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Israel at 50: Jewish Youth See Zionism As Ideology of Israel’s Past

February 2, 1998
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The Herzliya Gymnasia school sits on a corner plot of land in the prestigious neighborhood of north Tel Aviv, a sandstone-colored building surrounded by palm trees and grassy areas studded with flowers and benches.

More than 1,000 junior high and high school students attend the Gymnasia, which was established in 1905, the first high school in the country that taught Hebrew and later became a cultural center for the burgeoning city of Tel Aviv.

At the school’s entrance is a display of photos and essays commemorating Israel’s jubilee year — a large portrait of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is posted prominently in the middle, as if to remind the students whom to thank for the tiled floor beneath their Doc Martens, shoes popular with teen-agers.

Lee Avzuk, Shimrit Tsiporen, Anat Tal and Lior Ben-Kereth — four typical Tel Aviv teen-agers dressed in baggy clothes — pay no attention to the blue and white display and make their way through the maze of hallways and classrooms to the school’s cafeteria where they plop themselves down to drink coffee and discuss Zionism and patriotism in their country’s 50th year of statehood.

Tal, a lanky 11th grader huddled in her khaki green army-style jacket, is somewhat disillusioned with the concept of Zionism, commenting that it’s a romantic concept from the past, existing only in politics. Her friends agree, adding that army duty and youth movements are two of the last vestiges of patriotism left in their young state, and even those are losing in popularity.

“All the guys have to say they want to be paratroopers, even if they don’t want to,” says Tal. “That’s their Zionism.”

That’s a fairly typical reaction, according to Doubi Schwartz, director of Tel Aviv and Israel’s central region for Melitz, a non-profit organization specializing in informal education for high school students. Melitz has been organizing seminars about Israeli solidarity and patriotic values for the jubilee year, primarily in secular schools.

“Most students feel quite strongly about living here,” says Schwartz, “but it’s about beionging, not about history.”

“They tell me, `We were born here, it’s our place,'” he says. “They don’t want to talk about history or roots, they’re more interested in the consequences, how today’s headlines will affect them.”

He adds that army duty has come to represent Zionism for most young Israelis, since “there aren’t any swamps left to drain in Hadera,” referring to agricultural projects done in the early years of the state.

Tsiporen, whose mother is American, believes that Jews outside of Israel are taking the jubilee year more seriously than Israelis, partially because they have no other identity.

“What they don’t realize is that Judaism and Zionism are two different things,” she says, “and because we’re here, it’s less important to us.”

For the most part, Melitz educators are accustomed to approaching students with questions, not answers. It’s a different attitude than that of the Education Ministry, which declared Israel’s 50th anniversary as the central subject of the year, devoting additional class hours to the study of Israeli society’s accomplishments. Yet the ministry, as well as the government’s jubilee celebrations, has been plagued by managerial and internal troubles, and the recent death of Education Minister Zevulun Hammer hasn’t simplified matters.

An Education Ministry spokesman said teachers spent several weeks during the summer attending workshops organized by the ministry about how to teach the jubilee material. But on Sept. 1, 1997, usually the first day of school, educators organized a countrywide strike, protesting their low salaries.

They returned to their blackboards and workbooks within a few days, but refused to participate in or organize any outside school activities until their salaries improved. High school students also got involved, organizing a student union strike in several major cities to protest the lack of school trips and extracurricular projects.

Not a good start to the jubilee year, but typical of Israel’s politicized society.

The Education Ministry’s 70-page history book, targeted at elementary schools and titled “Israel’s Jubilee,” recently came under fire in the Israeli media for not mentioning the Palestinians when it discusses Israeli society. The ministry spokesman refused to comment on the workbook’s contents.

Educator Pinchas Simcha created a workbook about the jubilee for Melitz, dealing with Zionism and 50 years of independence. In accordance with Melitz protocol, the material doesn’t emphasize history, ideology or the past, but rather Israel’s culture in the context of Israeli Zionism. “The old style is Zionism ABC,” says Simcha. “We know there are problems with the nation’s youth. The Zionism of 50 years ago was a truth for the country’s youth and a fact of their future. That’s not true any longer.”

Maybe not for everyone. But Dima Shattachyan, who moved with his family to Bat Yam four years ago from Ukraine, still calls himself a Zionist. “I’m happy about 50 years of statehood,” says Shattachyan, an 18-year-old design student at the Goldstein Youth Village High School in Jerusalem.

“Zionism is about Jews living in their own state, building it, defending it, developing it,” says Shattachyan, who will be entering the army in the summer. “All countries have their problems, people should just deal with it.”

Not a typical reaction, according to Melitz’s Schwartz, who says many Russian students clearly state they didn’t come to Israel out of any Zionist motivation, and are then pounced on by their Israeli contemporaries for not being “Zionistic enough.”

“It’s true,” says Ben-Kereth of the Herzliya Gymnasia foursome. “The Russians didn’t come here for Zionism, they came because it wasn’t good for them there. They don’t even speak the language.”

“Who can blame them?” asks Avzuk. “They should come here for terrorist bombings?”

Avzuk reminisces about the days following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, when the country’s youth gathered in city squares to light memorial candles and vent their feelings and frustrations. “That was Zionism,” she says. “Because we were mourning together.”

Tal nods her head. “We’re a warm country, everyone knows everyone because it’s such a small world here,” she explains. “So even if it’s not as Zionistic as it was 50 years ago, it’s still different than other countries.”

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