Fostering Critical Thinking by Reframing Israel Education

Reframing Israel curriculumBy Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

Jonah Hassenfeld’s article “Teaching Critical Thinking and the History of Israel,” [published by eJewish Philanthropy on January 15, 2016] faults my curriculum, Reframing Israel: Teaching Kids to Think Critically About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, for “lacking footnotes” and “containing no original documents” in its 11-page historical overview.

It’s a curious critique. Mr. Hassenfeld ignores the heart of the 127-page curriculum, the “educational approach to Jewish life” that prioritizes 1) studying Jewish texts and values; 2) exploring our connections to Israel; 3) nurturing understanding, respect, and compassion for both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians; 4) deepening Jewish communal responsibility and engagement; and 5) inspiring a commitment to social action. Instead he focuses on a supplemental resource that was written primarily for educators who are looking for a succinct summary of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He argues that we should teach students to think like historians. I wholeheartedly agree. That’s why the curriculum goes to such great length to present historical events and narratives through both Jewish and Palestinian perspectives and suggests a wide variety of active learning exercises that encourage students to enter into other people’s points of view, explore conflicting visions, present their opinions effectively, debate a wide range of ideas, analyze complex arguments, and reflect on their assumptions and conclusions. The historical overview, like the rest of the curriculum, takes seriously both Israeli and Palestinian experiences. In doing this, it provides an important corrective to almost every other curriculum on Israel produced within the Jewish community.

What’s even stranger about Mr. Hassenfeld’s critique is that he accuses me of never questioning my assumptions and then concludes that the curriculum fails to encourage students’ critical thinking.

As I discuss in the preface, this curriculum is the culmination of years of questioning assumptions that I had formed through my own traditional Israel education. I write explicitly about this transformation and how I slowly developed different perspectives. This process of examining previous beliefs is central to the curriculum as a whole.

Reframing Israel prioritizes critical thinking in the Jewish classroom. For example, the section “Suggestions for Teaching” specifically helps educators create an environment conducive to critical thinking, encouraging them to think carefully about whether to share their personal opinions with their students; be sensitive to the diversity of their students who will bring differing ideas about Israelis, Palestinians, and the conflict between them; and teach their students how to ask questions that promote honest discussion, fruitful debate, and dialogue as well as how to examine their own biases.

Curriculum development is not a neutral process, and with any curriculum a writer’s ethical and political ideas are interwoven at all levels – in the overarching goals and desired outcomes of the curriculum, questions that frame the lessons or units, emphasis on particular experiences or events, and selection of resource materials. Reframing Israel makes this explicit so that educators can decide whether they wish to use it with their students.

These are ideas we should all be able to agree on, regardless of our particular views on the complex history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin and the author of “Reframing Israel: Teaching Kids to Think Critically About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”