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Monday, November 13, 2006

Studies in despair

Reader Midov was kind enough to send me a full English translation of the interview with Nobel Laureates Yisrael Aumann and Aaron Ciechenover that appeared in Yedioth Aharonoth on October 28. It was sent out by the Shalem Center to their supporters. It will give you lots of food for thought.... You will note that Professor Plaut's account last night of Professor Ciechenover's words is correct. You will find it below bolded, italicized and in red. Why Yedioth (YNet) chose not to put his words on either web site speaks volumes about the moral degradation of this country, in which the mainstream media is a major player.
Sever Plocker, Yediot Aharanot, October 28, 2006

(translation from Hebrew)

Studies in Despair

Special: The Two Israeli Nobel Prize Laureates Foresee

a Gloomy Future for the State

From a political point of view, they are poles apart, but on one topic Prof. Yisrael Aumann and Prof. Aharon Ciechanover are of the same opinion: Pitiful and failed leadership is leading Israel to destruction ■ What worries them most is the deterioration in academics and education ■ "There is a close connection between the sinking of the Israeli spirit and the downfall of the State," they warn ■ Everything here seems lacking in values, temporary, one patch on top of another, a thin bandage that can be torn off with any breeze."

Two men, neither young, looked into each other's teary eyes. Behind them, on a green chalkboard, were written complex formulae. They shared stories of their experiences, but not in chemistry or in mathematics. They spoke with enthusiasm and uplifted spirits about Hassidic niggunim [melodies] and Jewish prayers. Their voices cracked, their chins trembled. In a minute, I thought, they will break down crying. It was close.

The two men, Prof. Yisrael (Robert) Aumann and Prof. Aharon Ciechanover, are Israeli scientists and Nobel Prize winners. The weekend supplement to Yediot Aharanot had arranged a discussion between them on the subject of the weakening of the Israeli spirit and the failings of the Israeli leadership. I was there to report on what was a deep, painful, gloomy, and sometimes truly frightening discussion, one that leaves the listener with very little hope and a great deal of discomfort.

The State of Israel, say the two professors, who are poles apart in their political views, is moving in the wrong direction. It is being swept away into the darkness, headed on a path toward possible destruction—and not because of our external enemies. Rather, we have only ourselves to blame: ourselves and our leaders, or those who call themselves our leaders.

Aumann and Ciechanover found a way out of their shared pessimism in their Jewish roots. "As a scientist, I am only a tourist in the palace of the Holy One, blessed be he," said Ciechanover, "who discovers secrets of the universe that he created, systems that were hidden in it for millions of years. If there are apparent flaws in them, I try, through medicine and science, to fix them."

Aumann stroked his white beard – just as my own grandfather did, according to the only photograph of him that survived the Holocaust and his escape – and said, "I feel the same way you do – I feel the same way you do."

Were their eyes full of tears at the end of their discussion because of the emotions aroused by the memory of the Hassidic niggun? That was not my impression. From time to time, in speaking of the fate of Israel and the failure of its leaders, Ciechanover and Aumann sounded like people on the verge of tears – two outstanding scientists who are tormented by fear for the future of our State.

The discussion began with my question, Are any more Israelis expected to win Nobel Prizes? "The question is totally irrelevant," answered Ciechanover. "The Nobel Prize," he explained, "is a rare event – rarer than the chance of being struck by lightning on a sunny day."

Ciechanover: "The State does not have to aspire to Nobel Prizes as a national agenda. So what if three people who received Nobel Prizes live here? What Israel needs is a broad educational system, a critical mass of researchers and philosophers and ethicists and men of letters who will lead her."

And there is no critical mass like that?

Prof. Ciechanover: "There is academic deterioration at all levels. Even among people with academic degrees, I find garbled language, a lack of cultural depth, and ignorance of general history and of the history of the Jewish people. We need institutions of higher learning headed by path-breaking leadership, but that kind of leadership has disappeared. Where are the outstanding men of letters of the past? I see a close connection between the sinking of the Israeli spirit and the downfall of the State. Without developed humanities and Jewish studies, quality science of any kind cannot exist in the State of Israel – not physics, nor chemistry, nor mathematics, nor medicine. In order to flourish, scientists of nature and technology must be nourished by the humanities: by ethics, philosophy, literature, history, and Judaism.

