By Jonah Hassenfeld
In “Fostering Critical Thinking by Reframing Israel Education,” Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman responded to my claim that her curriculum fails to teach critical thinking. She insisted, “Reframing Israel prioritizes critical thinking.” But she doesn’t explain exactly what she means by “critical thinking.”
In Reframing Israel’s preface, Rabbi Zimmerman writes that, among other things, critical thinking means being able to “knowledgeably evaluate complex information and the variety of positions they will encounter” (9). The curriculum fails to meet this standard.
In one of the few activities that asks students to make an evaluation, students “put the settlements on trial” (47). They watch a short National Geographic video, a video from Women in Green, a pro-settler organization, and read B’Tselem’s background information on the settlements. The curriculum offers no guidance on how to critically assess these sources. Could watching two videos and reading a few paragraphs really prepare students to put the settlements on trial?
Imagine grounding this exercise in the ways of thinking historians use to evaluate evidence. Students could source the Women in Green video. They could begin by reading the website’s “About” section. Next, students could read Women in Green’s position paper and attempt to corroborate, or fact-check, a few of its claims such as their claim that most Palestinians are recent immigrants to the region. Finally, they might attempt to contextualize the settler movement constructing a timeline of relevant historical events. Going through these exercises would begin to give students what they need to “knowledgeably evaluate” the settlements. These activities would lead students to form their own opinions rather than simply taking the provided materials at face value.
Teaching young students how to evaluate positions across the political spectrum isn’t easy, but it can be done. There are high-quality materials available to support teachers who take this on.
Critical thinking requires teaching students how to evaluate the ideas and perspectives they come across. Historical thinking provides one clear model for what critical thinking could look like in Israel education. In exposing students to Palestinian perspectives, Reframing Israel makes an admirable contribution to Israel education. But exposure alone doesn’t teach critical thinking. It’s time for a broader conversation about what Jewish educators mean when we call for “critical thinking.”
Jonah Hassenfeld is a PhD student in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University. He is a Jim Joseph fellow and Wexner fellow/Davidson scholar.