Disagreeing over much more than we thought possible

In Short

We have found it impossible for honest open discussion between Jews about Israel to avoid disagreements along the way

The current crisis facing the Jewish world in relation to Israel is not only a result of events in Israel and Gaza, but also the reflection of ongoing deficiencies in Israel Education vis-a-vis the “conflict.” Avoidance or simplification were never enough, and they are certainly neither sufficient nor possible today. 

In writing this piece, we’re drawing on our respective experiences in the field of Israel education over the past twenty-five years — whether designing and delivering Israel programs or studying and evaluating them. During this period, we’ve experienced and witnessed the growing challenges to Israel education, and seen our own perceptions of Israel education shift and evolve. 

For much of the last decade we had thought that advocating for “complexity” in Israel education might help this enterprise find a way out from the cramped corner in which it was stuck in the uncomfortable company of the “conflict.” “Complexity” would make it possible to address the relationship between Israel’s dynamic and sometimes disturbing qualities, and Diaspora Jewry’s dynamic and sometimes disturbing qualities. 

Many different Israel education and advocacy organizations have indeed adopted this word. Yet over time we have begun to realize that everyone has chosen to define the word in their own image. As a result, we no longer know if “complexity” is a euphemism, a derogative, a content description, a pedagogical approach, or a smokescreen. 

Certainly, in the past few weeks we have seen many Jews dismiss criticism of Israel as “simplistic,” yet we remain concerned as to whether Israel education for Jews has succeeded in moving beyond the simplistic. For some, “complexity” is a way of glossing over all that is emotionally uncomfortable to face. For others, “complexity” is a scary thing to be avoided or apologized for. Sometimes “complexity” is an objective assessment of the material to be learned, but not necessarily an alternative pedagogical approach. 

Recently, and this is why we’re sharing these reflections, in work with Moishe House we saw the promising intimation of a different strategy. The task in this context was for Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency, to help Moishe House residents become better informed about and better equipped to facilitate conversations and programming for young adults about contemporary Israel, in all its (yes) complexity. 

The 16-month program included six days in Israel and did not eschew complexity. On the contrary, it doubled down on it. Not only was a full day spent meeting with Palestinians in the West Bank and with Israeli Jews in Judea and Samaria, but participants were introduced to many additional issues that complicate life in Israel. They explored the tortuous electoral and political process here, Jewish-Arab relations within the Green Line, issues of race that affect Ethiopians and Mizrachim differently and similarly, the intertwining of religion and power, and more. 

This wasn’t an “Israel beyond the conflict” strategy, typically a suspect piece of footwork to bypass the difficult stuff that gets in the way of loving Israel. Rather, it was a multidimensional introduction to Israel’s challenges experienced on the ground, showing that no one issue can be understood in isolation from another. Just like any real country with real human beings living there, Israel is a complex  – we’d prefer to say multidimensional – reality where everything is connected to everything else. How can we possibly understand the turmoil of the past few weeks without also addressing Israel’s political system? Israeli fears of Iranian domination? Jewish-Arab relations within Green Line Israel (the Makom/Moishe House trip spent time in Lod with both Arab and Ethiopian leaders)?  Explorations of the relationship between religion and land, religion and politics?

Evaluation interviews with participants before and after the program suggest that far from being overwhelmed by multidimensionality, participants were liberated by it [see Rosov Consulting’s full evaluation report here]. In these trying times, in particular, participants are contacting us to express their appreciation for this approach. They refer to their day spent in Bethlehem, but also to the explorations of Israel’s political system, cultural tensions and more.

Participants also seem to have been helped by one more programmatic move: an invitation to disagree, an invitation made much easier now by offering them a wider canvas of issues on all of which it would be unrealistic to find agreement. 

We have found it impossible for honest open discussion between Jews about Israel to avoid disagreements along the way. Israel education lives inside the disagreements. Without coming up against counterarguments, different ideas, and alternative approaches, learners will not grow. Perhaps the justified desire to avoid unpleasant, vitriolic twitter-like ranting, and the justified desire to protect the vulnerable, has led us to set too high a bar for what constitutes “civil discourse”. 

Makom’s experience running educational programs for North American Jews has been that discussions have become so terribly polite they tend to be emptied of all meaning. Participants are so considerate for the feelings of others they prefer to say nothing at all for fear of saying something that might upset someone. Yet, as Ian Leslie writes in Conflicted: “The only thing worse than having toxic arguments is not having arguments at all.”

It has become de rigueur to mark out the careful rules of engagement in off-line group discussion. These rules certainly increase the sense of security in the participants, but at the same time they tend to encourage precisely the kind of “carefulness” that rules out disagreement. Although Makom’s work with Moishe House took place before Leslie’s excellent book was released, one might say we’ve been informed by his enjoinder: “We should be civil with those we don’t know, and aim to know them well enough that we can be uncivil.”

The Moishe House team’s operating assumption was that a one-off gathering of strangers might require careful rules of engagement. But a cohort that was spending a 24/6 intensive week together in Israel, and then later gathering for another weekend retreat, could assume they would know each other well enough to be “uncivil.” Over the course of its work with Moishe House, the Makom team began to work on alternative “community norms” that can provide both safety, but also encouragement to take risks, what we called “Stretch Statements.” 

Pre-program evaluation showed how participants felt blocked – by their own lack of knowledge and their negative experience of disagreements – from creating their own programming to substantively and meaningfully engage with Israel. Rosov Consulting’s research is now showing that the participants’ immersion in a multi-dimensional approach to Israel has unlocked their previously articulated paralysis. Participants have been developing and delivering their own peer-focused programs that embrace this uncertain yet enticing vision of Israel engagement. Nor have participants shied away from Israel programming in this period: They are no longer afraid.

While it may not be our final Israel education evolution, (after all, we’ve only been at this for 25 years!) at this point we have a feeling that multi-dimensional arguments would seem to point to an approach less ambiguous and more practicable than “complexity”. As co-educator on the Makom-Moishe House project Yonatan Ariel insists, there is great value and excitement in reaching “a higher level of confusion”. Yet at the same time our multi-dimensional confusions must not remain in our heads. We must enable our learners to develop the “muscles” to test their opinions against others’ and grow through argument as well as agreement.

Robbie Gringras works as chief educator for the Moishe House/Makom project, and operates as an international educator, writer, and performer.

Alex Pomson is Principal and Managing Director at Rosov Consulting.