Professor Yisrael Aumann and Professor Aaron Ciechanover are Israeli scientists and Nobel Prize laureates. Yedioth Ahronot's weekend supplement brought them together for a talk on the degeneration and diminution of the Israeli spirit and leadership.

I was fortunate enough to be present at the conversation: A deep, painful, grim, and at times truly frightening talk, which leaves the listener with very little hope and plenty of unease.

The State of Israel, said the two professors -- who subscribe to very different political views -- is going in the wrong direction. It is being swept in the dark en route to a possible destruction. And not because of our external enemies. Rather we only have ourselves to blame: ourselves and our leaders.

At some points during the conversation, while talking about Israel's fate and the inability of its leaders, Ciechanover and Aumann sounded as if they are fighting back tears. Two eminent scientists fearing for the future of their country to the point of torment.

Aumann and Ciechanover found a way out of their shared pessimism in their Jewish roots. "As a scientist, I am only a tourist in the palace of the Holy One, blessed be he," said Ciechanover, "who discovers secrets of the universe that he created, systems that were hidden in it for millions of years. If there are apparent flaws in them, I try, through medicine and science, to fix them."

Aumann stroked his white beard and said, "I feel the same way you."

Fear for the future

Professor Ciechanover said: "There's an educational deterioration at all levels. Even when speaking to those possessing academic degrees, I find garbled language, the lack of cultural depth, and ignorance when it comes to general history and the history of the Jewish people. We need institutions of higher learning headed by a leadership that pursues new paths, and this leadership has disappeared.

Where are the distinguished men of letters from the past? I see an intimate connection between the degeneration of the Israeli spirit and the degeneration of the country. Without developed humanities and Jewish studies, there will be no high-quality science of any kind in the State of Israel. Not physics, not chemistry, not mathematics, and not medicine. In order to flourish, scientists of nature and technology must be nourished by the humanities: by ethics, philosophy, literature, history, and Judaism.

"The fact that the State of Israel did not become the largest global center for Jewish thinking and history is our largest cultural bankruptcy. If we don't have here, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the world's leading center for the study of Jewish history, this is proof we went bankrupt.

"What we see at universities is a symptom of a much more serious and all-encompassing disease, I would even call it a fatal disease: The depletion of spirit. This is a cancer that has spread through Israeli society, through all its body parts."

Prof. Aumann: "You are one hundred percent correct."

The two did not show mercy to Israel's government elite either. "It's truly pathetic that there's not even one person there that conveys some kind of inspiration. There's nobody you wish to talk to or whose ideas you want to hear," Prof. Ceichanover said.

The politicians, according to both Nobel Prize laureates, tainted public life with their conduct. Prof. Ciechanover said: "We have leadership that always finds itself facing a moral question mark -- the public faith in it has been completely lost. Of all national symbols, only the national anthem and flag are not under investigation by the attorney general or state comptroller.

All other symbols have been eaten up already. It is no wonder the nation's internal cohesion is weakening. It's not the external enemy that bothers me; we'll find a cure for it through our technology and wisdom. I'm concerned by processes within Israeli society itself. They're destructive. I am extremely pessimistic. I fear for the very existence of the State of Israel. Everything here seems lacking in values, temporary, one patch on top of another, a thin patch cover that can be torn off with any breeze."

Selfish Agenda

Professor Aumann added his own criticism: "The problem is not with our neighbors, the problem is with us, with our impatience and the selfishness that developed within us. Our national agenda has been disrupted; the collective interest has been pushed to the margins in the face of personal interests.

"The State of Israel in 2006 is something completely different than it was when I moved here in 1956, in the days of the Sinai Campaign. Today everyone worries about himself first. They only think of themselves. This may be good for a country like Switzerland, but it's very bad for Israel. We cannot afford a selfish agenda."

Prof. Ciechanover spoke with deep pain about the erosion of values: "I grew up in a home with a deep-rooted Jewish culture. I truly and honestly believe that we will not achieve success in physics if we do not also study Jewish philosophy and Jewish ethics and the history of the Jewish people. These things are interdependent.

"Because I was born here and I want to live in a Hebrew-speaking environment, in the State that I fought for and in which I believe—on account of the long history of my people – it is important to live here. This country is the essence of my existence. My parents came to Israel as Jews from Poland because they wanted to establish a state in which no one would call them Zhid – a Jewish state in which they could live a free life. They knew what they were striving for. But this is not necessarily true of all Israelis. Our internal cohesion is falling apart; the rifts are growing from within.

"I grew up with clear values, and, to my sorrow, I see around me their steady erosion. At this juncture, we have lost sight of our goal, and have no one with his hand on the rudder.

I asked whether we're facing existential danger. Professor Chechnover: "I'm very very pessimistic. I fear for the very existence of the State of Israel. Everything here appears valueless, temporary, sort of like patchwork. If we do not regain our balance, we will cease to exist. I say this in very clear language: If we don't change, we will cease to exist. We will be uprooted from this place."

Prof. Aumann: "I, too, am very pessimistic. We lack the will to exist, we lack the patience to exist. We lack Zionism with a capital Z. We have turned into post-Zionists, to our own worst enemies.

This conversation between the two Nobel Prize laureates, our most eminent scientists, is over but not done with. They parted with a hug, and I saw tears at the corners of their eyes.

Reprinted with permission from