Discourse Across Diversity (not Standardization) in Israel Education

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By Sivan Zakai and Lauren Applebaum

Israel education – perhaps like no other area of Jewish education – is a site for contested questions in the Jewish world. Not only are American Jews increasingly polarized in their politics, discourse, and philanthropic giving towards Israel, but the classrooms where our young people learn about Israel have also become a site for enacting disagreements about Israel and its role in American Jewish life. Thus, Israel education requires learning to talk and teach about the ways that Jews disagree, and learning to model how those disagreements can become vibrant, healthy discourse.

With that in mind, we want to join the recent conversation started by our colleague and Teaching Israel Fellowship alumna, Yedida Bessemer, about standards and benchmarks in Israel education. The entire field benefits when educators like Yedida are able to put forth clear, compelling visions of Israel education. We want to offer our own perspective by suggesting that focusing on how we talk about differing visions – not trying to standardize them, but instead learning to navigate a diversity of philosophies and pedagogies in our educational institutions – is the most pressing work in Israel education today.

While the call for standards comes from an understandable desire to articulate clear, accessible goals for the field, standards require standardization, a uniformity of practice. Yet standards of practice will continue to elude those of us who work in Israel education because there is no uniformity of beliefs or practices in the field, and no attempt to create them will erase the large disagreements that exist over how and why to teach Israel. Broad principles – like the iCenter’s aleph bet, Lisa Grant and Ezra Kopelowitz’s triumvirate of integrate, complicate, connect, or our own trio of multiple voices/multiple visions/multiple values – are effective in creating shared language, but not in creating common pedagogies or purposes. Shared language is important because it helps educators think more carefully and speak more productively about their goals and methods – especially as they attempt to articulate their own stances to those with whom they respectfully disagree. But it doesn’t erase the fissures that exist in most Jewish institutions’ educational practices towards Israel, which research has consistently shown to be diffuse in its aims and bifurcated in its pedagogies.

Thus even more pressing than providing teachers with standards of practice is helping them navigate the dilemmas of practice that arise daily in their work – dilemmas that often surface from working with colleagues who have markedly different pedagogies and philosophies. As Galia Avidar called for in her recent eJP piece, “Teachers need a community to talk about controversial issues … about all areas of Israel Education.” While Avidar emphasized the need for this work to take place around the Arab-Israeli conflict, this is not the only thorny issue that arises in classrooms. Israel educators face daily dilemmas about how to navigate the responsibilities of being both an educational leader and a private citizen with personal beliefs about Israel; how to respectfully make room for the differing views and practices of students and families; and how to balance their dual – at times competing – commitments to fostering critical thinking and nurturing love and support for Israel.

The Teaching Israel Fellowship at American Jewish University is designed to help educators uncover and work through the dilemmas that arise from the daily challenges of teaching about Israel in American Jewish educational institutions. In our work with the fellows, we have learned that navigating these kinds of dilemmas requires both a set of skills and a set of foundational assumptions about how we work together in the Jewish community. We assume – and explicitly cultivate – a professional learning community that maintains a deep and abiding respect for the diversity of religious, political, and educational beliefs, opinions, values, and practices that constitute the Jewish educational world. Enacting this assumption requires the cultivation of specific professional and interpersonal skills: actively listening, assuming good intentions on the part of all educators, engaging in thoughtful reflection, and undertaking a real commitment to improving personal practice. By bringing together educators from a broad spectrum of institutions, and by helping them examine and reflect upon their own educational choices in the company of others who make different thoughtful choices, we are working to improve the field not through standardization but through vibrant differentiation.

Of course, different paths may not be equally good. Yet discussions of the efficacy of particular educational decisions – which seek to answer the questions: Good for what? Good for whom? Good when? – need to be grounded in data about the ways that students and teachers understand and engage in their work. This is why our own work with Israel educators is tied to a research program that focuses on both teachers’ challenges and their students’ ongoing learning in Israel education. Working in partnership with our fellows, we are carefully studying how educators grapple with the most pressing issues in their institutions and how students develop an understanding of and relationship to Israel. Fellows learn to articulate the challenges at the heart of their work both to improve their own practice and to contribute to ongoing conversations in the field.

We are thrilled that this vibrant and complex partnership with our fellows led alumna Yedida Bessemer to put forth her vision for the field, and that our colleagues Lesley Litman, Anne Lanski, and Galia Avidar have responded to enrich the public conversation. Our belief in a culture of mutual respect and in the importance of multiple approaches to Israel education leads us to respond to their voices with our own call, one that is focused on helping teachers navigate dilemmas of practice, so that other leaders in Israel education will have the opportunity to reflect upon, advocate for, and debate about the central issues of our field.

Dr. Sivan Zakai is an assistant professor of education at American Jewish University and an affiliated scholar at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. She directs the Teaching Israel Fellowship (AJU) and the Children’s Learning About Israel Project (Brandeis).

Dr. Lauren Applebaum is a facilitator, consultant, and lecturer on professional learning for educators in Jewish and general education. She serves as research director and faculty member of the Teaching Israel Fellowship at American Jewish University.