By: Chloé Valdary and Noam Weissman
One of us is a 25-year-old black Christian woman from New Orleans, and the other is a 33-year-old white Modern Orthodox Jewish man from Baltimore. And yet, when it came to learning about Israel, we had practically the same experience growing up. When learning about Israel, we heard important talking points that reiterated the righteousness of Israel’s cause. In a world that too often unfairly maligns Israel, our educators were set on ensuring we remembered and internalized these points.
- “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”
- “Israel is a center of hi-tech.”
- “The media is biased against Israel.”
Of course, that is all true, but years down the line, the way we think, learn and talk about Israel has shifted considerably. It’s moved from “important talking points” to “thoughtful reflection.” It has become less monolithic, less afraid to engage with nuance and complexity. The result has not been a dampening of our Israel advocacy—but a deepening of it. Israel is an amalgam of tensions and competing values and a beautiful cultural pluralism emerges.
One of Israel’s greatest writers, Amos Oz’s recent passing has served as an occasion to further reflect on how to foster a deep and mature love for Israel. Teaching facts and making sure students can defend Israel against unfair criticism has an important seat at the table. But if we want the next generation to cultivate a lasting affinity for Israel, one that makes us consider our own Jewish story and one that yields a long-lasting, deep relationship, we suggest the need for another approach altogether.
Growing up, we hadn’t fully realized it, but fighting against a media culture constantly out to “get” Israel could only yield an abstract love, a love borne of frustration. When the media paints Israelis as monsters, we in the pro-Israel world paint them as angels. But here’s the problem: Israelis are human. And though we, as pro-Israel advocates, often repeat the refrain “Am Yisrael Chai,” we can easily forget what it actually means: “The People of Israel Live.” To live is to be beset by all that confronts the human condition. To live is to be forced to face challenges, to navigate deep insecurities, to lament one’s shortcomings and to deal with one’s mistakes. To live is to be joyous when the occasion calls for it, and to be sorrowful to the point of tears when appropriate.
The task for those who champion Israel’s cause is to learn how to love Israeli society and culture: The people who are not abstractions, but who are flesh and blood. They have both dreams and shortcomings. The offerings of Israeli culture, such as food, literature, music and Torah, all of which are invigorating.
Oz was called a lot of things – from traitor to prophet. His talent was his ability to capture the unique magic of his country, Israel, in prose in such a way that humanized each story and captured our own imagination. His work is relatable because, as readers, we can see ourselves in his stories about people thousands of miles away. Israelis are imperfect. Oz wrote them as full of hope and despair; joy and darkness; weakness and goodness. Oz taught us that by discovering the stories of Israelis, we would rediscover our own selves, and he dared us to imagine and to dream, even if it meant a dream that may never come true. He taught all of us to shamelessly feel the profound need for Israel while acknowledging its challenges.
How can the next generation of Jewish students across the globe experience this if Amos Oz’s canonical work, A Tale of Love and Darkness (and others), is not a core part of the curriculum in our educational community?
One solution to bridge the gap between Jews across the globe and Israeli Jews is to re-imagine what Israel education can look like. Fulfilling the prescient visions of Ahad Ha’am, Israel has become the ultimate producer of Jewish culture, a modern version of “ki mitzion tetze Torah,” “From Zion, Torah shall go out.” One proposal for a new approach to Israel education is for Jewish educators across the globe to “double down” and focus more on the distinctive Jewish culture, “the Israeliness” emerging out of Israel, rather than focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict alone.
Let’s bring these three areas of Israeli culture into our classrooms and conversations:
1. Literature – If we want the next generation to deeply attach themselves to Israel, let’s inspire our students with the riveting Israeli literature canon and expose students to brilliant thinkers and writers like A.B. Yeshoshua, Shai Agnon, Natan Alterman and Etgar Keret.
In Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, he poetically writes:
I understood where I had come from: from a dreary tangle of sadness and pretense, of longing, absurdity, inferiority and provincial pomposity, sentimental education and anachronistic ideals, repressed traumas, resignation, and helplessness. Helplessness of the acerbic, domestic variety, where small-time liars pretended to be dangerous terrorists and heroic freedom fighters, where unhappy bookbinders invented formulas for universal salvation, where dentists whispered confidentially to all their neighbors about their protracted personal correspondence with Stalin, where piano teachers, kindergarten teachers, and housewives tossed and turned tearfully at night from stifled yearning for an emotion-laden artistic life, where compulsive writers wrote endless disgruntled letters to the editor of Davar, where elderly bakers saw Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov in their dreams, where nervy, self-righteous trade-union hacks kept an apparatchik’s eye on the rest of the local residents, where cashiers at the cinema or the cooperative shop composed poems and pamphlets at night.
Note that there is no exaggerated sense of self-indulgence or delusions of success here. Here, there is nothing less than the complete portrayal of a people, disappointments and all. And this is what it means to truly love someone. It requires taking in their fullness which reflects your very own. This is also why Oz was so good at disagreeing with people. He did so not out of callousness or condescension but out of an attempt to understand, to wrestle, and to confront with integrity. Of course, there is value in and of itself to study powerful prose, but it is an altogether personal experience when Jewish students can internalize the romantic language of the Israeli canon.
2. Torah Learning – Whether it is Nechama Leibovitz and her revolutionary approach to Bible education or Ruth Calderon, the academic and politician, who though secular, created a “Home for Hebrew culture,” and has brought observant and non-observant together to learn Torah, leading Israeli minds have captivated and re-energized the Jewish people with ways to connect to Jewish tradition.
3. TV and Cinema – It is not just about the Netflix blockbuster Fauda, but a show like Shtisel, which shows a romantic, positive, empathic and insider view into ultra-Orthodox Jewish life in Israel and dispels many stereotypes.
As Daniel Gordis has noted, Israel is “bursting with Jewish energy, with Jewish creativity, with Jewish searching.”
Whether Oz was a naive optimist, an over-zealous believer in the pursuit for peace or any other epitaph, one thing remains clear: if we want the next generation to develop a strong relationship with Israel, we need to make time for a robust Israel education in our classrooms. Forgive the impassioned plea, but if we want our students to give a darn about Israel and fall in love with Israel, we need to re-work our Jewish educational system. As we contemplate Amos Oz’s passing, let’s remember this and do everything we can to engender a lasting and deep love for the Israeli people and an empathy for all people, and then pass this love on to the next generation.