How we should teach about Israel

August 30, 2017
People pray at the Western Wall on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

As a Jewish educator deeply committed to religious Zionism, what keeps me up at night is the fact that Jewish American youth are both disengaged from, and ignorant about, Israel.

The numbers that tell the story of this divide are as startling as they are troubling. For one, Alex Pomson’s research shows that Jewish high school students’ connection to Israel generally is not grounded in knowledge of contemporary Israeli life. Some 57 percent of students said they had little to no confidence discussing contemporary Israeli culture, and only 18 percent of students responded that they were very confident to discuss daily life in Israel. This lack of knowledge about Israel is compounded by the fact that young American Jews are significantly less emotionally connected to Israel. A Pew Research Center Report in 2013 found  that among Jews between the ages of 18 and 29, just 32 percent said that caring about Israel is essential to their Jewish identity; whereas 53 percent of Jews over age 65 said Israel is central to their Jewish identity.

So, what can we do to ensure that our young Jewish-American students are more informed, connected and committed to Israel? How can we educate and enlighten our students to cultivate a passionate relationship with Zionism without sacrificing empathy for the other?

With the school year upon us, I want to offer three ideas on how Jewish educators can bridge this divide.    

1. Schools need to make the bold decision to spend time learning about Israel. Time is a precious commodity in Jewish day schools, yeshivot and summer camps, where educators face the daunting task of choosing what to teach. Yet, the question of Israel education is one that depends on the institution’s overall educational and religious approach.

For instance, some schools may choose to provide a Gemara-rich diet to their student body. There certainly is value in this, but the upshot to this way of thinking is that it becomes what we at Shalhevet High School call a “religious Atkins” of sorts and does not allow for students to have a well-balanced Jewish educational diet. If one’s mission statement describes the school as “religious Zionist,” it needs to mean much more than dancing on Yom HaAtzmaut. It means carving space within our busy days to teach Zionism, its history, its issues, its meaning, its implications in depth. It means learning about the richness of modern Israel and the complexities of having a modern, democratic Jewish state.

2. We also need to actively engage with Israel. This modern miracle is about so much more than the Arab-Israeli conflict, and we should stop boiling down Israel to “conflict.” Students should spend time studying the religious implications and tension points of the state. We need to develop an intimate, I-Thou relationship with Israel.

Israel education ought to be about civic engagement with the state, where our students have an authentic relationship with her songs, culture and overall society. For example, students should spend time unpacking the lyrics of “Matanot Kitanot by Rami Kleinstein and consider its relationship to Natan Alterman’s “Magash Hakesef.” They should learn about the food, the army culture and the interests of their Israeli peers. We ought to enter our students into the same conversation as Israelis so that our students can empathize with our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic.

3. We also cannot sideline the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflict and we must withstand the pressure to reduce this complex situation down to advocacy one-liners. Although advocacy surely has a place in the Jewish community, we need to give our students more credit than this without whitewashing our history. Schools often hear from alumni who have spent substantial time in Israel or on American college campuses that the mythologized version of Israel they were taught was a lie. A lament we often hear from alumni from various Jewish day schools is that the current norm of Israel education romanticizes Israel.

If these institutions exposed students to some of Israel’s real struggles, those students would be better equipped to engage in tough debates on campus. Students sniff out the intellectual dishonesty when we embark on a defensive project regarding every single decision made by Israel. There are multiple perspectives within Israel’s own Knesset. Let’s teach those perspectives and let’s honor our students by having the courage to not hide ideas and perspectives from them.

The time for a proper Israel education is now. We need to teach that a nuanced approach and an affection for Zionism are not mutually exclusive. We need to teach that “my” perspective on Israel is not the only one, that being united about Israel does not mean having one uniform view of Israel.

Let’s push our organizations, schools and shuls to have a mature view of Israel and to spend time learning about Israel, struggling with Israel, wrestling with Israel, and yes, loving Israel. This is what it has always meant to be part of the Jewish story.

Noam L. Weissman is the principal of Shalhevet High School and wrote his dissertation on Israel education at USC.

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