Celebration and Exploration: Why Good Israel Education Needs Both

This is an abridged version of an article first published in The Lehrhaus by Dr. Noam Weissman. Reprinted with permission.

Although recent Gallup poll estimates show that 95% of American Jews have a favorable view toward Israel, major opportunities for improvement exist in the way we educate our youth about Israel. While our educational opportunities often center around celebrating Israel’s achievements, advocating for Israel and encouraging aliyah, we tend to skip over discussions about dilemmas in Israel’s history and complex issues at play in Israeli society today. We do not invite the same level of debate and critical thinking that we might encourage in other Judaic and general studies classes.

Creating more opportunities for critical conversations about Israel offers several advantages. First, a more inclusive Israel education engages students who may depart from the accepted party line on Israel. We know that given political trends a number of students within our institutions identify themselves as liberal, which may sometimes put them at ideological odds with many of their peers when it comes to conversations about Israel. Competent and fair-minded discussions ensure students do not feel alienated or ashamed for their beliefs, and presents opportunities to address the big questions in fair, constructive ways.

Second, given the reality on university campuses and in the media, students who grow up “sheltered” by a more single-dimensional Israel education may feel unprepared or even betrayed down the line once they discover dramatically different perspectives on Israel than their own. Anti-Israel groups may argue their perspectives with great persuasiveness and deliver them confidently, with supporting evidence. These experiences challenge our students to their core. Unfortunately, some may be led to believe that their Jewish education lied to them somehow about real challenges in Israel’s history.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, complexity enriches students’ appreciation for Israel — especially students that have grown up with strong attachment to Israel. Layering in critical thinking and honest conversations about Israel enables our students to develop a deeper and perhaps more meaningful “love” for Israel and appreciation for its real and ongoing struggles.

Challenges in Teaching About Israel

Needless to say, the intense climate around Israel presents particular challenges for educators in engaging students in constructive conversations on this topic. First, the atmosphere of partisan politics in North America has left communities deeply divided along political lines, and Jewish communities are no exception to this trend. Attitudes toward Israel have increasingly dovetailed with political affiliation. According to a 2018 Pew survey, this divide is currently wider than it had been at any point since 1978. Raising issues related to Israel often draws on partisan rhetoric that stymies productive discourse.

Second, the emotionally intense tone of the conversation can get in the way of constructive dialogue (or dialogue even happening at all). The State of Israel taps into the emotions of the North American Jewish community perhaps more than any other topic. More broadly, in his provocative book “The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate,” Kenneth Stern observes that “many people who care about this conflict seem addicted to strong emotions and absolutist positions, and allergic to reasoned discussion.”

Deeper Roots

The challenges inherent in teaching about Israel in a complex manner go beyond the current political moment and have their roots in deep, existential fears about the fragility of the Jewish state. A study conducted by Bethamie Horowitz — research assistant professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development — found that Jewish organizations focused on Israel have typically provided advocacy training, rather than education. Horowitz found that between 2001 and 2004, 12 new Jewish organizations were founded that addressed the relationship between American Jews and Israel: of these, 11 organizations focused on advocacy or media branding, while only one focused on education.

Horowitz distinguished between the modes of Israel advocacy, Israel studies, and Israel education. Jewish and Israel educational experts Horowitz interviewed “considered advocacy as a defensive move arising in response to anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic tropes in the media.” The interviewees defined Israel studies as “university-based, involving academic scholarship… They saw its purpose as centering on developing and conveying knowledge, without attempting to cultivate the relationship between student and subject matter.” By contrast, “the goal of Israel education is to build a relationship between the learner and Israel, and to create a sensibility that Israel in its varied aspects figures centrally in the experience of being a Jew.””

The power of focusing on Israel education rather than advocacy is that this approach will better address the challenges mentioned above, and will help our young people create personal connections to Israel. Israel advocacy and Israel studies each have value, but the power of Israel education is distinct. Advocacy programs are designed to help people defend themselves; education is aimed at helping students engage in thoughtful dialogue, personal connection and critical thinking without feeling like their teacher had a specific agenda. Israel advocacy is important, but Israel education is what belongs in the classroom.

As the organizational psychologist Adam Grant explained in his recent book, “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” preaching about why we’re right is an ill-advised persuasion tactic. “A common problem in persuasion is that what doesn’t sway us can make our beliefs stronger… Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against future influence attempts.” This is precisely what happens in the world of Israel education. Instead of engaging in thoughtful dialogue, personal connection and critical thinking, the world of Israel advocacy too often enters the classroom.

