate them on the values of the republic; the Japanese – on obedience, discipline and diligence; and the Israelis – those who still study in the state educational system – on Zionism. Can we educate them both on Zionism and on anti-Zionism? Can we encourage army enlistment and, at the same time, bring an organization which presents the IDF as the source of all evil? The answer is no.
We cannot educate for tolerance and then allow lessons about the values of Bentzi Gopstein and the Lehava organization. We cannot educate on the values of a Jewish and democratic nation state and, at the same time, teach the need for a state of all its nations. Why? Because before learning about complicated things, one must learn about simple things. Before talking about bridges and rafters, foundations must be laid. When I send my kids to school, I want a Zionist education which encourages them to join the army, contribute, be good citizens, and mainly to feel that they are right.
Breaking the Silence, with all my criticism against them, have a right to express themselves in the State of Israel. There has not been a single event in which I was invited to present my stance against theirs and refused. I don’t boycott them, although their actions encourage boycotts against me, but argue with what I see as losing one’s way. There is room for them in the Israeli discourse, but not in the educational system.
Whoever is interested in Breaking the Silence-style political activity will find room for it in higher education. Post-modernism in which one can philosophize about how good the evil is and how evil the good is; to what extent have irregularities in the IDF’s combat values become a norm, as Breaking the Silence claims – and recently the extreme right too, and to what extent is it politically-directed slander.
Everything is possible in a democratic state with full freedom of speech, but why in the educational system? Are high school students deeply familiar with the Zionist story? Do they understand what the pioneers sought to create here? Do they know the meaning of an exemplary society, of the orchards planted by the pioneers, which created thousands of jobs for the Arabs in the area? Do they know about the Zionist effort at co-existence and about the bloody response on the Arab side?
There is no reason to be afraid of getting to know claims against Israel and its policy. Everyone here will know and meet and cope, and some of the Israelis – like the Americans – will find it difficult to perceive the complexity. In the meantime, let them grow up in peace; let them be right. This is a right which is as important as the freedom of political organizations like Breaking the Silence to criticize us all over the place.