Building bridges between young U.S. Jews, Israelis

Socio-psychologist Bethamie Horowitz, a professor in the Steinhardt School at NYU and author of the study “Defining Israel Education,” discusses American Jewry’s connection to Israel.

Shmuel Rosner: Why, as you put it, is there a real need for an “effort to more deeply and explicitly weave present-day Israel into the enterprise of American Jewish education”?

Bethamie Horowitz: As American Jews, we’re in a different moment in history compared to 50 years ago, and this means that the role that Israel plays in shaping the psyche of [young] American Jews has changed. In the middle of the 20th century — after the Holocaust, when American Jews themselves were still a “disadvantaged minority” in the United States, the founding of the State of Israel served as a powerful bolster on the world stage to the American Jewish self-understanding, and this continued on in the post-1967 period.

Today, 64 years after Israel’s creation, and at a time when American Jews are much more securely accomplished — when being Jewish in America has become an admirable condition, rather than a source of disadvantage — raising young American Jews to feel that Israel matters to them is not as “naturally occurring” as it once was.

At this point in time, there is growing recognition in the American Jewish community that developing a significant connection to contemporary Israel depends especially on the explicit educational efforts of families, educators and communities. It can’t be assumed to arise without some kind of deliberate educational choreography.

SR: You recommend a “clear and compelling conception” for the role of Israel in contemporary American Judaism. But until such a conception emerges, if it ever does, what do we say?

BH: I think we should recognize (i.e., “say to ourselves”) that American Jewry and Israel are not one and the same. The relationship between U.S. Jews and Israel has been evolving — in light of changes in both communities over the past half a century. We’re no longer necessarily joined at the hip, while it’s clear that we remain part of an extended family. I’d like to think that we are in the midst of reinventing the relationship.

As this shift is taking place, I see more confusion today than in the past about the mutual roles of American Jews and Israel toward one another. This gray area opens up an educational opportunity to explore the many views, emotions, questions and concerns and their various roots.

Allowing room for this kind of “bottom-up,” inquiry-oriented exploration would help us clarify the nature of the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israel in ways that could be instructive and productive.

SR: You write: “All of the interviewees viewed building of a personal connection between the student and Israel as lying at the heart of Israel education, but there were differences about how the political issues of the day should be handled.” Can you explain why?

BH: The politics surrounding Israel are contentious, and, on top of that, the climate in the American Jewish world regarding the airing of differences has made educators wary.

Some people considered the political questions as complicating Israel education and preferred to keep those separate. They chose to bracket the political issues, because these are so divisive within the Jewish communal-organizational world, and because much work in Israel education, particularly as it relates to young children, is separate from the political. Also, many institutions worry about alienating funders with different views upon whose largess their enterprises depend.

Others viewed these political issues as something that needs to be addressed educationally. This is especially so for the people who deal with teens and adults.

SR: From your study one can learn that talking about Israel’s vices and follies, and about dilemmas and disagreements, can “generate interest and emotional investment” — does what you say mean we should discount that fear of distancing over political disagreements?

BH: When identity with Israel isn’t self-evident, a core educational challenge is how to create motivation to learn about and connect with Israeli life and its dilemmas. We need to create space for people to have their views without being rejected or silenced out of hand. There’s been a tendency to silence within the U.S. Jewish community for fear of not wanting to air differences and worries about “lending ammunition to Israel’s enemies.”

I think the policy-making world will continue to debate the question of how connected U.S. Jews are and in what ways they (should) relate to Israel. The so-called “distancing debate” has been too simplistic insofar as analysts have employed a few quantitative, scalar measures to summarize a complex array of feelings, beliefs and perceptions that we’d do better to examine in greater depth.

SR: You suggest there should be “more attention” to learning Hebrew? Is that a realistic goal?

BH: Language attainment is a way of accessing the broader culture of contemporary Israel, and even though it may not be realistic as a strategy for everyone, it’s a laudable goal, one that may be worth revisiting in light of today’s realities. The delivery system for teaching and learning Hebrew has broadened compared to a generation or two ago. There are growing opportunities to learn Hebrew in U.S. public schools — in high schools, and now in charter schools, as well as at the university level. Plus, there is a growing variety of opportunities for spending time in Israel. Why rule Hebrew out?

SR: How can Israel and Israelis contribute to this effort to have improved Israel education for American Jews?

BH: My sense is that Israel has long been interested in its own forms of “Israel education” that were shaped by its own concerns. What’s notable now, especially with the founding of the iCenter, a U.S.-based organization that champions Israel education targeted at children through the end of high school, is that this is an effort of American-based Jewish educators to address these issues.

The other thing that characterizes the current interface of U.S. Jews and Israel is the attention to building person-to-person relationships, through mifgashim. And also the accessibility in the U.S. to the amazing fruits of Israeli culture. I’d like to see Israelis come to appreciate the ways that American Jews have been creators of American general culture, in addition to developing an understanding of what Jewish community and religious life look like when there isn’t a state apparatus making it all official, as in Israel — where instead it’s more voluntary.