A Hebrew Lesson in Zionism

In these “memoir” mini-chapters, I usually start with a short personal vignette as a springboard for discussing a larger issue relevant to all. This time I’ll reverse that; the general issue comes first – and then the vignette that will take up the rest of this essay. The theme is “self-negation of social status to help others”. The following story is almost incomprehensible in an American milieu; most Israelis, on the other hand, can tell a similar story. Which is why so many outsiders have fallen in love with the country, despite its many, many flaws…

Nine days after landing in Israel as a new immigrant (oleh khadash) back in 1977, I found myself standing in front of 200 students from the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, to give my inaugural lecture – in Hebrew!! Yes, I learned Hebrew from the 1st grade onwards in my Jewish Day School, through high school, but it was more “biblical” Hebrew than the modern lingo that had developed over the past century. In any case, I spent several hours preparing the lecture with a dictionary at my side, writing it out word for word – not the most ideal way to present a lecture.

It went OK, or so I thought. Back in my office, I started working on the following week’s lecture (the course was “Introduction to Politics and Government”), when two quite older gentlemen walked into my office. I had noticed them out of the corner of my eye during the lecture, and briefly wondered what they were doing there in a sea of youngsters, but I had to maintain my concentration.

“We really appreciate the effort you’re making,” they started off, without the usual niceties that I was used to back in the States. “For an oleh khadash, it was quite impressive. But still, here and there we couldn’t quite figure out what you were trying to say. Sometimes because the word you used wasn’t altogether right, and other times because the syntax of the sentence was too confusing.”

I could feel myself blush from embarrassment.  I knew the lecture wasn’t ”perfect”, but still…

“So, we would like to make you an offer. We’re willing to sit with you here every week, a day or two before your next lecture, and go over your notes to correct the Hebrew. That way, your talk will be clearer to all the other students, and most important, your Hebrew should get better quite quickly.”

I was completely taken aback. These were not kids trying to “pull one” over me. A very generous offer, indeed. It was surprising, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I accepted graciously. The real surprise was yet to come.

Every week they came at the appointed time, and sat with me for close to two hours as we went over the lecture word for word, sentence by sentence. It was illuminating, and also at times funny. Once I had looked up the word for “lobbyist” and ended up (in modern Hebrew) with the person who cleans hotel lobbies. And so it went for several weeks. 

One day as they were sitting there, the department’s manager happened to pass by, peeked into my open-door office and I could see him stopping short, startled. After my “buddies” left an hour later, he came into the office and asked what they were doing there. I explained the situation. His eyes bugged out.

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “Do you know who they are?” he responded hesitatingly. “Sure,” I replied, “Yonah and Menachem.”

He laughed. “No, I mean do you know who they ARE?” I had no idea what he meant. “Nope.”

“The man called Yonah was the IDF (Tzahal) Central Command General during the Yom Kippur War – and Menachem was the IDF’s Military Governor of the entire West Bank!”

To say that I was taken aback would be an understatement; blown away was more like it. These two elderly gentleman (57 and 63 at the time; I was all of 28), at the top of the Israeli social pyramid, had volunteered to spend many hours over the course of a full academic year to help a new immigrant. That was beyond my ken, as someone still harboring a fully American mentality.

And so it went for the whole year. Out of curiosity, I asked them both (gingerly) why they decided to study in the university at their age. Yonah’s reply was standard: many high-level IDF officers do so upon retirement; back then there was no chance of higher education at the beginning of an army career. Menachem’s answer was far more interesting – here too another glimpse of what makes Israeli tick (and how). 

Back in 1967, the Six-Day War ended quickly – well, in 6 days. Israel itself was surprised to find itself in control of the entire West Bank (Israel had actually asked Jordan NOT to enter the war, but for geo-political reasons the Jordanians had “no choice”). What to do with this territory? How to run it? The IDF searched its Personnel “data base” to see whether anyone had any previous experience in “military government”, and Menachem Arkin’s name popped up – as a junior officer for the British military government in North Africa during World War II. So 25 years later, the IDF made him West Bank Military Governor!

It was supposed to be a four-year term of service, but that dragged on. Finally, in early 1973 he called “Moshe” (Dayan): “enough is enough; find a replacement”. Dayan promised to do so by the end of the year – and then in October, another war broke out! By 1976, Menachem was despairing of ever getting out of the army, being too “indispensable”. He asked his army buddies what to do. Their advice: “ask for a one-year leave of absence to study; they can’t deny you that.” And that’s how he found himself doing a B.A. in my department!

Israel: a truly insane country, mostly for the better…

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