"The fact that the State of Israel has not become the great world center for Jewish thinking and history," says Prof. Ciechanover, "is our greatest cultural bankruptcy. If we do not have here, in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the leading world center for Jewish historical research, it is proof of the fact that we have gone bankrupt."

Prof. Aumann: "You are one hundred percent correct."

The Soap Bubble of Kadima

What is your opinion of our governmental elite?

"They are pitiful," Prof. Aharon Ciechanover says decisively, while Prof. Yisrael Aumann vigorously nods his head in agreement.

They are so repulsive?

Ciechanover: "It is truly pitiful that there is not one among them who instills in the public a sense of inspiration. There is no one with whom you would like to speak, whose ideas you would want to hear. To tell the truth, the members of the Israeli elite in general do not voice ideas. They lack discussion, discourse – they don't even have an agenda! They use all kinds of verbs in the Hebrew language – to disengage, to dismantle – that lack all meaning and sense. They are devoid of content, and in the middle of it is a soap bubble called the Kadima party."

That is to say, the downfall of the universities is not occurring in a vacuum.

Ciechanover: "Certainly not. What we see in the universities is merely a symptom of a serious and much more comprehensive disease. I would even call it a fatal disease: spiritual diminution. It is a cancer that has spread throughout Israeli society, to all its bodily limbs."

The politicians, in the opinion of the two Prize winners, have stained public life with their behavior. Prof. Ciechanover said, "Our leadership is always raising moral questions; the public's trust in it has been lost completely. Of all the national symbols, only the anthem and the flag are not yet subject to investigation by the Attorney General or the State Comptroller. All the other symbols have already been consumed."

"With such leadership," adds Prof. Ciechanover with great passion, "It is not surprising that the people's internal cohesion is weakening. The external enemy does not scare me; with the help of technology and wisdom, we will find a cure for it. What do worry me are the processes within Israeli society itself. They are the destructive ones. Even our army failed [in this summer's war in Lebanon] morally and practically – just look at the way the IDF is now investigating itself!

You sound pessimistic…

Prof. Ciechanover: "I am extremely pessimistic. I fear for the very existence of the State of Israel. Everything here seems lacking in values, temporary, one patch on top of another, a thin patch cover that can be torn off with any breeze."

Prof. Aumann (turns to Prof. Ciechanover): "I listened to your words and wanted so much to disagree with them, but I couldn't find a reason to do so. Just the opposite: Everything you say is correct. Your claims are problematic, but I entirely agree with them. I, too, am pessimistic. The problem is not with our neighbors, the problem is with ourselves, with our lack of patience, with the selfishness that has developed among us. Our national agenda is all mixed up: the collective interest has been pushed to the sidelines by the personal interest. The State of Israel in 2006 is something entirely different than what it was when I immigrated in 1956, during the Sinai campaign."

How is it so different?

Prof. Aumann: "Today, everyone worries first and foremost for himself – I, and only I. This is all well and good for a country like Switzerland, but it is very bad for Israel. We cannot allow ourselves a selfish agenda."

This selfishness – is it not also a result of the privatization and subjugation of everything to a competitive market regime? The competitive market lauds and praises selfishness and the advancement of private interests. It has no place for national, religious, ethical and cultural values of which you speak so highly.

Prof. Aumann: "I am a great fan of the market economy and of the incentives that it creates. There is no opposition or contradiction between it and Jewish values: Judaism has to be deeply absorbed in our identity. The incentive to be a Jew has to be assimilated into our soul. The Israeli educational system has to be built in such a way that the population will want to fund the study of the humanities – the humanties, theatre, all those things that are not strictly "economic" – just as Haredi Jews fund systems of gemilut hassadim [charitable acts of kindness.]"

Prof. Ciechanover: "I was competitive all my life. Without competition, I would not have succeeded in anything – even my scientific success is a competitive success. Nevertheless, I am convinced that there is no place for a competitive market economy in preserving values that are critical for our existence. Our profitable and historical inalienable assets cannot be managed like a profit-making economic factory."

