Israeli media figures dispel myths in Stanford class

Live at Stanford University this quarter, direct from Jerusalem, broadcast news personality Carmit Gal-Shaltiel and her husband, biographer Eli Shaltiel, are teaching "The Making of Modern Israel."

The visiting lecturers' mission is to offer a non-romanticized view of the Jewish state.

"We wanted to give students more than `Exodus' and religion," said Gal-Shaltiel, who is also a nonfiction writer. "We wanted to give people another perspective on life in Israel, not the old myth we were told as kids. The class reflects the achievements, the problems, the failures and the more painful aspects."

Their primary teaching tool involves screening episodes of the 20-part Israeli documentary series "Tkuma" ("Revival"), produced by the Israel Broadcasting Authority. The series, which aired this year to mark Israel's 50th anniversary, was considered controversial.

"Israeli politicians were very resentful of it," she said. "They thought it was too subversive."

The weekly class, offered through Stanford's history department, is sponsored by the Newhouse Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Foundation and the Shenson Brothers Fund. The 20 participants include both graduates and undergraduates.

At each Thursday afternoon session, the Israelis set out to take students on what Shaltiel calls "an experiment" and what his wife calls "an adventure."

The classes begin with Gal-Shaltiel introducing a documentary segment. Students follow along during the screening by reading English transcripts of the Hebrew narration.

After the viewing, Shaltiel, who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Tel Aviv University and has taught several courses at Hebrew University, comments on key personalities profiled in the segment. He also clarifies issues and the historical context.

A lively class discussion usually ensues.

A session devoted to the 1967 Yom Kippur War caused a stir. For one thing, the portrait painted of Golda Meir didn't capture her best side.

"We saw the actual newsreels as they happened at the time," Gal-Shaltiel said. "They saw the part she played in the war and its aftermath. She was a woman who despised Arabs. She was rigid. And in Israel, she's not viewed as a hero. Yes, she was larger than life, but politically, she was not a nice lady."

One student in particular took the news hard, saying , "You ruined it for me. What I was taught at Sunday school was that Golda Meir was the greatest woman in history. But you're teaching me something completely different."

Gal-Shaltiel replied, "That's what we're here for."

Later, the undergraduate decided to do his term paper on Meir.

Shaltiel gets a charge when students re-examine their perceptions on Israeli history and culture.

"The Jews who went to Sunday school don't know the details. Once they learn, they might change their minds," he said. "It might involve some crisis for them. But they do show a willingness to learn. Some are emotionally involved. It's quite a moving phenomenon."

Other classes during the quarter which ends Friday, Dec. 11, covered such subjects as settlements, the Holocaust and immigration.

"Now, when they see the news, they will be able to make sense of it," Gal-Shaltiel said.

Back in Israel, Gal-Shaltiel, whose career in television and radio began 28 years ago, is often recognized on the street. She anchors an NPR-like daily radio news program called "High Noon," which is devoted to national current events and topical issues.

Gal Shaltiel, 49, was born and raised in Kibbutz Yad-Hanna, which at the time, was Israel's only communist kibbutz. She has authored three books, including her memoirs, "Back to Yad Hanna," which became a 1992 bestseller in Israel.

Her latest is "Chaim Bar-Lev: A Gentleman and An Officer," a recently released biography of the military chief of staff, who went on to become cabinet minister in the late '60s.

Three years ago, when friends of Bar-Lev (who died in 1994) approached Gai-Shaltiel about writing the book, she knew almost nothing about him, which was enough of a challenge to take it on.

She quickly became engrossed in the life of the man who took command of bewildered troops a couple of days into the Yom Kippur War.

"I had access to army archives that no one else has had. People who knew him talked to me," she said. "He had such charisma and authority about him. When he was asked to go back in uniform to the front, the soldiers started to behave and he saved the day."

In Israel, Shaltiel, 53, is known for writing several biographies, as well as reviews and essays for newspapers and magazines. He is also the senior nonfiction editor at the Tel-Aviv-based Am Oved publishers.

His latest project is a massive biography on Moshe Sneh, the Polish-born Zionist who cofounded the United Workers Party, Mapam, in Israel and later became the country's Communist Party leader. The first of two volumes, weighing in at 500 pages, has been completed and is due out next year.

The two have a 28-year-old son, Uri, who is an editor at Kol Ha-Ir, a Jerusalem newspaper.