Toward a New Era in Israel Education

To best address the challenges we face in Israel education, we should embrace that Israel’s story is a beautiful one, an enchanting one, and a very real one, one that often has inspiring aspects and sometimes has a few warts. Celebrating both the sublime and romantic aspects of Israeli history as well as exploring some of the unsavory and challenging aspects of Israeli history is what can provide a young person with a long-lasting and realistic relationship with Israel. Not only can our young people handle such a paradox in their identity development, but they seek it as well. 

Five critical goals emerge for Israel education:

  1. Help young American Jews develop a personal connection to Israel.
  2. Make the prevalence of this connection bipartisan, transcending political lines.
  3. Promote understanding and empathy between Israeli and American Jews.
  4. Promote an accurate perception of Israel as both strong and vulnerable.
  5. Promote critical thinking and civil dialogue and debate about Israel.

How do we do this? Based on my experiences leading this work, I believe the answer to addressing these challenges, and achieving these desired outcomes, is in our own “backyard” of the Jewish tradition.

Key Elements in Traditional Approaches to Jewish Education

When it comes to Torah education, the Jewish people have long used a consistent approach with key elements. First, we teach Torah using the Mikraot Gedolot, in which students can readily engage with multiple perspectives to understand the text. Second, in Torah education, rather than proving a point, we strive to create opportunities for our students to make discoveries and reach their own conclusions about the meaning of the text, guided by the broad array of opinions within the Rishonim and Aharonim. Finally, we celebrate and have reverence for our holy ancestors’ and also explore their flaws and mistakes. We do all of this with the understanding that we are anchored in our love for Judaism and the Torah. It’s time to apply each of these approaches to Israel education. Here’s how we can do that.

1. The Mikraot Gedolot Approach to Israel Education

In Israel education, glossing over difficult issues in Israeli history and current events doesn’t work. If we avoid discussing challenging topics and teaching them in our classrooms — or leave out the perspectives that challenge us — then how will our students be prepared to engage in difficult conversations about Israel at their high schools, colleges, and workplaces? Cherry picking in Israel education backfires as a strategy because it only leads to resentment in our students later on.

It’s time for a Mikraot Gedolot approach to Israel education. What do I mean by this? Pick up a volume of Mikraot Gedolot and flip to any page. You will see a few lines from the Torah; the remaining 90% of the page is filled with debate and discussion about what these lines mean. The great medieval scholars Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban — and their fierce disagreements about God’s corporeality, the literalness of the text, mysticism and rationalism, historicity, narrative and meaning — occupy the pages. As my colleague Sara Himeles and I have written about in the past, “these Rishonim teach us that debate is not meant just to be accepted in Jewish learning, but that this kind of spirited exchange of ideas — as long as it comes from a place of love and reverence of the text — is the essence and ideal of Jewish learning.”

Now imagine a Mikraot Gedolot of Israel education that included the perspectives of diverse thinkers like Benny MorrisAnita ShapiraMartin GilbertDaniel GordisYossi Klein HaleviMicah Goodman, and Francine Klagsbrun. Each is a scholar in his or her own right and sometimes they interpret Israeli history and the Jewish story similarly to each other and sometimes differently from one another. There are rarely only “two sides of a coin” for any complex issue: Let’s showcase the exciting wide contours of dispute that exist within Zionism, Israeli history, and current events in Israel, so our students can appreciate each topic’s complexity and engage with diverse viewpoints. This Mikraot Gedolot approach should not be construed as a relativistic hodgepodge of ideas lacking standards of reasoning or assessments, but it asks for more voices and interpretations to be included in service of a more complete understanding of the story.

2. The Beit Hillel Approach to Israel Education

As mentioned above and as Grant makes note of, trying to “prove” a point to our students is not only rarely efficacious, it is not only mostly Sisyphean, it is also not our legacy as Jewish and Israel educators. In the Talmud (Eruvin 13b), there is a well-known debate concerning whether the law ought to follow the opinion of Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai. Beit Shammai was what the Talmud describes as “harifei tuva,” meaning they were significantly sharper than Beit Hillel and had a clear answer to every legal question.

But the Talmud states that Beit Hillel is the victor for decision making in Jewish law: one reason why is that Beit Hillel studied their own positions as well as the positions of Beit Shammai in their academy. Why did Beit Hillel include Beit Shammai’s views? In his book “The Wondering Jew,” Micah Goodman concludes that “Beit Hillel ultimately determined halakha because its sages listened to wisdom different than their own,” which to the religious person introduces the ultimate paradox, “In Beit Hillel’s approach, openness was not a form of religious compromise, but of religious excellence.” 

In Beit Hillel’s approach, learning is not about proving a point; it’s about creating opportunities for discovery. To be sure, this does not mean that every idea has equal value and merit and it should not imply that Beit Hillel entertained all opinions and ideas in making decisions. Indeed, there are opinions and ideas that do not belong in the “beit midrash,” and it is up to each institution to determine its own standards and red lines.

