Israel Education: It’s Not Simply Complex

by Dr. Barry Chazan

One of the joys of working in Jewish education for quite a few years is that ultimately one either has taught or befriended many people in the field. Thus, one has the opportunity to engage in discourse, agreement, and disagreement with people one knows deeply and with people for whom one cares. I am pleased to be a colleague of Alex Sinclair, the director of Programs in Israel Education at the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. And, as a colleague and friend, I come to argue with Alex – with affection – over his recent analysis presented in “The Complexity of ‘Complexity’ in Israel Education” in eJewishPhilanthropy.

1. “Complexity” is not defined in the article

Alex promises to explain this term; he never does. This lack of explanation is important because “complexity” is not a categorical term typically used in philosophy of education or curriculum development. It generally is not used to describe “an educational goal”. Alex seems to use the term in an emotive (“There will be fireworks”) rather than descriptive manner, suggesting what Israel Scheffler has described as an “educational slogan” rather than an “educational concept”. (Israel Scheffler, The Language of Education)

2. The iCenter texts have not been read in full

I cannot speak for other organizational approaches analyzed in this article, but Alex’s methodology of summarizing the approaches by “searching their website for their use of the word complex or complexity” (Sinclair, op.cit.) is flawed and inadequate. In fact, the first quote Alex attributes to the iCenter in eJP is actually a combination of two partial quotes written by two different authors, thus creating a distortion of their original contextual meanings. This presentation, and the accompanying analysis, dramatically misrepresents the iCenter’s essence, which is comprehensively presented in the iCenter’s “Magna Carta,” called The Alef Bet of Israel Education. (Northbrook, IL. 2009) Dr. Len Saxe, Dr. David Bryfman, Claire Goldwater, Michael Soberman, Adam Stewart, Dr. Zohar Raviv, Dr. Jan Katzew, Dr.Alex Pomson, Vavi Toran, Lori Sagarin, Anne Lanski, Lesley Litman, and I each have written 5-8 page documents articulating 11 core components of a comprehensive approach to Israel education. Just about every 5-8 page article includes sections dealing with being analytic, critical thinking and looking at diverse narratives regarding Israel:

  • “As learners mature, they must be presented a sophisticated and nuanced Israel. Because it is through understanding complexities that they will struggle and develop their own relationship with Israel.” (David Bryfman)
  • “There are many ways to look at Israel. Every Israel curriculum is partial. It reflects the biases and perspectives of the authors. This complexity makes “curricularizing” Israel one of the most challenging (yet exciting) of Jewish educational tasks.” (Jan Katzew)
  • “We do ourselves a disservice by not indicating there are other perspectives; Critical thinking is not a skill reserved for math, science, and general studies … Our ancestors were among the creators of critical thinking.” (Barry Chazan)

Alex termed the iCenter’s approach “ambivalent complexity.” But these don’t sound like “ambivalent” statements to me. They outline clear principles for engaging with and teaching about Israel.

3. Israel education should be concerned with the person, the learner, the “I”

The article seems to have been written in a vacuum, far away from “where the children play.” (Cat Stevens, “Where Do the Children Play?”) It neglects Schwab’s four commonplaces of education: student, teacher, subject and setting. It presents only the first half of Bruner’s famous statement about teaching in The Process of Education and neglects his subsequent discussion of “spiraling the curriculum.” It neglects the wisdom of Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Janus Korczak, who teach us that children can think and feel at diverse ages and diverse ways. These writings indeed open the door to the development of analytic, critical thinking; however, they indicate that it is a process to be developed – not an adult trait to be super-imposed on the young. In other words, introducing certain elements of Israel at varying stages of development does not mean that one is doing so ambivalently or reluctantly. Rather, this approach is advocated by numerous, respected critically-oriented educators.

4. All of Jewish education is complicated. All of everything is probably “complicated.”

A lovely character who appears in Israeli writer/film director Doron Nesher’s touching film from the 1970’s “Late Summer Blues” commenting on things, says throughout the film with a wry, sad, and warm smile, “it’s complicated.” Israel education nor Israel did not invent complexity nor do they have a monopoly on it (the problems of Israel do not translate into The Problem of Israel). Is teaching Bible less complex? Who wrote the Bible? Is the Bible “true”? Is there one author – or many authors? Are there multiple texts? Is the Bible the word of God? Prayer is complicated. Is there a God? Do we pray to God to help us in our crises? Are we praying for others or ourselves? Are prayers heard? American history is complicated. Did the Americans steal the land from the Native-Americans? Did racism end with the Civil War? Does the system of checks and balances work? The litany of complexities is important but it is not an exclusive characteristic of Israel education. “Being complicated” is a product of belief not a prelude to it. The great theological Paul Tillich claimed that important or ultimate concerns are not without complexity or doubt, saying “If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it. It is a consequence of the risk of faith”. (Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, p. 18)

5. When a typology is not a “typology”

“Typology” is a term used in anthropology, archaeology, biology, linguistics, psychology, theology, and architecture to describe a set of categories used for classification. A typology usually is created after extensive field research of large samples of case studies that are each carefully observed and analyzed – and then after intensive reflection are arranged into groupings that are then tested by counter examples (see Earl Babbie’s classic volume The Practice of Social Research). Alex claims to have created a “typology.” Indeed, he has created Alex’s typology – but one’s personal categories don’t necessarily qualify as a “typology.” Moreover, in creating typologies, the effort is usually to avoid pejorative labels and rather to use neutral terms. Here are Alex’s six adjectives for his noun “complexity” (which to him, seems to be equivalent to the phrase “Israel education”):

 “The Good Guys”  “The Bad Guys”
Activist Advocacy
Analytic Ambivalent
Attractive Anguished

Which team would you choose?


The good news is that the “field” of Israel education is blossoming! And a generation of people now identify as Israel educators, replete with education experiences, opportunities, and a common language. There are books, articles, discussions, occasional pieces and well-intentioned reflections about it to which my colleague has been a welcome voice. Now it is time to up the bar and engage in rigorous reflective thinking and discourse. Israel education, like Jewish education, general education, love, life, and choice of ice cream flavors, is indeed “complicated.” But the really exciting news is that Israel education is education whose time has come.

Dr. Barry Chazan is a Professor of Education and the Director of (MAJPS) Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Service at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership. Dr. Chazan also serves as a consultant to the iCenter.