How to Teach Israel in the Diaspora

american-israel flagsBy Jonah Hassenfeld and Ziva Reimer Hassenfeld

What’s the best way to help young people connect to Judaism? Elliot Abrams argues that “Israel is the Jewish people’s last hope.” Like many others in the American Jewish community, Abrams believes that Israel education holds the key to revitalizing American Jewish life. But is outsourcing all Jewish meaning to Israel really the answer?

After invoking the familiar rhetoric of rising intermarriage rates and declining membership in Jewish institutions, Abrams concludes, that only “an Israel-oriented education” that focuses on Israel’s “history and the lessons contained in that history” can restore American Jews’ “ethnic solidarity.” For him, young American Jews should find Jewish meaning primarily through supporting Israel.

Even assuming that Abram’s portrait of American Jewish life is accurate – we have some serious doubts about it – his educational vision is troubling. Abrams is on the right track in thinking that Jewish history has the power to help American Jews find meaning. But if we’re going to use history to foster Jewish belonging among American Jews, we can do better than reducing Judaism to supporting the State of Israel.

According to the 2013 Pew Study, 94% percent of American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. American Jews feel Jewish, and therefore different, even when they can’t exactly articulate what that means. The stories of diaspora Jewry shed light on what that feeling of difference has meant in many historical and cultural contexts.

By anchoring Jewish belonging in statist Zionism, we deprive our students of the resources for self-understanding offered by millennia of Jewish life within other cultures. It is these resources that young Jews need to make sense of their lives as contemporary American Jews. Jewish education shouldn’t focus on making young Jews into passionate cheerleaders for the State of Israel. It should help them find meaning in the Jewish lives they live in America.

We could teach them about the Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity in the late 15th century, attended Christian Universities, while still retaining their sense of separateness from the surrounding culture. Or about the thinkers of the Jewish enlightenment who responded to the challenges of modernity. Or the generations of American Jews who continuously reinvented religious life for the circumstances they faced in America? These stories, just as much a part of the Jewish story as Zionism, have the potential to help today’s American Jews create meaning in diaspora life.

To be sure, learning about Israel is important. American Jews can be proud of the State of Israel and its accomplishments. But we shouldn’t teach our children that Israel is central, and that they are peripheral. The State of Israel is an important moment in the millennia long project of Jewish life, but it is not the culmination of that project. Jewish education should teach young people about the many ways Jewish communities have found and continue to find Jewish meaning.

Jonah Hassenfeld and Ziva Reimer Hassenfeld are PhD students at Stanford University in Education and Jewish Studies. They are Wexner Fellows/Davidson Scholars.