Israel Education is at an Inflection Point

Israel is in a new phase, and so are our Jewish American learners. A substantial recalibration will be required.

Photo courtesy AVI CHAI

By Robbie Gringras

Israel Education should ideally address the four key interlocking areas of enquiry hinted at in the penultimate line of the Hatikvah: Security (To Be), Jewish Peoplehood (a People), Liberal Democracy (Free), and Territory (In Our Land). All four are entering a significantly different place – for Israel, and in our learners’ attitudes to these issues.

SecurityTo Be

Iraq is no longer a mortal threat to Israel, and nor is Syria. The peace with Egypt is stable, and Gulf States are secret allies. The Israeli military establishment agrees that attacks from Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank take a terrible toll but present no threat to Israel’s ongoing existence. Only Iran remains a true mortal enemy.

Given this shift, Israel’s security concerns are far more nuanced than they once were. Military actions of the past 15 years have not been wars of survival – they have become wars of calculation, to gain advantage or to prevent damage. This is not to condemn or praise Israeli military choices, but rather to point to how these choices are more challenging to teach about than the black-white, good-bad discourse available when addressing the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973.

At the same time we have just born witness to yet another horrific attack on American Jews at prayer. The safest Jews in the world are now combining safety drills with services, and witnessing virulent antisemitism the likes of which has not been seen for decades. How will the American learner respond to Israel’s issues of safety today? Will the classic Zionist assumption of eternal antisemitism reach different ears?

We shall need to proceed with care.

Jewish PeoplehoodPeople

The Jewish People, the connector without which Israel Education would have no home in the Jewish world, is diverging slowly but surely. According to the deep and wide research of Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs, this split might be seen as one of the greatest successes of Zionism, and one of its greatest challenges, too. Just like every other Jewish community, the Jews of Israel have begin to absorb the values of their surrounding majority. And this majority is also Jewish and Israeli. As a result, there has been a gradual forging of two identities: The Israeli Nationalist, and the Israeli Traditional Jew – such that it would now be difficult to tell them apart. While over 70% of Israeli Jews agree that to be a Jew is to mark the Jewish festivals and rituals, over 70% also agree that to be a Jew is to educate towards service in the IDF.

Rosner and Fuch’s book is rich with endless examples of this “Jewsraeli,” and insights into what this says about Israeli society. What is clear even without Rosner’s sharp editorial voice, is that the new Israeli Jew is a very different species from the American Jew – in particular from the non-orthodox kind. From flying the Israeli flag on Yom Ha’atzmaut, to orthoprax Judaism, Israeli Judaism is a far cry from the social justice activism and creative rituals of the States (even the Pew Report of 2012 tells us that twice as many Israelis light candles on Friday night by percentage, and three times as many keep kosher). Many have already pointed to how the increasing universalism of young Jewish Americans clashes with the increasing particularism of young Jewish Israelis. “One People divided by a common religion” would seem to be an even more poignant descriptor than ever.

Israel Education must begin to address this divide honestly, and, perhaps, with acceptance. These are social phenomena that have taken decades to develop. If the Jewish People of Israel behave differently, believe differently, and understand being Jewish differently from most North Americans – we have significant recalibrating to do.

Liberal DemocracyFreedom

Ever since the beginnings of Modern Zionism we have celebrated the democratic values of the Israel project. These values form a deep ideological bond with the West, and the United States in particular. However as Yascha Mounck among others has wisely warned, we have been amiss in our loose attachments to democracy. Democracy is not only freedom for the majority to enforce its will: It is also the freedom of the minority to maintain its fundamental rights in tension with the majority will. This Liberal Democracy most of us in the West have grown up with – not only regular elections but also the rule of law, individual rights, and a free press – is in a fragile state across the world. Israel and the United States are not exempt from this populist phenomenon.

Back in 2003 even Peter Beinart was keen to differentiate between “democratic Israel” within the Green Line, and “non-democratic Israel” over that line. Yet there are now red flags waving above even this limited bill of health. The newly-re-elected Prime Minister is facing a string of serious corruption charges. Following an unprecedented attack on the entire judicial establishment, there are now calls from the heart of the Prime Minister’s future coalition to put aside the judicial proceedings altogether since “the People have spoken.” Time will tell if the Prime Minister will prove to be above the law, but the signs are not encouraging. Nor, it might be said, are the signs too promising on the other side of the Atlantic, either.

Given this, the nature of Liberal Democracy is a sparklingly vibrant topic for our students to explore like never before. For the lifetime of our learners, democracy had been like air – essential and unremarkable. Our learners must now be encouraged to dig deep into their assumptions of liberal democracy in order to understand Israel – and themselves. Israel Education must be ready for this shift.

TerritoryIn Our Land

The staple diet for Jewish congregational schools has been lessons about the Land of Israel: the cities of the modern State, and the geographical locations of biblical stories. This, together with visits to Israel both virtual and actual, has been the core of basic Israel education. As advocacy courses and political awareness kick in, Israel’s various borders and ceasefire lines are studied. But not until this decade have the driving questions of territory, borders, and border controls reached the average learner’s life.

The unquestioned assumption that a country can decide what and who crosses its borders has for several years lived in unassuming harmony with the entirely opposite ideal of globalized borderlessness. No longer. We are now in the midst of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War at the same time as a fierce backlash to all forms of immigration has snapped across the Western world. These swirling gales have not passed over the United States.

How do our learners now approach questions about Israel’s borders? Now saturated in tales of refugees and walls, how do they hear the history of the various Aliyot? How do they respond to talk of Palestinian and African refugees?

This subject has changed entirely – not necessarily because Israel’s issues have changed in this arena, but because our learners will come to these topics with generationally different eyes and ears.

In these four key areas of enquiry, the game has changed. To Be a People Free In Our Land, Israel’s ongoing task, is a task that has suddenly taken on a very different hue. This shift offers us a fascinating and urgent opportunity to look afresh at all we have doing, and search for new alignments between subject and learners. We have our work cut out for us!

Robbie Gringras is a British-born Israeli educator, writer, and performer. He coined the phrase “Hugging and Wrestling,” and drives the Four Hatikvah Questions System developed while Creative Director of Makom. His new solo show “The Gate” is touring the world.