Let’s apply this approach to Israel education and give our students the gift of learning for the sake of discovery. Let’s empower our students to uncover, excavate, and explore the complex issues so that they can ultimately reach their own conclusions. To be sure, this requires that we as educators and parents trust our students and “let go” a little of how the process will unfold. However, the doubtless upside is that giving students freedom to explore complex issues in an intellectually honest way will more reliably lead to the outcomes we seek, specifically a profound and life-long relationship with Israeli culture, society, history, and its people.

How does Jabotinsky’s Zionism differ from Ahad Ha’am’s? How was the Hebrew language revived as a spoken language? What really happened at Deir Yassin? Our young people are intelligent and curious people. They want to explore questions, not be preached at. And exploring these questions with educators with whom they trust and respect is the most ideal place to engage in these questions. To help our students develop their own, informed answers to these questions, let’s connect them with resources that provide the relevant history and context, covering a broad range of perspectives. Then our students will not only experience what educator Ron Berger, author of “An Ethic of Excellence,” calls the “joy of discovery”: they are also more likely to develop a connection to Israel by being active participants (rather than passive recipients) in this process.

3. Acknowledging Complexity in People and Stories in Israel Education

What is the best approach to teaching (Israeli) history? As educators, should we portray a realistic picture of heroes and events from history, or should we minimize or even ignore their flaws and mistakes in an effort to inspire our students?

There is a debate in the Jewish tradition over how we should teach history and what telling the truth even means. On one side of the debate are those who believe we should portray a complete picture of our heroes, including their flaws and mistakes. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l once noted that the Bible is a remarkable document because “no one in the Torah is portrayed as perfect… No religious literature was ever further from hagiography, idealisation and hero-worship.”

Sacks echoed the perspective of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who one century earlier argued that “the Torah never hides from us the faults, errors, and weaknesses of our great men.” From an educational lens, he powerfully argues that if Biblical figures were “without passion and without internal struggles, their virtues would seem to us the outcome of some higher nature, hardly a merit,” concluding, “Truth is the seal of the Torah, and truthfulness is the principle of all its true and great commentators and teachers.”

Challenging this view, Rabbi Shimon Schwab asked, “What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture?… Every generation has to put a veil over the human failings of its elders and glorify all the rest which is great and beautiful… We do not need realism; we need inspiration from our forefathers in order to pass it on to posterity.”

Although I recognize Rabbi Schwab’s point about the role mythical stories can play in inspiring young generations and Rabbi Schwab’s perspective is a critically important one within Jewish tradition, my own experiences as a principal, educator, and leader of a Jewish education media company have shown me that the “Hirschian” approach of acknowledging the complexity of individuals and stories while anchoring this complexity in an admiration for our stories and leaders will more often connect young Jews in this generation to their story in a deeper way. If we attempt to conceal the difficult parts of Israel’s story, then our students will be unprepared to engage in the tough conversations they will inevitably have later on. It’s about the power of the word, “and.” We can explore and celebrate. 

Conclusion

The Jewish community has done a great job of presenting multiple perspectives (the Mikraot Gedolot approach), creating opportunities for discovery (the Beit Hillel approach) and acknowledging complexity of people and stories in our Torah education (the Hirschian/Sacksian approach). It’s high time to apply these powerful approaches to our Israel education as well. This will require that we as educators somewhat loosen (not remove) our grip on the didactic direction conversations in our classrooms take, similar to the approach often used in Torah education.

Understandably, using these approaches in Israel education is difficult because educators, parents, and students alike are nogea ba-davar (concerned or personally involved in the matter) of the Jewish state. Many educators and parents instinctively want to protect Israel, defend against antagonizers, and fight against those who unfairly malign the only Jewish state, and some educators and parents are more inclined to look for Israel to act as a moral light to the nations. However, we cannot let this reality get in the way of giving our students the opportunity to make discoveries in Israel education and reach independent conclusions, as they are encouraged to do in their Tanakh classes. To the contrary, we should remember that the treasure is in our own backyard.

As we do this, we can remember that although Israel has become a divisive topic for many, it really can also be the “glue” that keeps us united as a Jewish community. Israel is the realization of a two thousand year dream. The revival of the Hebrew language, the opportunity for the Jewish people to govern ourselves, the return of the Jewish people to history as subjects and not objects, and the realization of creating a more self-confident Jew are achievements that every Jewish person can take pride in and celebrate. Notwithstanding our different political affiliations and religious denominations, let’s remember these common denominators as we work to improve Israel education and usher in a new era where students can explore inquisitively and celebrate passionately their connection to Israel.

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