A Meeting of Minds on Matter, and Spirit

Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover and author Meir Shalev share thought-provoking insights about Israeli society, the direction in which it is heading, and influence.

Guy Rolnik
Oren Majar
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Guy Rolnik
Oren Majar

They come from different worlds. They disagree on many things, but share the sense that things used to be better. They prefer not to discuss matters they don't understand, but can't resist sharing some thought-provoking insights about Israeli society and the direction in which it is heading. Nobel laureate in chemistry Aaron Ciechanover, author Meir Shalev, and Guy Rolnik, economics editor and deputy publisher of Haaretz, met at the 3rd Israeli Science Communication Conference, held at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem last Thursday, to talk about spirit and matter, and things in between.

Off with his head!

Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, left, accepts his share of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Stockholm, 2004.Credit: Nobel Foundation

Guy Rolnik: When spending most of one's time dealing with the travails of the world, with reality in some form or other, is it natural to assume that the topics dealt with are more of matter and less of spirit, such as science, literature and art?

Prof. Aaron Ciechanover: "On the contrary. People today want to know more. They want to understand what ails them, what treatment they could get. There is no doubt that science today commands a bigger share of the public debate than 20 years ago. The media has advanced and people take much more interest. I'm not sure they're interested in science per se, in the scientific question. What is science, anyway? What does it study? How do you answer a scientific question? How do you answer a question that hasn't been solved yet? How do you know that the question hasn't been solved? So perhaps the proportional share is small, but total interest by people and the means at their disposal, by pressing a key on the keyboard, has grown."

Author Meir Shalev is more dubious about broad public interest in lofty subjects. "Once, for a book I was writing about the story of the death of poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, I checked. He died during Sukkoth 1943, at the San Simone Monastery in Jerusalem, where he was on holiday with his wife. The yeshuv leaders made every effort to conceal that he had died at a monastery, even though he was just there on a week's vacation. They spirited his body away to Hadassah Mount Scopus, and only then announced his death. That was the top story in the paper - 'Tchernichovsky is dead'. When Bialik died, it was the top story of the first page of the newspaper."

Today he wouldn't even make the front page if he came back from the dead.

Shalev: "I don't want to speak ill of the dead, but I remember that when Ofra Haza, of blessed memory, died, Yedioth Ahronoth, the paper where I work, published the article - as Haaretz and Davar had done for Tchernichovsky and Bialik - on the front page. I delicately asked my editor, 'Okay, it definitely is a story for the front page, but why the whole page?' And he replied, 'Because I have to pay your salary' - which, by the way, isn't anything to write home about.

"I remember that when I was a child, we would go, my parents and I, to visit my grandmother, who lived in a workers' dormitory in Rehavia. We'd walk the streets and my father would go along reciting the names of the professors who live along the street, and what each does. Sometimes we'd go visit one of them. Prof. Gedaliah Elkoshi, for instance, had a huge library. We'd go in to see his library. The expression "your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them" [Isaiah 30:20, commonly if not always interpreted as to view teachers as actual people] - not only see them, but from a particular angle - was very strong in society at the time. Today, other than all kinds of celebrities and rich people, there are no elites to whom we can raise our eyes. Everybody knows there are professors and we're all enormously proud that Prof. Ciechanover and Prof. Ada Yonat won important awards. But in the eyes of society, academia isn't considered an elite, and there is no other elite. Actually, the public isn't interested in elites, and the politicians don't want there to be elites."

Ciechanover: "I think we're in a process of 'off with his head' - anybody who may turn out to be a leader is deliberately rejected. I see it in the departments of my own small world, the world of medicine. In the past, there were medical giants, like Prof. Moshe Rachmilevich and Haim Sheba, of blessed memory. In the future, there will be no conferences in the memory of anybody I know today in the world of medicine. These are the last conferences in the memory of great doctors - there is no Rachmilevich any more, no Sheba. Some won respect because of their great experience, and they served the leadership, and also because of their great knowledge. Today, everybody knows everything. Every child starting an internship in a department orders tests - MRI, CT and so on. He knows everything. We don't need to teach him.

It seems 'off with his head' is everywhere we look, including in the United States. Maybe it has to do with the difference between a mountain and a man: The closer you get to a man, the less tall he appears to you. The accessible, invasive media everywhere has brought the public's leaders very close. The absolute accessibility gnaws at their images. It has become hard to create leadership of the old school, whether political or intellectual.

Ciechanover: "But the fact is that leadership is being created here - leadership of tycoons, of admiring some other thing. The public does seek [leadership] in other places. In my opinion, in the wrong places, but it does seek."

Shalev: "One of the more regrettable things in Israeli society, certainly in the last 20-30 years, is that it deliberately lets go of Jewish world views hundreds and thousands of years old, that indicate a society is Jewish, in exile or in Israel. Judaism always valued the teacher and the pupil, raising them on high. I think we needed to replace that with the teacher, the pupil and the researcher of today, and to decide that this society has priorities led by education, research, knowledge and teaching. In my opinion, Israeli society and leaders don't want that perception."

Society and/or leadership? Or are they the same thing?

