Israel Education: Not All Standards Are Created Equal

Photo courtesy The Children’s Learning About Israel via Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.
Photo courtesy The Children’s Learning About Israel project via Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.

By Galia Avidar, PhD

Yedida Bessemer’s recent article on the lack of Israel education standards and benchmarks is a reminder of how this particular teaching endeavor is fraught with ambiguity and confusion. Through the years, a host of scholars and educators have criticized Jewish schools for their lack of a clear mission, plan, or set of ideological principles. Research in the field demonstrates that Israel education goals are varied and the curricular recommendations that come along with these goals are equally diverse. So, do we bother? It is not that standards don’t exist, they do. It is not that we can’t come up with principles, we have. In my opinion, the problem lies in the fact that not all Israel education standards are created equal. We focus on some and avoid others.

Research in the field demonstrates that some goals for Israel education are more attainable than others. Scholars claim that the highest priority of schools and their teachers is to cultivate love for Israel. The American Jewish community and schools have a long history with cultivating this love, which necessarily entails positive affiliations and associations. This is pleasurable and easy to do, since “it has always been done this way.” For years, American Jewish education has focused on a heroic, sometimes mythic narrative about the founding, growth, and strength of the State of Israel. Who doesn’t want to be a part of this extraordinary story? So, a standard for ‘cultivating love’ for Israel exists and is shared among Jewish day schools, even if it is not written down somewhere.

However, schools have not been very successful in teaching a complex version of Israel, one that addresses Israel’s imperfections and controversies, chief among them the Arab-Israeli conflict. Why? Clearly, teaching about Israel’s controversial issues is uncomfortable. There are fears of students rejecting Israel, teachers revealing biases, and anxiety about creating divisiveness among members of the school community. This is not a challenge unique to Jewish schools. Discussing controversial issues is generally not done well in the public school arena either. Unfortunately, very few studies have documented the dynamics of teaching conflict in classrooms of any kind, and no serious study has been undertaken on classrooms that teach about Israel in American Jewish day schools. However, in my recent dissertation study, I was fortunate to be able to combine both aspects, taking a hard look at how the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict is taught in American Jewish day schools.

I had the privilege of observing three dedicated teachers, from three separate day schools (modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Community). These generous teachers let me into their classrooms for a full semester as a part of my dissertation. I wanted to understand how teachers and students experience the teaching and learning of controversial issues around Israel, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict. What was revealed in the data were similarities in curricular design, which I call Conflict Curricula Dimensions.

I will list two brief examples here. First, though none of the courses were dedicated to studying it, there was a clear “Presentation of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” In each case, I observed how the “other” was presented in relation to one’s own group. The depiction of the conflict, its goals, its conditions, and the rival can demonstrate whether the curriculum maintains strong ties to what Dr. Daniel Bar Tal calls a “culture of conflict” or whether it advances towards a different reality (along a continuum), toward a “culture of peace.” Second, in each classroom, there was a distinction to be made in a teacher’s “Presentation of History,” that is traditional history vs. new historiography. New historiography has challenged the traditional representation of history with a fierce debate between these two groups. While these academic wars are waged elsewhere, I saw them make their way into the classroom by how teachers employ educational material (primary sources, films, art, literature). The ways in which these histories were taught yielded very interesting pedagogical insights.

In my opinion, it is possible to find standards not just for love, but also for conflict and controversy. My findings can assist teachers and schools to realize that even as controversial issues around Israel are broached differently, similarities in teaching methods exist. Through these findings, educators can explore ways to create more equity and balance between love and critique of Israel. Undoubtedly, there are many organizations and people in the field, like Ms. Bessemer, who are doing great work. However, without more transparency and information gathering/sharing, these efforts are not put to maximum use. Teachers need a community to talk about controversial issues and share best practices about all areas of Israel Education, but particularly in regards to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I believe that the methods I uncovered can be developed into the right frameworks to help them do this.

Galia Avidar is an educator, administrator, and researcher. She is currently developing ways to define and enhance the field of Conflict Education. She can be reached at galiaavidar@gmail.com.