The Gedolei HaDor, Leftist Intellectuals, and Peace with Syria

This week’s parsha affords people the opportunity to transpose the sin of the spies onto contemporary anti-Israel or anti-Zionist leaders. It can really be a lot of fun. Perhaps the two best-known expositions along these lines are those of the Sefat Emet and that of Emanuel Levinas.

The former appears in his posthumous magnum opus on the Parsha. He basically calls the spies “gedolei ha-dor” whose flaw was that they wished to remain in the idyllic desert existence where they could focus on spiritual pursuits and bask in God’s presense instead of engaging in agriculture and fighting wars.

The latter appears in the chapter entitled “Promised Land or Permitted Land” in Nine Talmudic Readings where he explicitly calls the spies “European leftist intellectuals” for whom engagement in the business of nation-building and putting ideals into practice sullies the pristine, ideal philosophical concepts at they exist in the academy.

I believe that, although the targets differ, the approach is essentially the same. Both groups wish to keep the Torah (which, in Levinas’ writings, is an ethical system) pristine, and fear that “bringing it to life” would damage and sully it.

Another approach which resonates today is that of the Zohar. It says that these men were, indeed, leaders, but they felt that they would lose their power once they came to Israel. Their hold on power corrupted them into going against the good of the people and the wishes of God out of self-interest. To my mind, in addition to being a flaw of the spies, it’s also a flaw in the system which allows it to happen (power tends to corrupt…). The system of government must make a greater effort to keep people in power from facing dilemmas which pit the right thing to do against the one in which they stand to gain the most. One need not look too hard to find examples of this same phenomenon today. Note that the Zohar believes that this can even happen to great rabbinic leaders, not just politicians.

The Syrian peace thing is a throw in. The only thing that Israel has to gain from peace with Syria is the disruption of the IranàSyriaàHamas/Hizbullah pipeline. Syria made it clear that this isn’t going to happen. That makes me wonder whether certain of our elected officials aren’t facing the dilemma of the spies according to the Zohar (this example being really one of many). I hope I’m wrong though.

I really want Israel to make a real peace with Syria. My reasons, however, are unabashedly self-interested. You see, if there’s peace with Syria, them I can take the greatest road trip ever. It’s in the plans. I’m going to take a road trip one day to the fjords of Norway. I will tour Europe in my own car. It will be epic. Once there’s peace with Syria, there will be territorial contiguity between Israel and Europe via friendly nations. I can’t wait.


My Politics

After my recent post, a number of friends expressed surprise that I’m so “Republican” in my political thinking. I wanted to therefore clarify my basic political stance. Especially since, as I write these words, I contemplate running for a seat on the Modiin City Council (elections are in the fall). More on that later.

My political starting point is libertarian. This does not mean that I advocate deregulation and a complete laissez faire attitude, but that, basically ha-motzi me-chavero alav ha-ra’ayah. In other words, in the default scenario, the government should not intervene. This will lead to certain conclusions which fall on the ‘conservative’ end of the political spectrum (such as supporting school vouchers, reduction of welfare programs, small government, etc.) and others on the liberal end (I do not think that the government should intervene in a person’s choice to abort a fetus, conduct stem-cell research, or enter into a marriage contract with a member of the same sex; similarly, I support the institution of civil marriage in Israel). I don’t know where this puts me politically, but I think Israel should be doing much more for Sudanese refugees, and am appalled that opposition is coming from ostensibly religious quarters.

Regarding the upcoming elections, I’ve spoken with 2 city council members and have plans to speak with 2 more before reaching a decision. I’ve been disappointed with the heartlessness, mindlessness, and toothlessness of the local politicians in general. I feel that I belong to a significant segment of the local population which is underrepresented, especially with regards to educational needs.

Since my last post, there have been a few other developments on that front. One is that the municipality now wishes to shut down the Talmud Torah (basically, an after-hours, private, extracurricular Torah enrichment program offered on the premises of the religious public school) at the religious public school based some technicality (i.e., they want to force the parents who are happy with that option to consider the city’s new proposed Torani school. Welcome to the Banana Republic, where competition to state institutions is shut down so that the state need not improve its product). Also, Lemaan Achai sued the municipality (a while ago) to allow them to obtain more appropriate premises, and the court date has been set for next month. Petitions are going around for both; the latter is online (link). In general, I’m opposed to the idea that the government gives land to schools. Reality is complicated, though, and we have a situation in this country where there are public and private schools, but where are all state funded and where there is no separation of church and state. Thus, the decision to grant facilities to one school over another should be gauged by some measure other that whether it’s public or private. Furthermore, other local private schools have been given municipal land, and the Municipality just blazed a new path by funding a local Reform congregation (a step which I am in favor of, not because I think that the government should fund synagogues, but because I think that it should not discriminate between different types of congregation; ideally, I think that some type of cultural-religious voucher system should be instituted here as well).

Anyhow, stay tuned regarding the possible launch of my political career. This blog may yet turn into a soapbox (which will doubtlessly turn readers off).


The Municipality Plays Hardball with Torah Education

I’ve written before about our choice of school for our first grader. All in all, we’ve been pleased with what she’s gotten there. Not thrilled, not head over heels, but pleased. It has met our expectations in terms of most of our important benchmarks: friends, curriculum, competence and responsiveness of teachers, accessibility and flexibility on the part of the administration.

