At a time when Israel’s education minister sees only Jews as moral, it is worth remembering a prominent Zionist educator who taught us that things could have turned out differently.
By Gil Gertel
This past week marked “Land Day,” in which we commemorate and decry the dispossession of Israel’s Arab citizens of their land. Fate also had it that on that very same week, the Israeli public found itself a new national hero, who took the slogan “death to Arabs” and made it a reality.
On the day following the Hebron shooting, Education Minister Naftali Bennett attacked those who hurried to seal the fate of the soldier, supporting him half-heartedly because he “protects each and every one of us.” Last Saturday night, Bennett figured out which way the wind blows, joining the chorus of those who decided on their own that the soldier did not commit murder.
Since we lack any real prominent educators in the present, we must dust off the writings of Yitzhak Epstein, a distinguished and pioneering educator who was one of the first Hebrew educators in pre-state Palestine. He came to Palestine in 1886 at age 23, serving as an agriculture guide at the behest of Baron Rothschild. Five years later he began working in education, when he was appointed as teacher and principal at a girls’ school in Safed.
Epstein, in one sentence, asked us to look at things from the perspective of the other. This ability is necessary for a society based on institutions of justice, and, surprise surprise, it is the basis for all processes of learning and education. At the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905, Epstein gave a speech titled “The Hidden Question,” which was published in print in 1907. “Among the difficult issues regarding the rebirth of our people in its homeland, one issue outweighs them all: our relations with the Arabs. This issue, upon whose correct resolution hinges the revival of our national hope, has not been forgotten by the Zionists but has gone completely unnoticed by them and, in its true form, is barely mentioned in the literature of our movement.”
The things Epstein saw
Epstein already talked about all the Zionists who denied the existence of the Arabs: “We devote attention to everything related to our homeland, we discuss and debate everything, we praise and criticize in every way, but one trivial thing we have overlooked so long in our lovely country: there exists an entire people who have held it for centuries and to whom it would never occur to leave.”
Epstein responded to all those who pride themselves on a land unique to Jews: “At a time when we are feeling the love of the homeland with all our might, the land of our forefathers, we are forgetting that the people who live there now also have a sensitive heart and a loving soul. The Arab, like any man, has a strong bond with his homeland…”
To all those who mocked the Arabs for not having developed the land, Epstein, as one of the first Zionists there, explains: The time has come to dispel the misconceptions among the Zionists that land in Palestine lies uncultivated for lack of working hands or laziness of the local residents. There are no deserted fields.”
And to all those who reject the Arabs’ national sentiment, Epstein has this to say: “One can definitely say, that at the present time, there is no Arab national or political movement in Palestine. But this people has no real need of a movement: it is large and numerous and does not require a revival because it never ceased to exist for even a moment.”
Justice over nationalism
Epstein then suggests two principles that should guide our treatment of the Arabs.
A. The Jewish people, the foremost with regard to justice and the law, egalitarianism and the brotherhood of man, respects not only the individual rights of every person but also the national rights of every nation and ethnic group.
B. The people of Israel, yearning for rebirth, is in solidarity — in belief and deed — with all nations who are awakening to life and treats their aspirations with love and goodwill and fosters in them their sense of national identity.
Epstein uses a moral justification for these principles, which rest on a Jewish worldview that protects the weak from the powerful: “A nation which declared: ‘but the land must not be sold beyond reclaim,’ and which gives preference to the rights of one who cultivates the land over one who buys it, must not and cannot confiscate land from those who work it and settled on it in good faith. We must not uproot people from land to which they and their forefathers dedicated their best efforts and toil.”
Epstein responds to Bennett and his friends, who prefer the nationalist, short-sighted point of view over justice and morality: “Whenever what we believe to be the national good violates human justice, this good will become a national sin from which there is no repentance… But we sin against our nation and our future if we facilely cast aside our choicest weapon: the justice and the purity of our cause. As long as we hold to these principles, we are mighty and need fear no one, but if we abandon them – our strength is in vain and our courage for nought…”
Epstein gives several economic and utilitarian explanations, adding: “Will those who are dispossessed remain silent and accept what is being done to them? In the end, they will wake up and return to us in blows what we have looted from them with our gold! […] Let us not depend upon the ash that covers the embers: one spark escapes, and soon it will be a conflagration out of control.”
Morality for Jews alone
But let’s go back to talking about education. I can understand the argument that the Jew kills an Arab because the Arab “rises up against him” and the Jew preemptively strikes. But this is contingent on us making an effort to look at things from the other side, and recognizing that the Arab attacked a Jewish soldier with a knife, since from his perspective, the occupying soldier is “rising up against him.” If there is such a thing as morality, it applies to both sides. Bennett does not believe this. If the people yell, “the soldier is a hero!” Bennett bends morality such that it applies to Jews alone.
Bennett looks at things through the short-sighted prism of Jewish nationalism. But what good will one Arab killed by long-sightedness do? Does anyone really think that a blind, belligerent Zionism can bring about any future aside from one full of hatred, blood, and fear in the streets?
As opposed to Epstein, we have the privilege of 111 years of perspective, which prove that nothing good comes out of this. Epstein asked that we look at reality for what it is, and despite the passage of time, very few have been willing to open their eyes.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.