Eran Wolkowski
Photo by Eran Wolkowski
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One would have to be a total imbecile to criticize the French concept of summer vacation - the much-lauded vacances, those two months in which Paris appears to lose all its residents, who head off to the beaches of Normandy, or to the south of France or overseas. The idea that "the world can go to hell, but I'm not giving up on the vacances," is considered a staple of national identity, a component of the well-known French penchant for pleasure, and a reflection of that people's shoulder-shrugging "what difference does it make to me?" attitude - a posture that occasionally indicates a lack of conscience and the inhumanity that sometimes stems from it.

We should recall the thousands of elderly people who died in their Parisian apartments of searing heat nearly a decade ago, at a time when the city was emptied of its residents; they perished while family members were vacationing, enjoying nature at their leisure.

How, and since when, did Israel become a pagan devotee of vacances? One doesn't need to be a sociologist to grasp that this process developed gradually, together with the other manifestations of inhumane and apathetic pleasure-seeking behavior that tramples its surroundings.

Nor does one need to be a weatherman to grasp that the idea of a summer vacation, framed around the European timetable, is ridiculous when it comes to warm-weather countries. Mass summer holidays were originally based on the need to vacate, for health reasons, the residents of dark cities, and to bring them into the sunlight before autumn and winter returned with their skies gray once again.

Of all the things our people don't have here, is sunlight among them throughout the year? Is it really autumn that awaits returnees from summer vacations, or is it the continuation of the seasonal heat that is yet more unbearable than in August? Whatever is the case, once a tradition takes shape around here, no number of wise men will be able to undo it. This is what happened, much to his chagrin, to Gideon Sa'ar, the hapless education minister who proposed trimming Israel's school summer vacation by a few days. The howling of those who stood to lose a few precious days reached to the skies. The teachers union joined forces with the parents organization in order to annul this new policy; these two groups quickly received the support of the travel agents association, whose delegates made the dramatic claim that trimming the number of school vacation days would cause mortal harm to their industry.

What a wonderland this country has become - that is the reaction to be expected by anyone overseas who learns of how such a mass of outraged citizens stood up in Israel for the sanctity of a two-month summer holiday, and heaven forbid if it is shortened by even a single day!

Try to explain to such an astonished outsider that things aren't really what they seem. First, take the sudden love affair between the teachers and parents organizations. Ask any parent in Israel today, and he or she will say that all the teachers are sub-standard, and that nobody learns anything in school. Ask any teacher in Israel and he or she will say that all pupils are sub-standard, rowdy beasts, that parents are pains in the neck, and that to educate is an impossible task since any small criticism expressed about a student is liable to incite complaints or even legal claims by parents who are outraged by the harm caused to their child's delicate soul.

But all of these differences of outlook disappear once there is a need to rally in opposition to a common enemy, the monstrous education minister. Not than anyone bears a grudge against any specific education minister. Rather, the opposition is against the idea that the ministry, and the person who heads it, might dare to propose any sort of change.

To grasp the meaning of such opposition one doesn't need to be a sociologist or a historian. One must simply recall that from the early days of the state, the education portfolio was given to someone named Zalman, from Zalman Shazar to Zalman Aran, and once the original pool of Zalmans was exhausted, other sorts of Zalmans took the portfolio in their own hands. The troubles always start when the current Zalman decides to make his presence felt, and feels he is not just another Zalman. Then the people rise up to teach that Zalman a lesson, and to show him what's what.

That, in essence, is the lesson given this past week to Gideon Zalman Sa'ar, who was forced in the end to apologize publicly for having tried to tinker with the most sacrosanct national treasure: les vacances. With Sa'ar, the people as a whole learned something about the power of ritual and tradition; it once again became clear that the Jewish people will fight as martyrs, till the last one falls, to ensure that not a single vacation day is lost. Does not such a lesson outweigh all that Israeli schoolchildren might have learned in the week that was supposed to be subtracted from their summer vacation?

What, then, have we learned, dear children, in our school of life? That power, yes power, always wins. And also that the Zalmans are always weak. And if we continue to combine power with pleasure-seeking, indifference and lack of conscience, Israel will indeed someday become the Paris of the Middle East - and perhaps one day its level of apathy will even top that existing in the City of Light itself. Ooh la la! The country will vacate itself of its residents not just during the vacances, but for the whole year, every year.