Shalev: "I believe they feed one another and embellish one another. I mean it works for both. Investment in education is investment for the long-term. There is no immediate gratification. For instance, look at the quick-fix culture of politics, solutions from one day to the next. We'll import cottage cheese. Problem solved."

I wondered when cottage cheese would come up. I didn't think it would be that fast and that you, Meir, would bring up the topic.

Shalev: "I'm not raising the issue of the cottage cheese. I'm using it to illustrate the behavior of the finance minister and now I'm returning to education. These things existed in Israeli society even before the establishment of the state, and in the first years of the state's existence. But then the teacher and the pupil, the researcher and the schools were at the forefront of society's priorities. That isn't so today."

Is there some point in time when it could be said that this began?

Shalev: "I don't want to get into a political argument, but it certainly belongs to the Six-Day War, to its outcome and to what happened afterwards."

Ciechanover: "The Six-Day War and the substitution of spirit with might definitely contributed to it, as did control over the territories. The results are disastrous on a colossal scale, in my view - corruption of values, of the army, of military values."

They will die rich

Have we moved from spirit to might, then naturally proceeded from strength to wealth?

Shalev: "I read about this culture in the paper. I don't have any really rich friends. I had a friend like that in the United States, a Haredi Jew. He was a very rich diamond merchant but he was very different from the money culture of Israel. We were good friends. He really did donate vast sums of money, mainly to medical research and helping to ease the final days of children with cancer. I can't say, since I'm not near that society, but when I read about the wedding of Yitzhak Tshuva's son, that cost NIS 7 million, about how they steamrolled over public space and how the nation's leaders including the president crawled to that wedding, I was astonished."

The finance minister was also there and the prime minister prepared a tape in honor of the nuptials.

Shalev: "That's part of the corruption of values and of perception. The man committed no crime. He simply did something tasteless and I think that both society and the law authorities should have treated the event differently."

Ciechanover: "I, in my sinfulness, am closer to the world of money because I raise funds for my university."

Were you at the wedding?

Ciechanover: "No, no, no. Far from it."

And if you were told that was the way to raise funds?

Ciechanover: "No, no, really no. I don't go to such places. But I think that money - when legitimately made - is a very legitimate tool. The problem lies in how it is used, and there are people who could teach us how to use it. Take Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for example. Gates tells the children, 'Take your small share,' and put all his money - $40 billion - into a fund to help the third world. Buffett, who also evidently wearied of 'Gimme' phone calls, contributed another $40 billion, and together they formed a joint foundation on which interest alone is $4 billion a year. They undertook to donate 5% of the fund to charity each year.

"When you think about that money, which in this case is donated to medical research in the third world, a completely neglected area, you ask yourself - without getting into names in the State of Israel - what a person does with $7 billion. Buy another boat? Another jet? Seven more houses? That still leaves $6.9 billion. What to do with that? I think I could advise them what to do with it. They could build all the hospitals in Israel, all the universities, they could solve the problem of poverty, promote education, do wonderful things."

Shalev: "All that money couldn't build an emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center." [Construction there halted after the discovery of ancient graves, of uncertain origin.]

Fleeing Absalom

I believe it was Honoré de Balzac who said behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Do you identify with that?

Shalev: "Behind every great fortune can also lie great talent, not necessarily a great crime. The Bible relates to wealth in different ways. On the one hand, it mocks wealth - this was probably written by a non-wealthy person: 'The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.' [Ecclesiastes 5:12]. Meaning, that full belly and perhaps heart coated in fat make it hard to fall asleep.

"On the other hand, you see a person like Barzilai the Gileadite who hosted the entire army of King David as he fled from Absalom, and made sure the king could establish himself and return to the kingship. Later, when David suggested he visit the palace in Jerusalem, he politely refused and, even abasing himself, said he was too old to enjoy the pleasures of the palace. 'Can I hear any more the voice of singing men and singing women?' You see a rich man, with culture and a broad view of life, who wants no ties between wealth and government because he would get nothing from it."

In my experience, much of the money in Israel builds up because of those ties between wealth and government. Even when it comes to Bill Gates and Microsoft, we must remember it's a monopoly that made sure it killed anything in its path.

Ciechanover: "Or bought it."

We have agreed that the debate has changed. The tycoons and money are at the center, instead of high culture and science. What does this change portend for our society as a democracy, and for the quality of our lives?

Shalev: "It means this is a society with no long-term goals, and whoever manages to grab and eat in the short run - the ones with the whippiest necks and most efficient jaw grip - is the one who gets the food. I, on the other hand, believe a society needs - I use an unoriginal word - vision. That simply means far-sightedness, in my opinion. Political leaders have no long-term vision in any sphere.

"We never hear a leader say he sees Israel in 30, 40 or 50 years, or as a light unto the nations in science, research, creativity and so on. It is convenient for society to follow a visionless leader. People like leaders who are like them. After the Carmel fire, we saw that even firefighting here operates by the method of putting out fires. There had been no long-term planning."

