American Orthodoxy

Celebration and Exploration: Why Good Israel Education Needs Both

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Noam Weissman

 

Although recent Gallup poll estimates show that 95% of American Jews have a favorable view toward Israel, and that number is likely higher in Modern Orthodox circles, 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 in Modern Orthodox schools 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. To some degree we acknowledge a spectrum of halakhic observance within Modern Orthodoxy, but our community often does not project the same open-minded approach when it comes to sharing views on Israel. 

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 Modern Orthodox 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 Modern Orthodox 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 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.” As one educator recently emailed me: “Just today I had a difficult class because I asked my students to recognize the tension between the ideals of a Jewish state and the realities of Israel [but possibly] because of [my students’] inability to hold their attachment to Israel together with a critical view, the conversation was derailed.” Another Jewish educator in a Modern Orthodox school lamented to me, “The organized Jewish community always says that, of course, it’s not antisemitic to criticize Israeli policy. That is, until you do criticize Israeli policy, and then [people] go crazy.” 

Furthermore, educators are reluctant to address difficult conversations because of repercussions among the parent body. Parents are particularly passionate about Israel. On the right, parents may want to defend decisions made by the Israeli government and military, in its history, and in current events. On the left, parents may want their children to feel frustrated if the religious laws in Israel don’t fully align with their values or if the Israeli military engages in behaviors they somehow deem morally problematic. This creates a particularly unique challenge for educators, who understandably worry about how what they are teaching and discussing in their classrooms will land with parents, donors, and other stakeholders.

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.”

Why have Jewish communal organizations predominantly focused on defensive advocacy rather than education? I can actually understand why we have often taken such a defensive posture. In groundbreaking research, Rachel Yehuda, a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, found that trauma can permanently alter our physiology in ways that are passed on to our children. Yehuda conducted a study with Holocaust survivors and their children and found altered enzyme activity in both populations. 

In an interview with Tablet, Yehuda concluded, “The Jewish culture and religion has understood that children bear the burden of their parents’ legacy. Fair or unfair, it’s a fact. It’s a cultural fact. It’s a biological fact.”

To be sure, advocacy is important as are all forms of community advocacy interests, whatever those may be. Communal advocacy groups want to ensure governments and other organizations who wield power make decisions that are in the interest of the communal advocacy group. Israel advocacy is no different. And, in a world that is often so hostile to Israel (even Al Jazeera is picking up on this phenomenon, recognizing that Israel received three times as many condemnations as the whole world combined in 2020), I am both sympathetic to and deeply appreciate and admire the world of Israel advocacy. But here’s the problem. Advocacy efforts will not address the challenges we face listed above, and will not help our young people create personal connections to Israel because advocacy programs are not designed to do that. 

It may sound counterintuitive, but think of it this way: Have you ever had a teacher who insisted that he or she had the “right” answer and was only interested in getting the whole class to get to that answer? My decade in the classroom and after speaking with hundreds of students, teachers, and principals across the globe, I have come to learn this has to be one of the more frustrating experiences as a student. Yet, too often, educators have taken this general approach when it comes to Israel. This problem is not exclusive to any one political group: Educators who identify with the political far-right, far-left, and everything in between can fall into this trap.

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.

Towards a New Era in Israel Education:

In 2015, Professor Hanan Alexander of the University of Haifa published a new term for Zionist education that begins to get at the type of complexity we need to offer our students. Alexander coined the phrase, “Mature Zionism.” He explains:

All education, worthy of the name, entails initiation into an articulate and defensible normative point of view. Israel education is no exception. However, this process of initiation constitutes an instance of education, as opposed to indoctrination, to the extent that this normative perspective is dynamic as opposed to dogmatic, to the degree that it embraces the conditions of human agency: the freedom of scholars, teachers, and students to choose a vision of the good life, to understand basic moral distinctions according to that vision, such as the difference between better and worse or right and wrong, and the capacity to err in their understanding and application of those distinctions. Applied to Israel education, this analysis yields what I have called a mature Zionist perspective. This perspective maintains the legitimacy of a Jewish and democratic state according to multiple interpretations of the Zionist idea, provided they appreciate Israel’s complexities, based on a critical engagement with concrete realities, grounded in a fair assessment of the relevant scholarship.

Alexander reconceives the notion of what it means to be a Zionist and removes the burden of feeling the need to be on the defensive. Rather, 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.

There is a famous Hasidic tale that illustrates this idea poignantly: A Polish man, R. Isaac the son of R. Yekelish, who had suffered years of poverty, dreams that he should journey to Prague to find a treasure there. In his dream, he kept hearing that if he dug in a particular courtyard in Prague, he would find a great treasure and become rich. But, when R. Isaac arrives at the supposed site of the treasure, he finds that the bridge is guarded, preventing him from entering.

