Interview: Einat Wilf
At 39, Jerusalem-born Einat Wilf has been an Israeli Army intelligence officer, newspaper columnist, venture capitalist, policy planner, teacher, feminist and foreign policy adviser to Shimon Peres. Currently a Labor Party member of Knesset, she serves on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Education, Culture and Sports Committee. Wilf has degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Harvard and Cambridge Universities and has written books on Israeli society and on its educational challenges.
Q. Many recoil when they hear about a few Israeli bus lines dividing seats into men’s and women’s sections. Don’t women who accept certain cultural values have the right to sustain their comfort zone, even on a public bus that primarily serves ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods?
A. This is the greatest question today in all democratic societies: How far does a liberal society tolerate communities that have nonliberal values? You see it now in France with the burka. Specifically with women and feminism, it’s a huge question. Can a woman choose her own enslavement? Because the haredi woman or the Muslim woman who wears a burka tells you she wants it? Yet this goes against the multicultural idea, and I tell her, no, there is absolutely no way you can choose to be in a burka or to travel on a segregated bus. In today’s world, this is considered cultural dominance that we do not accept the right of women to elect as a lifestyle choice.
Q. How does society deal with such dilemmas?
A. There are two ways the state can deal with it. First, do we fund this to begin with? Philosophically, we do not allow people to enter into contracts of enslavement, even voluntarily. Some claim multiculturalism as a value that is as important as other liberal values like modern feminism. [But] I will never respect the choice of women segregating themselves in any way. The next question is…even if you don’t fund it, do you allow it? Just because you are not funding something, does that make it O.K.? I personally reject this and argue that the ultra-Orthodox are exploiting multiculturalism to confuse liberals. I am not confused. I think it is an abomination. I support the ban on the burka in France and I think liberal societies should be more aware of the manipulative use of multiculturalism to ultimately undermine their own values.
Q. What is modern Zionism’s greatest challenge?
A. The cutting-edge issue is that Zionism has not realized the full extent of its revolutionary ideals. Zionism was about remaking Judaism for the modern age. It was not about subcontracting family law to a version of medieval Judaism. The fact that we took on the duties of a state while keeping in place the rabbinical structures that were developed for a communal life without a state was not the right path. I believe the Knesset is the new Sanhedrin of the Jewish people in Israel. As such, it has the right to remake Jewish law.
Q. The predominant themes of your book My Israel, Our Generation (BookSurge) are the dual quests for excellence and inclusion. Why these two values above all others?
A. The homeland of the Jewish people, our survival, our sense of purpose, all depend on the fact that we cannot be mediocre. We can’t accept it. As Jews, as Zionists, it’s not something we can live with. Israel, by definition, has to be excellent. This constant striving for excellence is what defines Israel, this continuing sense of dissatisfaction that we are not better. Many people think of Zionism as creating a shelter for persecuted Jews, but it was also always about establishing a place for excellence to thrive, a model society that is a big part of the DNA not only of the Jewish people but of Zionism and of Israel.
Q. How do your personal experiences influence your ideas and interests?
A. I travel abroad frequently. It used to be that there were a lot of reasons to go abroad. Now, except to have a different cultural experience, there is none. Yes, we need to work on education and women’s issues, but in terms of business, food, service and so many other things, we are actually attaining excellence.
Q. How is Israel doing regarding the value of inclusion? Equally as well?
A. We need to do much better on this issue. Yet many people don’t appreciate that Israeli society is much more inclusive today than ever before. Much of the tension [now] is precisely because we are far more inclusive than previously. Once the vision of what it meant to be Israeli depended on a small avant-garde. That group was homogeneous and was acknowledged as personifying what it meant to be Israeli. The Palmachniks, the farmers, the kibbutzniks. They were a small part of society, but they were our emblems.
Q. How has that changed today?
A. Now there is no exclusive club, no one is the symbol of the true Israeli. Many more people have demanded over the years their share in Israeli society. This has created tensions. The old elite are nostalgic for the good old Israel, but in truth, Israeli society today is one in which many more people from diverse backgrounds view themselves as belonging. This is a classic but often messy process known to any immigrant society where the newcomers suddenly begin to demand their share.
Q. You once suggested that diaspora Jews need not live in Israel as long as “Israel lived inside of them.” Is this a post-Zionist observation?
A. I do not use the term diaspora—intentionally. What I said was that rather than every Jew should live in Israel, Israel should be the second home of every Jew. That does not mean buying expensive real estate in Jerusalem. It means having a lifelong relationship with this country; it might mean that you live here for a few years of your life. That you might be professionally connected: If you are a doctor, there might be a hospital here that you occasionally come to to contribute professionally. A lawyer can perhaps find a law firm in which to be involved, an academic can come periodically to lecture or conduct research.
Q. Surely there is a degree of commitment in choosing to make Israel your primary home that is absent in occasional visits?
A. My view of Zionism has never changed. I am talking about a spectrum—options to offer Jews who live outside Israel. Traditionally, what we offer them is: Either move to Israel and then you are proper Jews or you can send money and feel very guilty about not living here. That is pretty much the old social contract. It fits for about three people. We are missing out on millions of Jews who can contribute so much to Israel and from whom Israel can benefit greatly. Stark choices mean everyone loses out.
Q. The main call of your book Back to Basics: How to Save Israel’s Education (at No Additional Cost), published in Hebrew by Yedioth Ahronoth, is a plea to simply “let teachers teach.” How does this connect to the Israeli public school system’s plunging world rank?
A. Israel is doing worse in education than in the past because teachers are not able to teach. This is the sad result of a long process driven by good intentions and ultraliberal ideas and a student’s bill of rights that was passed 10 years ago, which legislates student rights but not duties. We have stripped teachers of all authority and pretty much thrown them into classrooms without backing, asking them to teach in impossible situations. Classes don’t start on time, they don’t end on time. A few pupils badly misbehaving are allowed to remain in the classroom and ruin it for the rest of the class. Teachers are not allowed to send a kid to the principal. This is the outcome of a policy that says don’t remove anyone from the classroom. There are now people in the Ministry of Education responsible for the implementation of this law.
Q. What is your prescription for Israel’s schools?
A. All of the world’s top countries in education have public school systems. Many Americans believe private education is better, and it could be true in one’s neighborhood. Globally, however, the leading countries [where] pupils do the best all have strong public school systems. Saving public education in Israel is a huge mission.