February 26, 2020

Striving for a New Israel Education

Like most American Jews of my generation, my first encounters with Israel were cultural. I saw pictures of people reading the newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea. I wrote notes to be placed in the Western Wall. I ate hummus and falafel at Israeli Independence Day parties. My “Israel is Good” education certainly did its job. I was in love before I even stepped foot in the Holy Land.

Then, when I finally did land in Israel after high school for nine months of study, volunteering, and experiencing Israel through Masa Israel’s Young Judaea Year Course, I immediately felt at home. As a first-timer, everything I did that year was new and exciting. Only now, years later, do I realize that this should have been my first sign as to how much deeper I still had to dig in order to discover the real Israel.

During my junior year of college, I returned to Israel to study for a semester at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was during those five months that I began to uncover much of the information that was absent in my earlier encounters with Israel.

While visiting a Jewish Israeli friend studying at the Technion, the MIT of Israel, situated in the mixed Arab and Jewish city of Haifa, I experienced an encounter that illuminated a rift in Israeli society. In a conversation about the student population, my friend revealed his resentment for the large number of Arab students at his university. “It’s fine if they want to study here,” he said.“They just have to remember that they’re foreigners.”

“Foreigners?” I repeated. Didn’t they hold Israeli citizenship? Hadn’t their families lived in Israel for generations? His response was that Arabs were foreigners because Israel is a Jewish country. “That is something that family history and citizenship cannot change,” he said.

Instead of keeping me away from Israel, this experience only compelled me to return. I wanted to continue my search for a bigger picture. A year later I had the opportunity to travel to the Palestinian territories. In Jenin, a Jewish friend was volunteering to restore a cinema that had been closed since the first Intifada over 20 years earlier. The only movie theater in an area with over 50,000 residents, it was intended to provide an outlet for the people and to foster cultural development. The cinema could help the residents develop artistic appreciation and not turn to violence.

During my visit, I met my friend’s Palestinian host family. As soon as I introduced myself, they asked me if I was Jewish. Unaccustomed to being so far outside my bubble, I was nervous. My friend sensed my discomfort and made it clear that there was no harm in telling the truth. I answered their question and the topic never again resurfaced. Instead, what followed was a straightforward conversation using a fair amount of Hebrew with the patriarch of the family. He told me that he longed for the days when he made a living working for Israelis who were now on the other side of a barrier that he was not permitted to cross.

In the two years that I have been fortunate enough to live in Israel, I gained a more comprehensive understanding of the region’s history and can confidently say that it’s time we rethink the “Israel is Good” educational paradigm.

It isn’t always easy to be honest, but it’s time to trust in youth to appreciate the nuance wrapped up in the Israel we love. With the core Jewish value of Tikkun Olam in mind, we must take on the responsibility of teaching the difficult truths. After all, we’re given an imperfect world and it’s our duty to work to make it better.