Is Israeli Society Strong Enough to Face the Future?

At the base of Netanyahu's worldview is profound anxiety over Israel's fortitude in the face of external threats.

At the base of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's worldview is profound anxiety over Israel's future and its fortitude in the face of the threats surrounding it. Netanyahu is afraid that if Israelis are pressed hard enough, they will simply get up and flee, especially if presented with the material temptations of American society and its satellites. He is preoccupied with finding ways to salvage Israel's Zionist, educated, established skeleton from its pending collapse under the dual pressures of the increasingly strong ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations from within, and the threat of annihilation by Iran and its allies from without.

Netanyahu's speech at the Herzliya Conference last Wednesday was devoted to the danger of national collapse. The speech aroused only slight media interest, but it was one of Netanyahu's most fascinating and important: He revealed his fears about Israel's collective future, if it continues to distance itself from the founding fathers' Zionist legacy.

"Our existence depends not only on a weapons system, our military strength, the strength of our economy, our innovation, our exports," he said. "It depends, first and foremost, on the knowledge and national sentiment we as parents bestow on our children, and we as a state bestow on our education system. It depends on our culture; it depends on our cultural heroes; it depends on our ability to explain the justness of our path and demonstrate our affinity for our land - first to ourselves and then to others. We must remind ourselves that if our feeling of serving a higher purpose dissipates, if our sources of spiritual strength grow weak, then ... our future will also be unclear."

Netanyahu cited two sources of inspiration: Napoleon, who was deeply impressed by the Jews' centuries of lament over the destroyed Temple, and Yigal Allon, the late Israeli politician and fighter, who said that "a people that doesn't remember its past - its present is uncertain and its future is unclear."

This was no trivial choice for a right-wing politician, whose father worked with Ze'ev Jabotinsky. As commander of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the pre-state Jewish militia the Haganah, Allon was responsible for the anti-Irgun campaign known as the Saison and the sinking of the Altalena, as it approached shore with an arms shipment for the latter organization. In the eyes of the Fighting Family, as Irgun veterans were known, these were acts of political persecution, if not a criminal betrayal of the national cause in favor of the partisan, factional interests of Mapai, the precursor to the Labor Party.

Netanyahu is prepared to forgive Allon, in order to adopt what he symbolizes: the founders' generation, the earthy sabra-ism, the field trips and bonfire, and "Yalkut Hakzavim" [a collection of folklore about the Palmach]. A modern incarnation of the heroes of the Bible, a book "that is close to my heart these days," Netanyahu said. He wants to educate the younger generation in the way of these symbols, so that the connection to Jewish history and to the Zionist enterprise will keep them in Israel, even in adulthood.

He is worried about the collective crumbling: "[The] challenge is not to get carried away by the illusion that we - each and every one of us - is allowed to become preoccupied solely with self-development. There are a great many talented young people here, and they are being taught to think, quite justifiably, that they are cosmopolitans. But they cannot be just cosmopolitans."

Netanyahu is still upset about an unscheduled visit he made to Tel Lachish a few months ago. The bookcase in his father's home, like many homes from that period, contains Naftali Tur-Sinai's book about the Lachish letters, missives written in Hebrew on clay tablets that documented the plight of the city's Israelite defenders against the Babylonian army. In his speech, Netanyahu said how saddened he was by the emptiness of the site, which had only a handful of Russian tour guides milling about.

In a similar vein, Netanyahu was awed by a trip to the British detention camp in Atlit with his son's class, where he saw the hut from which the underground group NILI used to send signals to the British during World War I. NILI "helped the British take control and free the Land of Israel. It opened up the way to Zionism," Netanyahu said, in a return to his roots; the right liked to praise NILI, whose members came from peasant stock and were affiliated with the Labor movement.

On Tel Hai Day, Adar 11, Netanyahu will present Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser's "heritage program" to his government for approval. The government plans to invest in restoring hundreds of historic sites, museums and archives, and in building two trails between archaeological sites and landmark stations from the era of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community. New technologies will be used to bring the younger generation closer to the past.

A senior government official says that not since the days of David Ben-Gurion, who even during the difficult period of austerity invested in preserving treasures from the Jewish people's past, has an effort of this kind been made to impart Israeli heritage. Ben-Gurion, like Netanyahu, was profoundly worried about the fortitude of Israel's citizens, and gave high priority to archaeological excavations, which along with Bible study were meant to provide the basis for a shared historical consciousness in a modern nation of immigrants.

Netanyahu's detractors will say that his processes of privatization, and the American values he represents, are what decimated the social cohesion of "little old Israel" and replaced it with a no-holds-barred race for the money. Netanyahu would respond that in capitalist America, a great deal is invested in preserving historic sites.

But the hard question relates to processes of social change in Israel: How will the program accommodate ultra-Orthodox and Arab youth, who together will be a majority in their age group within a few years? They are raised on other narratives, non-Zionist ones, and Netanyahu's program is designed to present the "core of the Zionist story."

"We will not be restoring the site where Abdul Khader Husseini fell in the heroic battle for Kastel, and we will not promote Haredi culture and rabbinical questions-and-answers," the senior government official said. Netanyahu mentioned the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs in his speech, and called on them to sign up for social service within "their communities." He is not offering them a shared cultural heritage. And this will make it harder to realize his grand vision, to build an Israeli society united before the challenges of the future.