R. Isaac grows depressed and distressed. One of the guards approaches R. Isaac and asks him what he has been looking for. R. Isaac proceeds to tell the guard about his dream. When the guard hears the story, he laughs and says in a mocking tone, “Who believes dreams?! I dreamt that I should travel to Cracow to find someone named R. Isaac and dig under his stove where I would supposedly find a treasure, but do you really think I would do that?!” R. Isaac now understood. He returns to his house and finds the treasure he had been searching for under his stove.

In his book, The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim, Michael Rosen explains the message of this story this way: “A person must know that the truth lies within one’s self.” What Rosen is arguing is that we do not need to search for meaning in a distant land, but rather, the wisdom resides within our home, “if only we’re willing to spend the time and actually look there.” This is true when it comes to our own self-refinement and personal growth; it also applies to challenges we face in Israel education. The Jewish community has the tools we need: our tradition has already provided the playbook.

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 are also comfortable acknowledging the complexity of individuals and stories in the Torah, including our holy ancestors’ 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.”

The Mikraot Gedolot has been foundational to how Jewish people have studied Torah for centuries. In the introduction to Hoshen Mishpat in his Arukh Ha-Shulhan, the 19th century rabbinic scholar Rabbi Yehiel Michael Epstein explained the rationale behind this in poetic terms: “The debates of the Tannaim and the Amoraim and Geonim in fact represent the truth of the living God… In fact, this diversity and range constitute the beauty and splendor of our holy Torah. The entire Torah is called a song whose beauty derives from the interactive diversity of its voices and instruments.”

In 1983, the acclaimed Bible scholar and premier Jewish educator of the 20th century, Nechama Leibowitz articulated the benefits of presenting multiple perspectives from an educational standpoint: “The use of commentaries must be very diversified…Two different interpretations of the same issue will be placed before the students in order to educate them to weigh…the advantages and disadvantages of each commentary or in order to view the same issue from different perspectives.”

It is no surprise that Leibowitz was considered the most outstanding role model of what it means to be a good Jewish educator. 

Now imagine a Mikraot Gedolot of Israel education that included the perspectives of diverse thinkers like Benny Morris, Anita Shapira, Martin Gilbert, Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi, Micah 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. 

  1. 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 inefficacious, it is not only 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 the parlance of Adam Grant, perhaps Beit Hillel understood that “the purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.” Micah Goodman in his The Wondering Jew, explains it a little differently. He 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. In the context of education and after exploring research in this area, Grant articulates the essence of this approach albeit in a different, non-religious arena: “Every time we encounter new information, we have a choice. We can attach our opinions to our identities and stand our ground in the stubbornness of preaching and prosecuting. Or we can operate more like scientists, defining ourselves as people committed to the pursuit of truth — even if it means proving our own views wrong.” 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.  

The legendary scholar Maimonides put it succinctly in Shemonah Perakim, his introduction to Pirkei Avot: “One should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.” But too often, Grant writes, we lack the intellectual humility this requires: “We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions we formed in 1995. We listen to views that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.”

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? Should Golda Meir be considered a hero or did her leadership fail at times? To use an example from current events, is Israel responsible for vaccinating Palestinians against Covid-19 or should the Palestinians vaccinate their own population? 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.

  1. 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.

But if we teach them about Israel in a way that is passionate, comprehensive, nuanced, and presents multiple sides of issues, then they will be both knowledgeable and confident in their story and better equipped to have these conversations. They will see that Israel has nothing to hide, that Israel is an incredible, remarkable country with imperfections. And that’s ok. Although the Jewish educational community typically does a great job of using this approach in Torah education and acknowledging the complex legacies of people in the Torah, we need to do this in Israel education as well.

Looking at Results

This may all sound theoretical, but it has practical applications and implications. My organization recently completed a study based on surveys we conducted with hundreds of educators and students in our network of partner schools between December 2020 and February 2021 that found that a nuanced approach to Israel education helps students gain knowledge about Israeli history and current events, understand the complexity of Israel issues and develop curiosity about Israel

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 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, like Reb Isaac, 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 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 and celebrate their connection to Israel.

The author would like to thank Sara Himeles and Lea New Minkowitz for their assistance with this essay.



Noam Weissman
Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President and Head of Content at OpenDor Media, where he spearheads the educational vision and leads the content of the organization. Noam heads a team of producers and educators for the Unpacked YouTube channel, which has over 60,000 subscribers and over 10 million views. Additionally, Noam is the host of the “Unpacking Israeli History” podcast. Noam is also the Founder and Director of LaHaV. Prior to leading the work at OpenDor Media, Noam served as Principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. Noam graduated Summa Cum Laude from Yeshiva University with a degree in history and received a Master’s degree in Jewish Education from the Azrieli Graduate School, where he was a Legacy Heritage Fellow. Most recently, Noam earned a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California, with a focus on curriculum design. His dissertation, entitled "Approaching Israel Education," argues for a new vision in learning about the modern State of Israel, focusing on Zionist identity development, narrative formation, and the ability to have a mature and loving relationship with Israel without sacrificing empathy. He is married to Raizie Erreich and they are the proud parents of three incredible children, Eyal, Liana and Nissa.