The Talmud (Gittin 56a) records a rather unlikely story that unfolded in approximately 70 C.E. With Jerusalem surrounded by a Roman siege, it was increasingly clear that the era of Jewish sovereignty in the city was about to reach an abrupt end. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, a leading sage of his era, arranged for his students to smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a coffin (the Romans were still permitting burials outside the city), and, once outside, demanded to speak to the emperor. “Give me Yavneh and its sages,” Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai pleaded. Ben Zakkai was determined to focus not on the battles still being waged against the Romans, but rather on the preservation of Judaism’s greatness. Jewish life could survive, he understood, even if the world in which it existed was about to be radically transformed. All that was required was an academy and its sages.

Jerusalem, thankfully, is not about to be destroyed, at least not physically. But that does not mean that we do not face a challenge of great proportions. Strange though it sounds with Israel so successful on many fronts, Zionism is in decay. It is being attacked by Israel’s enemies, made ugly by too many of its most passionate adherents, and to the masses, it seems utterly irrelevant. If the purpose of Zionism was merely the creation of a Jewish state, many ask, why should we not just declare victory and move on? We have a state, do we not?

Reframing the Zionist conversation

Yes, the Jews have a state, but that is not enough. If a previous generation’s work was the creation of a state, our generation’s responsibility is to shape it, to make it profound and decent, to ensure that substantive Jewish discourse resides at its core. How many Israelis can speak articulately about why a Jewish state matters? How many of Israel’s religious citizens can speak meaningfully about the significance of democracy, and how many of its secular citizens can say something profound about what should be Jewish about the Jewish state?

Yes, the Jews have a state, but that is not enough. If a previous generation’s work was the creation of a state, our generation’s responsibility is to shape it

As was the case in the time of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, we have allowed ourselves to become preoccupied with issues that most of us cannot affect. Most contemporary discussions of Israel, sadly, are but idle chatter. We cannot change what will happen with the Arab Spring. We cannot bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table, and most Israelis agree that even Israeli capitulation on borders would not bring the conflict to an end. We can, and must, fight international de-legitimization of Israel, but that, too, is deeply rooted in Christian Europe, and we dare not delude ourselves into imagining that we can fully stem that tide.

In the meantime, though, the battle for Israel’s soul is being lost. How do we know this? We know this because one can read Israeli newspapers for months without seeing any serious discussion of what should be Jewish about the Jewish state. One can live in Israel for years without hearing the prime minister (of any party) address the nation and speak to the values that are at the core of the state. Israel’s democracy and economic viability are threatened by broad swaths of the population that feel no passion for the state and do not help to shoulder its burdens; yet few Israelis know how to respond. Israel’s newfound economic success has created an unprecedented economic disparity that has brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in protest, but in the protesters’ speeches, one almost never hears even a reference to Judaism’s sense of justice or equality. They can say nothing about why Israel ought not to be simply a Hebrew-speaking version of any other European country.

Israel will not survive this way. If Israelis cannot articulate why a Jewish state matters and what they would like to see it become, they will drift away. Ironically, there is an enormous community of (former) Israelis living in Berlin who never look back. They left not in anger, but out of sheer disinterest. Berlin offered culture, vibrancy, a new beginning. What did Israel offer? They would be hard pressed to answer. The same is true of Israelis living in the US, Australia, South America and throughout the world. A few left as a matter of principle; most, however, left because they could not begin to articulate a sense of why they should not.

This reality is particularly pervasive among Israel’s youth, as they grow increasingly distant from the narrative that inspired their parents and grandparents to build and defend the Jewish state. The products of an educational system that does not successfully engage students with the Jewish and Zionist tradition, many of these young people lack an understanding of why they should serve their country, and the tools and resources with which to do so meaningfully. Combine the incessant conflict, the lack of ideological passion, the harshness of everyday life, and one has a recipe for a society that cannot sustain itself. But unlike Israel’s external problems, these challenges can be addressed by people like us. They can be met in the way that the Jewish people have always addressed existential challenges in times of crisis. They can be addressed through education.