How did the academic downfall and spiritual diminution begin?

Prof. Ciechanover: "The downfall began long before the demise of the university: It began in the lower schools. I have no doubt of it. It is, first of all, the ongoing erosion of the status of the teacher, the main reason for which is the frequent changes in the head of the Ministry of Education. Long-term reforms in education take dozens of years; in the Israeli political reality, this is simply impossible. Does the name 'Dovrat Commission' [the most recent national commission on educational reform] still mean something to you? It has already been erased from our memory."

Have we betrayed education?

Prof. Ciechanover: "We have betrayed education and therefore betrayed everything. For the State of Israel, education, academia, the humanities are everything. Unfortunately, not even one of the country's universities is rated among the 100 outstanding universities in the world. The President of the Hebrew University will tell you, and the President of the Technion will tell you, and the soon-to-retire President of Tel-Aviv University will tell you: we are not capable of bringing new scientists to Israel, nor are we capable of seeking them out, as we are constantly forced to cut and cut and cut our budgets."

Prof. Aumann: "Our academic failure is not only a budgetary problem. The professors all cry that we need more money for education and for the universities. Even the doctors demand more money for medicine and road planners more money for infrastructure – as we say in the Neilah prayer on Yom Kippur, 'Many are the needs of Your people, and their understanding is limited.' We don't have to appeal to the State budget and the Ministry of the Treasury for everything. Sometimes one has to do things differently."

Putting One's Hand in the Public's Pocket

How differently?

Prof. Aumann: "Instead of putting one's hand in the public's pocket, one can appeal to private sources. We can raise large contributions for humanities departments, and for the teaching of Judaism as well, and "sell" donors on the importance of these fields for the protection of Israel and its future. But this is still not enough. I also support an extreme increase in tuition at the universities; I would increase it ten times, to NIS 120,000 per year, even NIS 140,000 per year. At the same time, I would increase [government] stipends and grant generous loans on special terms. There is no need for the State of Israel to subsidize every student in the field of business administration or finance or technology. Let them pay a realistic tuition, or take loans, and when they receive high salaries, which are standard in these professions, they will gradually pay back the debt. But there is a definite need to subsidize the humanities, where the jobs do not offer large salaries. The state should grant them stipends and forgive the loans. If you go to law school and pay NIS 140,000 per year and later become a successful lawyer in the business world, then you certainly have to return the money that you received from the state. This is just, this is right. This is also how it works in America, where the leading universities are not public, but rather are organized as non-profit associations."

But in Israel there is no tradition of business corporations that contribute, shall we say, NIS 50,000,000 to the Faculty of the Humanities or the department of Jewish history at one of the universities.

Prof. Ciechanover: "Even if such a corporation could be found, I don't see this as the desired solution. Three national matters in Israel – education, health, and security – must be the responsibility of the State. These are the foundation stones of our existence here; the State of Israel cannot entrust education to private hands. Who will fund the kindergartens and the high schools that are not, as is well-known, attractive targets for contributions? Our universities will not exist without a broad educational and academic infrastructure that only the state is capable of maintaining."

Should we leave the universities outside the arena of the economic game?

Prof. Ciechanover: "Not entirely. I do support the system of stipends and loans and rewarding members of the faculty according to their achievements, as none other than the Ministry of the Treasury proposed. I cannot accept a situation in which a faculty member who brings in research grants, draws attention [to his university], trains students, works publicly in the university, and is concerned about his community can receive in shekels, down to the last agora, the same salary as a member of the faculty who sits idly with his legs crossed and does nothing. Economic competition in certain fields in the universities is critical for moving the wheels of the system."

No One with his Hand on the Rudder

Prof. Yisrael Aumann is a Haredi Jew; Prof. Aharon Ciechanover describes himself as a religious Jew: "The only music that I listen to," he tells me, "is cantorial selections. I have a huge collection of them. I grew up in a home with a deep-rooted Jewish culture. I truly and honestly believe that we will not achieve success in physics if we do not also study Jewish philosophy and Jewish ethics and the history of the Jewish people. These things are interdependent."

