A Sad Disregard for the Legacy of Israel’s Founders

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2014 | Rabin Square, Tel Aviv,
A spontaneous vigil following the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli-settler teenagers who had been abducted two weeks earlier by Hamas militants in the West Bank.
2014 | Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, A spontaneous vigil following the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli-settler teenagers who had been abducted two weeks earlier by Hamas militants in the West Bank.Credit: David Bachar

Dr. Avraham Tzivion, of blessed memory, one of David Ben-Gurion’s closest confidants, was the first director of the Midreshet Ben-Gurion educational center in Sde Boker, and later the director of the Education Ministry’s adult education division. In 1991, when the drop in interest and identification with Israel’s founding fathers pained him, he founded the nonprofit group Founding Fathers.

The organization held seminars on a wide range of topics: the Second Aliyah from 1904 to 1914, Jews moving out of Jerusalem’s Old City, the pre-state Palmach strike force, writers Shai Agnon, Nathan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, and much, much more.

Around 20 years ago, I was invited to one of these seminars, which was held (and they continue to be held) on weekends at Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha. Among the 70 or so participants, those who kept the Jewish Sabbath were few.

Two years ago, 10 years after the death of Naomi Shemer, I went to a seminar on her musical and cultural legacy. This time hundreds of people were in the much-bigger hall, but the real surprise, bordering on shock, was the makeup of the participants. No longer were they old-timers from the kibbutzim and moshavim, with gray hair and their old blue work shirts. Instead, about 60 percent of the people in the audience were religious.

An acquaintance, who with friends from Samaria never misses a single one of those seminars, asked me what I thought. (Over 70 such seminars have been held so far. A seminar on religious Zionism or settlers has never been conducted. A proposal to hold such a seminar on the 40th anniversary of the Gush Emunim settler movement was brushed off politely.)

I’m worried, I answered. Naomi Shemer, the Kinneret, the Jordan Valley, the cradle of settling the land after all, that was what Tzivion wanted so much to impart to the descendants of “those who came first.”

Last weekend I took part in a seminar on the poetry of Rachel Bluwstein. About 55 percent of the 310 participants were religious. They learned, through the interpretations of her poems, about the Second Aliyah and its notables, about how she was sent out from Degania because she had tuberculosis, about Tel Aviv where she lived the short remainder of her days, about the newspaper Davar, where she published many of her poems, about Berl Katznelson, Moshe Beilinson and her secret love, Zalman Shazar, a future president of Israel.

Once again I was worried not because the members of the religious Zionist movement are dedicated to the founding fathers’ legacy and yearn to learn about their heritage and sing their songs passionately. Not in the least. After all, this heritage, more than any other (as opposed to tendentious academics’ and columnists’ theories, which only cite the messianic teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook), is what brought many religious Zionists to the settlement enterprise.

My sadness stemmed from the fact that the direct descendants of the legacy of Rachel and her comrades from that generation of dreamers and those who fulfilled those dreams show little interest in this heritage. And certainly they’re no longer among those who fulfill its dreams.

What’s going on here, I asked the current chairman, Uri Naveh. This phenomenon keeps me awake at night, he told me. The organization is now making a great effort to bring in nonreligious participants, he said.

During a break, a discussion on the growing willingness to donate organs began. This year, a few thousand people volunteered to donate a kidney for altruistic reasons. In other words, the donors don’t know the recipients and  don’t receive any financial compensation, said Prof. Teresa Klein, who specializes in transplants.

After extensive medical, psychological and legal examinations, about 360 of the volunteers were found to be suitable. At this pace, the waiting list for kidney transplants will be shortened enormously and many lives will be saved, Klein said.

I’m guessing, said someone taking part in the discussion, that most of the donors belong to the community that journalist Oshrat Kotler and her friends label as “not sane” that is, the settlers. To my great regret, that is not a guess, said Klein, who knows the answer. It’s a fact.

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