Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav proposed recently that the study of Arabic and Arab culture to be a compulsory subject in all Haifa schools. In response, Education Minister Limor Livnat told Yahav that the Education Ministry would formulate a curriculum for Haifa schools.
Not content to limit his proposal to Haifa, Yahav called for the study of Arabic to be instituted in all Israeli schools on the grounds that the language barrier "exacerbates the Jewish-Arab conflict." There is "a vital need," said Yahav, "for the majority to understand the minority."
Yahav has a point. There is, however, another minority in Israel in even greater need of understanding by Israeli Jewish students: religious Jews. And unfortunately, the average secular Jewish student today is likely to be almost as ignorant of traditional Jewish culture as he or she is of Arab culture. That Jewish culture is not just the culture of a large minority in Israel, but of the grandparents and great-grandparents of today’s secular Jew.
In a wide-ranging interview with Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavit last month, novelist Aharon Appelfeld focused on the break between modern Israeli society and the Jewish past. In his view, "the major sickness of Israeli society is . . . that so many have cut themselves off completely from their past. They have amputed their past." In amputating their past, however, they have "amputated the internal organs of the soul," leaving in their place a "black hole of identity."
Appelfeld goes further and accuses all modern Jewish movements of having "internalized the hatred of Jews" to which all European Jews were subjected on a constant basis. "Modern Jews don’t want to be Jews. They flee from being Jews. Everything that obliges them to remember that they are Jews makes them flinch, arouses disgust in them, is unaesthetic to them," Appelfeld told Shavit.
Assuming that we can ever figure out how to teach Israeli students to read and do math, perhaps teaching them a bit of Talmud should take precedence over Arabic. After all David Ben-Gurion, who was not insensitive to the tension between the Israeli present and the Jewish past noted by Appelfeld, included Talmud in the basic curriculum in the 1953 Education Law. Today, however, only a tiny percentage of secular students have even a minimum smattering of Talmud.
Despite the inevitable outcries of religious proselytizing, it is easy to protect against that danger. The Talmudic study should be designed to avoid anything connected to Jewish ritual law, and center instead only on material connected to mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro (man and his fellow man): obtaining favor falsely, harmful speech, charity and giving, visiting the sick, employee-employer relationships, brokerage, honoring one's parents, price gouging, copyright infringement, property damage, and neighbors.
A properly designed introduction to Talmud would give students some sense of the sheer intellectual excitement of the thrust and parry of Talmudic disputation, and pride in the way that the answers to some of the most pressing contemporary ethical dilemmas can be found in debates in which their ancestors participated two millennia ago. About all, it would give them a sense of themselves as participants in Appelfeld’s ongoing "Jewish story."
Yes, Israeli Jewish students need to understand the Arabs in our midst. But it is even more important that they understand, and even love, themselves a bit more. As Appelfeld put it: "It’s time we showed ourselves a little compassion, too. A little self-loving. To have mercy for the Arabs, yes; but to have a little mercy for the Jews, too. They too deserve a kind word. We’re allowed to love them too."