Israel: A Love Story?

By Eli Cohn-Postell

These pages provide the best forum for following the evolution of Jewish communal thought on the philosophical goals of Israel education. For the longest time the assumption of our community (still held by many) was that we had to teach our students to love Israel before introducing them to the complexity of Israel. Alex Sinclair recently challenged the idea that love or connection is the ultimate goal of Israel education, and he offered direction as his desired alternative. Jonah Hassenfeld countered that our Israel education should focus on knowledge, connection, and stance, which I interpret to be going a step farther than the Makom Matrix. I find this conversation about our high-level goals to miss the mark. While we obviously lack consensus on the specifics, the common thread seems to be that Jews ought to have some sort of significant personal connection to Israel, ideally one that spurs some sort of action in the learner. However, we are overlooking an obvious point about our educational methods that applies regardless of the specific articulation of our high-level goals; namely, that connection and complexity are inextricably linked in the educational process.

That Jews should learn to love Israel is a phrase so oft-repeated it has become meaningless, if it ever had meaning to begin with. Despite its ubiquity, “love” is rarely defined with clarity in the context of Israel education. In my own research and practice, I have most often heard people use the term love when they really mean infatuation. Terms such as “mature love” have been introduced to our lexicon in recent years, but they don’t go far enough in explaining the distinction between love and infatuation, a distinction we are all familiar with. Love is deep while infatuation is shallow, love can last for years while infatuation is almost always fleeting, and love takes time to develop while infatuation happens in an instant, to cite a few examples.

The traditional debate has been over the order of operations when it comes to creating love of Israel. Do we teach students to love Israel before showing them Israel’s complexity, or should the opposite be true? This question seems straightforward until we realize that this isn’t a chicken and egg situation. The obvious answer is that love – deep, lasting, taking time to develop – can only grow in conjunction with and never apart from wrestling with complexity. I think we all know this to be true, at least anecdotally, and I would think that most of us only learned to love Israel, as we learned to love people, when given the knowledge and tools to grapple with the complexity inherent to every being.

This goes beyond a “warts and all” approach; our education should not be about negativity for its own sake. Rather, this is about articulating an authentic and intellectually honest vision of Israel education for ourselves and our students. We have to trust our students to come to their own judgments based on their struggle with the facts, and trust that through this process they will develop a rich and lasting connection with Israel and the Jewish people. If allowing students to grapple with Israel threatens their relationship to Israel then this problem ought to be rooted in the ideological and philosophical gap that exists between Israeli and American Jewry and not with our educational principles and methods.

Changing our educational methodology is an imperative for Jews of all ages, and the bottom line is that this must be an early intervention for our students. I spend my time trying to engage Jews in their 20s and 30s, many of whom have been to Israel at least once, in conversations about the country. It is an uphill battle to say the least – most of these people simply do not care or even think about Israel. We need to rethink our educational approaches, specifically the relationship between connection and complexity, and we need to do so with the greatest urgency. We need to move beyond the goals and start talking about the methods.

Eli Cohn-Postell is the Director of Israel Engagement at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.