What We Can Learn From One Courageous Jewish History Teacher

What Israeli democracy needs is not a new government, but educators like Herzl Schubert who was seen taking part in the weekly demonstration at Nabi Saleh last month.

Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik
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Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Paris, 1968. Regarded as 'a subversive foreigner.'
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Paris, 1968. Regarded as 'a subversive foreigner.'Credit: AFP
Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik

“Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands” (“We are all German Jews”) was the cry uttered by hundreds of thousands of young people who took to the streets of France in May 1968. That unforgettable slogan did more than just express support for Daniel Cohn-Bendit (aka “Danny the Red”), one of the leaders of the student revolt in France who was persecuted by both the Gaullist government and the Communist Party.

The French authorities prevented Cohn-Bendit from entering the country because he was a “subversive foreigner.” The event was also a turning point in the history of French Jewry, traditionally understood as a standing on the margins of culture, which almost overnight came to represent a political ideal. Whereas in the Dreyfus affair, some decried the affront to the French officer of Jewish origin and accused the authorities of betraying the values of the Enlightenment, the call “We are all German Jews” deliberately intertwined the memory of the Holocaust, the war on fascism and minority rights in a form hitherto unseen in French politics.

From a “rootless alien,” whose civil rights and historical fate depended on the readiness of Christian society to adopt the principles of the Enlightenment, the Jew, regardless of citizenship, was transformed into a political and moral nonpareil. It was not Danny the Red’s political views but his Jewish descent, not the universalism of the Enlightenment but his particular hybrid identity and his specific historical fate as a German Jew and a foreigner in France that became the symbols of justice.

In the France of 1968, hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets and proclaimed that to be human means to be an exception – that is, to be a Jew. In Israel 2015, the exception is a history teacher who takes part in a demonstration against the occupation and comes to the aid of a Palestinian child who is being attacked by an armed soldier. The result: he is denounced from all sides as a traitor, and his suitability as a teacher in Israel is called into question by the Ministry of Education.

This is further proof that it is not the composition of the coalition that will determine the fate of Israeli democracy, but the willingness of decent people to constitute an opposition to the gravitational pull of fascism. What Israeli democracy needs at this time is not the replacement of the Likud government with a Zionist Union one, but courageous educators like the teacher from Ramat Gan, Herzl Schubert who was seen taking part in the weekly demonstration at Nabi Saleh last month.

On the day when we are all Herzl Schubert and are not afraid to identify with the weak and the oppressed, we will know that opposition has meaning, even when the prospects for ending the occupation look fainter than ever. To be in the opposition at this time means to continue looking for ways to live in this country, without giving up our radical identity in history as Jews.

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