Ciechanover: "When I complain about the education system, they say, 'Look at GDP, look at high-tech. Where did it come from? What are you complaining about?' The Carmel fire and the lack of vision reflect an eggshell-thin culture. Tomorrow morning, when disaster strikes, you will find the hospitals have no beds, no protection from munitions, no X-ray technicians, no scanners, nothing. Everything's skin of the teeth. The State of Israel has not one machine for MRI testing of the breast, though it's standard in every developed nation today. We still use mammograms and 18th century technology because the Treasury clerks are afraid that every new technology will spur the system and waste a fortune. We're right at the edge and it's all because there's no long-term thinking.

"We are talking about profound cultural change - the disappearance of departments for the study of Jewish sciences, musicology and history indicate that the disaster is seeping deep down. The Hebrew University says to itself, 'Why should I appoint teachers to history when there are no students?' So we stop studying Jewish history and saw off the branch on which we sit. Why are we here in Israel at all if we aren't studying our own history? We sanctify stones and clumps of earth though we don't understand why people clung to this place for thousands of years."

Shalev: "When Prof. Yonat came back with her Nobel award and was asked in an interview where her habit of studying began, she said in fourth grade she had a Bible teacher named Yitzhak Shalev - my late father, I can say with pride - who taught her Bible in a way that made her love studying itself, engaging in learning, her attitude to the teacher, to text and to the study material.

"She named my father and the principal of the New High School in Tel Aviv, neither people of chemistry [for which Yonat received her Nobel], as the ones who led her to success in science. When Albert Camus received his Nobel award for literature [in 1957], he wrote a touching letter to his primary school teacher in Algiers, that if not for him and his warm hand stretched out to his impoverished student, he wouldn't be there."

Ciechanover: "When is the last time we heard a prime minister say one word on this topic? Sometimes words will suffice, money isn't even needed. I think it was the prime minister's duty to set up a grand department for the history of the Jewish people, Bible studies and halakha at the Hebrew University, irrespective of how many students it has or hasn't, just to preserve the torch. If he'd also talk about it and say it matters to him, I'm sure students would go there, because people follow their leaders."

Should scientists and authors and intellectuals be taken out of hiding? How can it be done?

Shalev: "That depends on each one's feelings. Some people and authors make hardly any political statements. Some do so moderately. I assume that if I didn't write a column for the paper, I'd hardly be heard discussing politics. I visited Spain recently in honor of the publication of my book and when interviewed there by the press, I was warned that in Spain, Israel isn't much liked."

Have you visited anywhere and not heard that warning?

Shalev: "In Belgium, a reporter asked if in my last book, 'My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum-Cleaner' - a family memoir - the Zionist pioneer with a vacuum cleaner was a metaphor for ethnic cleansing of Israeli Arabs. Do you understand what I have to deal with?"

What did you say?

Shalev: "I told the reporter that if anything, he was weakening the power of the problem because he forgot to note that the vacuum was American. Meaning, it was a broader imperialist plot. Two reporters who interviewed me in Spain this time said, each at a different point, finally an author from Israel who doesn't talk about politics. Meaning, it isn't just that the Spanish calf wants to suckle: the Hebrew heifer is happy to talk about politics, to market politics. It's a tendency. I prefer to keep literature and politics separate. There are issues in which I definitely am prominently involved, such as the battle to release Gilad Shalit. But it's a personal decision of every intellectual or author, how far they want to be involved, because my basic job, that of any writer, is to write stories."

Me, influential?

You say that if you didn't write for a highly popular paper, maybe you wouldn't be heard. What is your influence over the public debate?

Shalev: "I have been writing my column in Yedioth Ahronoth for 20 years. Before that, I wrote for Haaretz for two years. I can say I influenced matters twice. Some 10 or 12 years ago, I wrote that Yagur Creek was awash with garbage - empty bottles, used wet wipes and all sorts of junk, and that I knew it was because of youth movements taking trips there. Yossi Sarid, then the environment minister, made the same youth movements go back and clean up the stream.

"The second time was when Amnon Rubinstein was minister of education. I criticized the grammar matriculation test, where children were given 10 verbs to analyze, all of which were exceptions to the rule - and I'm one of maybe 30 or 40 people in Israel who know how to vowelize without mistakes. The verb שרוויי appears in Rachel the Poetess' poems exactly once. That was no reason to drop it and verbs of its ilk on pupils and doom them. Rubinstein added seven or eight to each test grade, upgrading tens of thousands of pupils from Fail to Pass. For six months, my wife had to deal with 17-year old girls hugging and kissing me on the street."

So you cleaned a creek and vowelized verbs.

Shalev: "I don't think that anybody in Israel, including more politically active authors than myself, can claim to have had greater influence."

Aaron, are you more optimistic about your influence?

Ciechanover: "Mine doesn't even come close to Meir's. I made a decision in principle not to touch politics and I adhere to it. Even though my heart is on the left of my chest, and the left of the political map, I have never said it. First of all, maybe I'm wrong and maybe I'm an escapist. Secondly, because I discovered a system that degrades proteins 25 years ago, should I understand politics and Beethoven and cantorship and unilateral evacuations and bilateral evacuations and all that?"

For the full version of this conversation, see Haaretz.com.