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What football can teach us about Israel education

Imagine a quarterback who had to run every play through a gaggle of coaches, agents, broadcasters, analysts, advertisers, fans and peanut vendors. Crazy, right?
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August 26, 2016

Imagine a quarterback who had to run every play through a gaggle of coaches, agents, broadcasters, analysts, advertisers, fans and peanut vendors. Crazy, right? You don’t have to be a Vegas bookie to know that regardless of the talent on the field, this is not a winning strategy for success. Yet, across America, Jewish institutions routinely do just that with their Israel education initiatives. With more than a decade of classroom experience teaching Israel to high school students, I’m going to suggest something you might find hard to hear. The 400-pound linebacker blitzing up the middle of your child’s Israel education isn’t the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, or Bibi, it’s you. 

There is hardly another subject area in which people outside of the classroom feel so comfortable influencing what, when, how and by whom it can be taught to our students. The result is that too many Israel educators are put in the unenviable position of the quarterback trying to scramble around a host of competing interests and hidden agendas that have less to do with Israel and more to do with internal community politics.

Outside interference in Israel education manifests itself in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways. It may come from a donor or board member who suggests that a certain outside speaker give a presentation on Israel to the students. Or from the parent who complains to the head of school that a lesson was too political, or the other parent who constantly floods your inbox with articles and Facebook posts hinting (in ALL CAPS, of course) that these email chains become required classroom reading. Not wanting to be left out of the action is the well-intentioned colleague who suggests that you avoid entire topics because the issues are too complex or controversial for the students to comprehend.

What these examples and many more like them all have in common is that important educational decisions are being made by people outside of the classroom, all of whom lack the content knowledge and experience necessary to make sound pedagogical decisions about how to best provide students with the Israel education they deserve. Just like in sports, sharing an end-goal isn’t a license for Monday morning quarterbacking. It doesn’t work when your child is playing a team sport, and it won’t work with Israel education. As American Jewry begins to address the issue of Israel engagement among our youth, it is important to consider the negative impact of the “everyone’s an expert” approach to Israel education.

Every year, it seems, the establishment has a theme for speakers to promote. One year it is “startup nation” and the wonders of Waze, another it’s all about water innovation. Although  inviting guest speakers to pitch the latest version of “Hey kids, did you know that Israel invented …?” may make a good photo op for the school newsletter, optics must never be confused with good education. When it comes to Israel, students don’t need to be lectured from the sidelines. Authentic engagement and real learning requires students to get in the game so they can apply their knowledge, critical thinking skills and Jewish values to the important Zionist issues of their generation. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Israel educators is the growing politicization of Israel among American Jewry. Often, teachers who engage students in nuanced learning about Israel are labeled as being too political, too pro or too anti, or too right or too left, and once the label is made, the stigma is almost impossible to erase. What’s more, the charge (euphemistically termed “a concern”) can be levied by almost anyone at any time with a populist ease that would make a Salem pilgrim blush. The environment has become so charged that it has started to impact what is being discussed in the classrooms, leaving the goalposts of authentic engagement with Israel almost beyond the reach of our students. 

It is high time for us to grow out of our Zionist “Scopes Trial” phase and do away with ideological litmus tests placed on our Israel educators. It is counterproductive and needs to stop. Consciously or not, many teachers dilute lessons to avoid any hint of unacceptable inferences about political attitudes and loyalty. However, when Zionism is reduced to predictable talking points and prepackaged information, study after study confirms what teachers already know: The students aren’t buying it. 

Besides, controversy and politics are as Israeli as Bamba. If we want our kids to get an authentic taste of Israel, let them act Israeli. A classroom brimming with passionate debate about important issues may actually be evidence of solid learning. If your child’s classroom sounds like the Knesset, understand that your quarterback is moving the team closer to the end zone. Running onto the field breaks a quarterback’s confidence and kills momentum. So avoid the fan interference penalty and cheer from the sidelines. 

Zionism has always been a full-contact sport, the highs and lows are an integral part of the Israeli experience, and with the right educator at the helm, your child will come out not only more knowledgeable but connected to Israel in a more meaningful way. 

If you really take issue with a teacher’s playbook, share your perspective with your child. Such discussions are an authentically Jewish way of transmitting values and ideas to the next generation. This game plan has served us well in the past. Why change now that we finally have our own national team?


Jason Feld is dean of students at Shalhevet High School and an alumnus of the Teaching Israel Fellowship.

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