Re-investing in Judaism’s lifeline – education

What the Jewish people needs – what the State of Israel needs – is a new Yavneh, devoted to the study of both Western and Jewish civilization and to the fostering of an engaged and sophisticated Zionist conversation; one that models civil discourse and nuance; one that encourages active citizenship and service; one that allows young people to engage great ideas and great texts in order to see beyond their own horizons and to navigate an increasingly complex world. When the very best of Israel’s university students, those who will become the county’s leaders in years to come, discuss democracy, do they do so with the benefit of having read Plato’s “Republic”? Machiavelli’s “The Prince”? Do John Locke’s works on the social contract and toleration mean anything to them? And what about the Jewish tradition? Do these students know if the Talmud endorses democracy, or not, and why? Can they say anything at all about Judaism’s political philosophy? And can they say anything about the differences between Ahad Ha’am and A. D. Gordon, or Ben-Gurion and Berdichevsky?

If our young people cannot articulate a complex worldview with Judaism and Zionism at its core, how will they withstand the forces (such as European universalism and Muslim rejectionism) that are deeply rooted in ideological fervor? If they cannot articulate why Israel matters, why should they stay? It is not their fault that they are unequipped to have these conversations; they simply were not taught. It is up to us change that. What is required is a new Yavneh – a great academy filled with wise men and women.

That is what Shalem College* will be. When we open our doors to our first incoming class, Shalem College will be more than Israel’s first liberal arts college; it will be the one place where Israel’s finest students can spend their undergraduate years becoming deeply conversant with the traditions of the West, of Judaism and of Zionism. It will be the one place that has a great texts-based core curriculum modeled after elite Anglo-American colleges and universities, providing a common ground for exploring the underpinnings of society and enabling Israel’s best students to spend their undergraduate years thinking deeply about how they will serve their country, their people and humanity, and how they will commit their lives to addressing the critical challenges facing each.

What the Jewish people needs – what the State of Israel needs – is a new Yavneh, devoted to the study of both Western and Jewish civilization

But Shalem College will be even more than this. It will foster a culture of debate coupled with pervasive civility, restoring the discourse that was at the heart of rabbinic Judaism, and the passionate conversation that was once at the heart of Zionism, to the very core of Israel’s future intellectual, political, professional, social, and cultural leadership. It will expose students to literature, philosophy, history, economics, art and music in order to shape their understanding of the forces that drive people, the yearnings of the soul, the complexity of social relationships and the human condition, and the importance of service to one’s country and one’s people. Israel is a small canvas, so a small number of leading citizens can have a significant impact on their society. We simply have to afford these young people one place in the country where they can engage in this dialogue, with both deep passion and abundant civility.

Saving the state that saved the Jews

Creating a new college in this day and age is an enormous undertaking. But as we at Shalem are asked whether such an effort might not be too much to take on, we find ourselves turning time and again to history, because that is what Jews do as we plot our course. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was clear to a small but growing number of people that the Jewish experience in Europe was going to come to an ugly end. Half a century before the fact, it was already clear that the brave new European future that Jews had once imagined was not going to be. Different people had varying ideas of how to respond. Some advocated going to America, which many then did. Others advocated reforming Judaism, making it more palatable to a European culture that was constantly judging the Jews. Still others retreated into insular community, escaping from modernity altogether (or trying to, at least).

In the midst of all this, one man had an idea more outrageous and unrealistic than all the rest. Theodore Herzl believed that the only real solution to the “Jewish problem” lay in the creation of a Jewish state. It was an audacious, grandiose, unrealistic idea. It had no chance of succeeding. And yet it saved the Jewish people.

At Shalem, we believe that we are not a people with the luxury of saying “great idea, but too big for our time.” Yavneh was too big for Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s time, and a sovereign Jewish state was too great for Herzl’s. But Yavneh saved Judaism under the Romans, and the Jewish state has saved the Jewish nation.

It is precisely because a college is an audacious idea, particularly in these times, that it demands the courage, vision, support, enthusiasm and risk-taking that preserving the Jewish people has always required. The Jews exist today because we have always stuck to our fundamental game-plan – education. The Jews are here today because we dare to dream, and to dream big. What we need now is a new academy, one that will create new leaders, new ideas, bold and imaginative solutions both to problems that we already face and those that we cannot yet imagine.

It would be hard to imagine a project more ambitious. But nothing less ambitious will suffice.

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Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center.

(*) Shalem has applied to Israel’s Council on Accreditation in the hopes of opening in the Fall of 2013.