Unlike Burg, most Israelis are clearly not giving up. But what then is to be done about the elites? Dialogue projects like Galilead are well-intentioned but clearly do nothing to reinforce Zionist values. One group that is worried about this disconnect is the Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem that has been working for more than a decade trying to promote a re-dedication to Zionist values via the study of history and ideas. Their notion has been that the best way to preserve Israel is to promote ideas that underpin the country’s legitimacy.
Shalem’s president Daniel Polisar told me in his Jerusalem office that the divide between the mass of Israelis who are deeply patriotic and the elites who have lost faith is a critical issue that must be addressed.
Part of the problem, he says, is that although institutions of higher education are growing in Israel, there is a void in terms of liberal arts since virtually all college degrees are earned in specialties. For example, law students earn a law degree without being required to do an undergrad degree in an academic course first. The result is a generation of lawyers â€” and lawmakers â€” who have not studied courses that could give them an ideological foundation for their nation.
His answer is to create an elite liberal arts college that will attract Israel’s best and brightest and give them a course load, taught in Hebrew, that will combine the great books required curriculum (modeled after that taught in universities in the United States such as Columbia) of the West and a comprehensive tour of the treasures of Jewish and Hebrew civilization.
“There’s a rapidly growing awareness that the problems of Israel and the Jewish people today exist in the realm of ideas,” Polisar asserts. His Shalem College will, he promises, open its doors in the fall of 2010 to 1,000 undergrads from Israel and the Diaspora.
Polisar believes “Great societies require great insights of thought and learning.” That can only be provided for Israel by a break with the existing academic culture, which will train a new generation of leaders steeped in Jewish and Zionist values that the critics of Israel’s legitimacy have either forgot or never learned.
This is but one attempt, albeit a highly ambitious one, to ensure that voices such as Burg and my friends at Galilead are not the future of Israel. But so long as the ordinary people of Sederot and their kindred spirits amid the thinkers at Shalem are similarly willing to keep fighting, there is no reason to despair about the future of the Jewish State.