Over the past few weeks, the annual rumblings about starting a “Mamlachti Dati Torani” school (basically, a Torah-oriented public school) have begun again. There has been a drive to get people to give preliminary registration details, ostensibly to gauge interest, in the hopes of starting this new school in the fall or, at the very latest, the fall of 2009. I’ve gotten several messages, via email, facebook, phone, etc., requesting that I send the registration details to the municipality. I was considering doing so, because surely it can’t hurt. Right?

Not necessarily. I had the occasion to speak with a member of the Modiin City Council – actually one of the few religious members of it – about the issue. Upon the conclusion of the conversation, I had a very good idea where this impetus comes from and what its agenda is. While I understand and respect it, I strongly disagree with it.

The city council member gave several reasons that we would be better off in the M”D Torani school:

1) Public education is better than private (or, in the case of Israel, ‘recognized, unofficial’) education in general, because public schools are supervised by the Ministry of Education and meets its standards for quality, whereas anything can go on in a private school.

2) It’s better to send kids to public school, because private school costs can get expensive, leaving public schools with only the kids who can’t afford private education, and eventually causing the collapse of the religious public schools.

3) The facilities of the current school (Lemaan Achai) are decrepit and overcrowded.

4) Lemaan Achai might be evicted from Modiin because it’s unofficial and because many, if not most, of its pupils come from outside of Modiin.

Here’s my response, point by point:

1) This point is based on the big-government semi-socialist norm that the government and its ministries know how to educate my kids better than I do. I do not believe, and never will believe, this to be true. I told the local politician that the school is under better supervision than the Ministry of Education. The politician asked who. I responded, “My Wife’s”. The superiority of private education in this regard is manifold:

a. A private school, or this one in particular, is directly responsive to the needs of the parent. My wife and her good friend were upset with something that was happening in the school, they met with the principal, and the issue was solved (and it was not a simple issue; they asked for the addition of a full-time security guard at the school). The fewer bureaucratic layers stand between the consumer (parent, in this case) and the service provider (the school in this case), the less interference accumulates in the communications between the two, AND the more executive power is consolidated with people who are actually accessible to the parent body.

b. Large education systems are, by definition, Procrustean beds (or as Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky put it, a Sdeim bettl). The smaller and more flexible a school system, the more quickly it can be adapted to the particular needs of its students. Private education must respond to market forces. If its quality is poor, then people will stop sending their children there (this is obviously a sliding scale; different parents want different features, can afford different things, etc.). I’m not worried that my child will get a sub-par education at the private school for the very simple reason that as soon as I feel that the education is sub-par (or that she would be better served at a different school), then we would switch her. The minute that the city succeeds in shutting down private alternatives, competition dies.

2) This argument, popular in the U.S. as well, implies that wealthier families or families who are willing to invest more in the education of their children should sacrifice the education of their children for some sort of “greater good”. This thinking is flawed for several reasons:

a. It clearly stems from a Socialist worldview. In and of itself, that’s not automatically evil. The issue is that there are certain areas where I’m willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, and others where I’m not. The education of my children is one where I’m not.

b. It assumes that the presence of my child improves the educational experience of those “underprivileged” children. I’m highly skeptical of that assumption. One would think that a smaller public school would actually improve its education – more resources per child, more attention per child, etc.

c. It assumes that the privileged and underprivileged students would be fully integrated in the public school setting. There might be some integration, but not much. There’s also plenty of diversity within this particular private school, since it is very affordable.

d. It confuses the municipality’s responsibility with my responsibility. The municipal gov’t/ Ministry of Education are responsible to provide quality education for every child. They must not count on the presence of my child to help them do their job. If they want my child to attend the schools they build with my tax money, then they have a responsibility to build a compelling case for me to do so by providing quality education, not by resorting to guilt or by closing or hamstringing the competition.

3) This one’s pretty cynical. The current school has funds to build a building, but the Municipality has been consistently preventing them from obtaining land. I don’t need the city to give the land away, like it does for other schools. It needs to get the heck out of the way, though. This is a monopolistic practice (as behooves a government ministry) which severely constrains competition. This argument adds insult to injury.

4) This is another strong-arm tactic. It’s true that many of the pupils in this school come from outside of Modiin, just as many hail from Modiin. This means that there’s a regional market for a school which no single municipal/ district entity can support. Thus, if each local government insists on serving only its constituents, the needs of all those pupils will never be served. I wonder if the same argument would be lodged against a science or humanities magnet school. Would people complain that we’re teaching physics to the children of, say Lapid or Kfar Daniel? And is it too much to ask these local governments to sit down and divide the pie proportionally?

Finally, one might say that, in the spirit of competition, the new school should be allowed to open, because competition is good for everyone. Isn’t that what I’m arguing? Don’t I believe that competition is a good thing, in education as well?

The answer is that I’m a strong believer in the FREE market and OPEN competition. I fear, in this instance, that once the municipality opens their competing school, it will use its existence to force the other school to close or leave town. Once that happens, it no longer has much interest in providing a good education (no competition!), and will then go to hell in a hand basket. In this scenario, which I unfortunately believe to be very likely, we would be left with no good alternatives, not two.