You could have "starred" in any university in the world. Why are you here?

Prof. Ciechanover: "Because I was born here and I want to live in a Hebrew-speaking environment, in the State that I fought for and in which I believe—on account of the long history of my people – it is important to live. This country is the essence of my existence. My parents came to Israel as Jews from Poland because they wanted to establish a state in which no one would call them Zhid – a Jewish state in which they could live a free life. They knew what they were aiming for. But this is not necessarily true of all Israelis. Our internal cohesion is falling apart; the rifts are growing from within.

"I grew up with clear values, and, to my sorrow, I see around me their steady erosion. At this juncture, we have lost sight of our goal, and have no one with his hand on the rudder."

Are we at the edge of the abyss? Is Israel in danger?

Prof. Ciechanover: "Yes, and if we do not regain our balance, we will cease to exist. I say this in very clear language: If we don't change, we will cease to exist. We will be uprooted from this place."

Prof. Aumann: "I, too, am very pessimistic and depressed. We lack the will to exist, we lack the patience to exist. We lack Zionism with a capital ”Z." We have turned into post-Zionists, to our own worst enemies. From my point of view, the blackest moment in the history of the State of Israel, and perhaps in the history of the Jews in the world, was the Tenth of Av 5765."

The day that the evacuation from Gaza started…

Prof. Aumann: "The day that the expulsion started was the blackest moment. This was an unjustified act, immoral, not strategic, not political. It wasn't anything. My people went mad – simply went mad."

Why the people? Why not the leadership?

Prof. Aumann: "Because the leadership is the product of the people; look at the last election results."

Prof. Ciechanover: "Until a few months ago, I would not have agreed with Prof. Aumann. Today, even though I haven't changed my place on the political map, I have no choice but to agree with him. Last year, I was in favor of the idea of disengagement, which seemed to me to be an act of unilateral generosity towards the Palestinians. I hoped that they would respond to us in kind, but I was wrong: after the unilateral disengagement, we received only terror and more terror. The unilateral idea was bankrupt and at the same time the soap bubble [Kadima] that arose from its base went bankrupt. It is indeed still in power, but what is its message today? This party, and with it this entire government, doesn't have even a morsel of an agenda."

What do you actually expect from the government?

Prof. Ciechanover: "I expect the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense and all the ministers to wake up in the morning and ask themselves: After six months in office, what have we done to this country? Have we achieved even one objective that we set for ourselves and those who elected us? This is the moral minimum demanded of them. I wonder: how can they live with the failure that they created with their own hands?"

You mean, why are they not ashamed?

Prof. Ciechanover: "They are not ashamed because they don't care. They don't think about us. I look at them and I do not know what my future is in this country. I am very, very pessimistic and depressed."

Prof. Aumann: "I am also pessimistic and depressed. But I have not forgotten that this is all our own fault – all our own fault."

In this way the discussion between the two Prize winners, our most distinguished scientists, ended but was not concluded. They parted with a hug, and I saw tears mounting in the corners of their eyes.


At 3:12 PM, Blogger Yoel.Ben-Avraham said...

Someone (sorry can't remember who) once said that countries thrive or wither depending upon a peopple's belief in the country's ethos or what they stand for. The moment people cease to believe in the country, the country's future is limited.

What was true concerning the former Soviet Union is no less true concerning Israel or any other country based upon an idea.

What we keep on hearing is that we need a renewal. If that renewal won't come from the secular, then it will have to come from the religious.

At 9:23 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

It will have to be religious. Without a strong Jewish identity, Israel will perish from the region. It will not be her enemies who will have it brought about; it is for lack of will, the Jewish people will have ceased to exist. They will have died by their own hand. Israel is perfectly capable of defeating its external enemies. The Arabs and even Iran are not the problem. The problem is a sickness consuming the Jewish soul from within. One wonders whether a cure can be found to revive it in Israel. The above post was written three years ago and the situation has gotten only more dire. The lack of will has metastasized through the Israeli body politic.

Israel is in need of a Jewish renewal. I don't see anything else on the horizon that will keep the Jewish State around beyond another 20 years.


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