More than 30 years ago, I debated the topic "Resolved the dove should be the national bird of the United States." (This was in the middle of the Vietnam War.) My partner and I offered a counter-proposal: the turkey. After all, Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey to the bald eagle as "a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."
The debate became an argument over the proper function of national symbols: Should national symbols embody a nation as it is or as it aspires to be? Last week's Israel Prize award ceremony brought to mind that debate.
On one side, there was the award to sculptor Yigal Tumarkin; on the other, the prize to Rabbi Yitzchok David Grossman for lifetime achievement for bridging the gaps in Israeli society.
Tumarkin reflects one of the ugliest sides of Israeli life: the total contempt of our elites for anyone who differs from them or does not share their opinions. Justice Eliyahu Mazza justly described him as a person of "vulgar tongue and rough language... [who] tends to make use of coarse and harsh language... to slander entire sectors of the population."
Israel Prize winners need not be paragons of virtue in every aspect of their private lives. But neither should they be best known for their offensive language and crude behavior.
The award to Tumarkin embarrasses the State of Israel, about which he once opined, "Perhaps it would be better if the state did not exist."
In particular, the award embarrasses Israel's self-styled Iron Lady, Education Minister Limor Livnat. In hearings on petitions against the award to Tumarkin, the state stipulated that the suitability of the awardee as a representative of the state should be considered. And the Supreme Court made clear that the final authority to make that determination rests with the education minister by requiring her affirmation of the prize before issuing its ruling.
Afraid of being jeered as a boor on the one hand, and of alienating her religious and traditional supporters on the other, Livnat abdicated her responsibility to determine whether Tumarkin represents a model worthy of emulation. Instead, she twice punted the decision back to the prize committee of art professors which, in turn, made it clear that its judgment was based almost exclusively on the quality of Tumarkin's sculpture.
IF TUMARKIN represents the ugly Israel, Rabbi Yitzchok David Grossman represents its highest aspirations. In 1967, as a newly married yeshiva student, he left the sheltered Mea Shearim neighborhood, in which he had been raised with nine brothers in two rooms, for Migdal Haemek.
"After the spiritual awakening that followed the war, I asked myself, 'Here God has performed such a miracle for us; what can I do for the Jewish nation?'" he explained to Ma'ariv's Naava Tzuriel. Migdal Haemek was then one of the toughest of Israel's development towns, with high rates of juvenile delinquency and drug use.
Rabbi Grossman began by sitting in a corner of the pool halls and discos. When curious teenagers came over to find out what had brought the strange-looking fellow to their town, he answered simply: "I came to be with you." In time, they found out that was true. "The disco rabbi" began inviting the kids to a small synagogue, where he taught them to read and write. The delinquency rate in Migdal Haemek plummeted.
The juvenile delinquents of Migdal Haemek led him to their older siblings and parents serving time in prison. Thus began his work in prisoner rehabilitation. He began teaching twice-weekly Torah classes in four prisons; and in 1989, Grossman opened the first yeshiva for inmates. Among graduates of his yeshiva, the recidivism rate dropped to near zero.
As he thought about the prisoners with whom he was working, Grossman concluded that they could have been saved if only someone had shown them some love and warmth when they were young. That insight was the genesis of the Migdal Or youth village, which began with 18 children and today is home to nearly 6,000.
These children are products of some of the most dysfunctional families in Israel, as well as recent immigrants from Ethiopia and the FSU. Recently I visited Migdal Or. One could never guess from the faces of the children, and their spotless and neat rooms, the backgrounds from which they come.
When Tumarkin's sculptures have turned to dust, Grossman's work will still be bearing fruit in the lives of the descendants of all those he has saved. Most of the teachers and counselors in Migdal Or today are themselves graduates. The head of the kitchen, which produces 10,000 meals daily for students and Grossman's local soup kitchen, is a former gang leader and convict whom Grossman rescued.
The most sustained applause of the Israel Prize awards ceremony was for Rabbi Grossman. Israel's Jews may doubt our ability to live in peace with one another, but the dream of a united people remains in the deepest recesses of our hearts. With that applause, we gave voice to our own dearest hopes.