Education-Bucket Challenge: Teaching Israel in a Volatile World

By Zeev Ben-Shachar and Dina Rabhan

“In a rapidly changing world, where students are constantly consuming information and news on their feeds, how can we transcend the catchy headlines and provide students with a solid and nuanced understanding of Israel? How do we explain complicated realities while keeping them interested and engaged? And perhaps even more importantly, how do we get students to identify with, and care about, a small country located thousands of miles away?”

He called it the “three buckets” of Israel education. Several years ago, an educator chose this metaphor to capture what he identified as the three main approaches to teaching about Israel.

The first bucket contains only perspectives showing Israel favorably – only Zionist histories and pro-Israel narratives. Educators adopting this approach believe the ultimate goal of Israel education is to develop student activists who will have the courage to speak up and defend Israel. They teach their students straightforward talking points, provide them with clear answers to unfounded accusations (such as “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing”) and instill in them a solid conviction in the justness of the Zionist cause.

The second bucket contains all perspectives and multiple narratives – Zionist, Arab, Palestinian – with the understanding that these are not mutually exclusive. Educators taking this approach have no particular agenda or attachment to what their students will believe. AIPAC, J Street, Jewish Voices for Peace, even Students for Justice in Palestine – everything goes.

The third bucket also contains multiple narratives and perspectives. Educators purporting this approach have a clear agenda. Their goal is to develop knowledgeable and articulate supporters of Israel, with the realization, of course, that they do not have full control over their desired outcome. These educators believe that to support Zionism is to support a just cause. This is what we believe at Jerusalem U.

The debate over these buckets is most relevant today. Multiple studies conducted over the last decade indicate that a growing number of young Jews in America and around the world find themselves disengaged and uninterested, not only in Judaism, but also in Jewish Peoplehood and in the Jewish State. Even among day school and gap year graduates, many students report feeling disappointed in their Israel education, saying that they were “sold short,” that they were not given the entire picture with proper nuance and multiple narratives.

Disenchanted students find themselves drifting away, choosing to distance themselves from Israel-focused circles in their adult life, and particularly throughout college.

Others might stay engaged but, in their frustration, find themselves especially critical of Israel and its policies. As one disenchanted day school graduate recently wrote in an article titled “I Was the Pro-Israel Poster Boy at Brandeis – Here’s Why I Quit.”

“It’s clear to me now why so many day-school Zionists are leaving the purist stream of the pro-Israel community. They feel lied to. What a slap to the face to think that they can’t handle the tough questions and the bitter truth that nothing about the conflict is objectively clear! Their disenchantment escalates to resentment, and eventually they reach a place of distance from which they can’t come back.”

Numerous schools and Jewish organizations are dedicating endless hours and resources to reinvent Israel education – each of them contributing unique approaches and creative methodologies. Now, more than ever, what is needed is a collaborative effort to consolidate these initiatives, while trying to avoid overlap and redundancy. This was the intention behind the recent Israel educators’ conference sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

The facts about Israel’s history have not changed but the world our students face has changed dramatically. The geopolitical landscape is shifting and obligating us to carefully reevaluate our approach.

At Jerusalem U, we believe that this is an auspicious time to rethink and reshape the way we teach Israel. We are guided by three main principles:

1. Meeting students where they are at

We must teach with Google in mind. We must educate in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) world. We must engage our students knowing that with a touch or a swipe they can see and hear exactly the opposite of what we have just taught them. This does not change what we know to be true, or what we believe about Israel, but it certainly changes our approach.

Fortunately, Jerusalem U’s area of expertise is educational films accompanied by interactive curricula. This multi-media approach is more relevant than ever before since young people are learning and experiencing their worlds through their devices and digital media. Films speak to all people but especially to digital natives.

Despite our unique value proposition of films, we are still continuing to develop and refine our materials and approach to better meet the needs of the changing world around us and to truly meet our students where they are at.

2. Teaching critical thinking

Today’s students are constantly asking, “What’s in it for me? How is learning about Israel relevant to my life?” And, even more jarring, “How do I know where the truth lies? Whom do I trust? What news source is authentic and which is fake news?”

It is with this backdrop that we are strengthening our resolve to provide our students with critical thinking skills that will serve them in understanding not only Israel, but also themselves and the world. We believe that they need to become sophisticated and savvy consumers of information. They need to learn how to verify information, to distinguish fact from fiction and they need to cultivate discernment to be able to call out media bias. Furthermore, they need to develop a deeper understanding of morality.

We work to develop these critical thinking skills as we teach about the plight of Palestinian refugees, the Palestinian narrative and the 1948 war. The skills to distinguish fact from narrative is especially crucial as students move into academic environments in which all narratives are considered equal, regardless of the quality of historical evidence substantiating them. We encourage our students to challenge their assumptions especially about, “the impossibility of objective truth.”

Similarly, the 2014 Gaza war creates the space to discuss moral relativism and media bias, and the difference between a terrorist organization and a defense force. Helping students identify competing moral imperatives, and fostering earnest debates in the classroom becomes more than a study of the conflict. Students develop as moral thinkers when given the opportunity to analyze events through an ethical lens.

As we continue to develop our materials to cultivate critical thinking, the examples will not only be about Israel. There are a myriad of scenarios that will foster student critical thinking skills. This is vital for students to understand Israel and successfully navigate our changing world.

3. Teaching the big picture

Ultimately, our goal is to help young Jews better understand themselves, their people and their world, and to equip them with universal insights and skills which they can adapt to all social, political and moral situations. We believe it is possible to do so openly and honestly. And that it must be done.

The changing landscape of Israel education is our bucket challenge. But it’s a challenge we must not ignore.

We foresee an Israel education that not only prepares students for the “crises” they may face on campus, but rather one that is all-comprehensive, builds vital competencies and focuses on students’ identity and culture. It will provide invaluable life skills and teach students to be true to themselves and their values – and to become better people.

And in the process, we might even begin to notice that this new generation will start seeing themselves not only as passive observers consuming media and watching Jewish history go by, but as active players responsible for writing the next chapter in the Jewish story.

Zeev Ben-Shachar is Director of Israel Education and Dina Rabhan is President of Jerusalem U.