The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
Each morning they line up, rain or shine, several rows deep, just before the start of class. After the principal says a few words and wishes them a good day, the hundreds of students at an elementary school in central Israel burst into “Hatikva,” the national anthem, in a reaffirmation of their loyalty to the state.
Immediately afterward, those assembled recite Ani Ma’amin (“I believe”), Maimonides’s articulation of one of the cardinal principles of the Jewish faith, namely, belief in the coming of the redeemer.
The entire ceremony lasts just a few minutes but it encapsulates a profoundly eternal lesson – the importance of instilling in Israeli children national pride, Jewish self-respect and hope for a better future.
It took my wife and me several years – yes, years – to persuade the local school to incorporate this modest little program at the start of every day. But it was well worth the effort, because its fruits are sure to be significant and long lasting.
As Baron de Montesquieu, the great 18th-century political philosopher, noted, the promotion of love for one’s country “ought to be the principal business of education.” But the sensible baron went further, pointing out that “the surest way of instilling it into children is for parents to set them an example.”
And indeed, with the start of the new year, what could be more appropriate than for Israeli society to recommit itself to the basic values of patriotism and prayer? After all, it is their absence from our public life that has contributed so greatly to the ethical and political decay that has set into our governing system.
When photos of the ruling coalition begin to resemble a police lineup, and serious allegations swirl around our head of state, it should be clear that something has gone horribly and terribly amiss.
Some political leaders appear more concerned with what is in their pockets, and their pants, than with the safety and well-being of the entire country. The symptoms of this malaise are all around us, from the war in Lebanon to the string of corruption scandals to the failure on the part of our politicians to take responsibility for their actions. When those who lead us are no longer guided by a sense of national destiny, it is inevitable that their personal urges and agendas will come to the fore.
As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “Do we wish men to be virtuous? Then let us begin by making them love their country.” It is this basic and fundamental truth that we need to embrace once again, that we need to reclaim.
This should be the ABC of Israel’s educational system, the basis upon which a healthy populace and productive citizenry can and must be built.
It may take time, but if we start again to impart these values to our youth, we might just succeed in raising a generation of leaders worthy of the name.
The tools for doing so are all around us. All we need do is put in a little more effort, and change will come.
If local schools don’t already do so, it’s up to us to make sure they hang flags in every classroom, all year round. There is no reason why Israel’s national colors should be taken out of the drawer only once or twice a year for special occasions.
And parents need to talk to their children’s principals about what their schools are doing to build a sense of civic pride and national self-esteem among the student body. If there is time in the day to talk about triangles and parallelograms, is it any less important to be teaching what it means to be a good Jew and a patriotic Israeli?
The Land of Israel itself is a living curriculum, with a plethora of national, historical and religious sites that tell our people’s story and naturally evoke pride in its unique and special saga. We are blessed with so many powerful symbols, from the Western Wall to the Cave of the Patriarchs to Rachel’s Tomb, which too many Israelis no longer go to see.
Perhaps it is time for an Israeli “birthright,” modeled on the program that exposes Diaspora youth to Israel, so that our own children learn to love and cherish every corner of this land. People are always complaining about how small the country is. But if that is the case, then why don’t our kids get to see more of it?
Hand in hand with patriotism comes prayer. American presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, don’t hesitate to invoke God, and there is no reason why the Creator should get short shrift in Israel’s public discourse.
America each year has a National Day of Prayer, proclaimed by the president, and there is even a statute that was passed by Congress, Public Law 100-307, which calls on the American people “to reaffirm the role of prayer in our culture.”
In the wake of 9/11, Americans reached for their flags and came together to pray. They demonstrated that you can be the strongest nation on earth yet still be humble enough to bow your head before God and ask Him for assistance.
Israelis can and should learn a valuable lesson from this. America is on the march because it believes in itself and in a higher power, and it is not ashamed to say so.
By contrast, for the past decade Israel has been in retreat, pulling back and pulling out, yet never succeeding in moving forward because it has lost confidence in the justness of its cause.
It is time for us to realize that there is nothing wrong with having a little faith. After all, we are fighting for our existence in the Holy Land, so what could be better than resorting to the sacred tool of belief? If it is good enough for America, it should be good enough for us as well.
So let’s dedicate this New Year to patriotism and prayer. By raising the flag we will be raising our nation’s spirits. And by lifting our collective voices and appealing to Heaven we might just finally dispel the gloom that is hanging over us, once and for all.
About the Author: Michael Freund is the Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel. He writes a syndicated column and feature stories for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s leading English-language daily, and he previously served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu. A native of New York, he holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
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