Israel Engagement: A Messy Venture

By Scott Copeland

Israel engagement is a messy venture. Good that smart, experienced colleagues and friends like Alex Sinclair and Shalom Orzach recently contributed their efforts to helping clarify the parameters and goals of the field in the pages of eJewishPhilanthropy. Sinclair and Orzach help clear up some of the messiness of Israel engagement. I add a few of my thoughts to their queries, suggestions, and exhortations.

The messy nature of Israel engagement is connected with a whole host of issues – big and small – the consumerist devaluation of particular identities, the challenge of articulating complex claims within the tyranny of constantly open and competing screens, shifts about the place of grand narratives in the ways that commitments are shaped and chosen, and shifts in the social-cultural-political character of Israel and the Jewish world to name just a few in telegraphic fashion.

In my estimation, the messiness of Israel engagement mainly grows out of Israel itself and its constituent history. Israel is a small, vibrant ethnic democracy born out of an ancient messianic dream and a revolutionary liberation movement. Israelis are a heterogeneous population still struggling about the means for survival, and the meaning of living. And all this takes place in the context of a Middle East racked by epoch changing events and processes that offer little optimism for long-lasting regional stability.

For some, the messiness of Israel is a trouble and a turn-off. There are Israel engagers and educators who prefer a neater picture, and a more controlled way of contending with the mess. For such Israel romantics, one response to messiness is to present Israel mainly as a focal point for warm, amorphous Jewish ethnic pride. The focal points of the romantics’ attention are unflawed portrayals of Israeli successes and the story of nation building – “making the desert bloom,” “the most moral army in the world,” “the startup nation.” Although based in reality, such phrases are hyperbolic stretches that cloud as much as they clarify. Israel’s considerable achievements ought to be celebrated with pride. However, pride ought to inspire a renewed commitment to shared aspirations and not be the laurel wreath of smug self-satisfaction. A bloated pride – arrogance – becomes a screen hiding mistakes and failures, and a shield deflecting debate and dissent. It seems to me that educating for a rooted, secure sense of pride, assertiveness, and self-celebration must also include recognition of how our actions impact others, a constant measuring of the values that inform our politics, and ongoing work to maintain a healthy, diverse public debate.

Contending with the scope of existential questions – political, religious, ethical, etc. – is seen by the Israel romantic as risky business. Asking tough questions risks revealing imperfections, facing mistakes and failures, and soiling the tallit that is presented as always blue. For the Israel romantic, love can be best maintained when Israel is admired and not embraced, placed on a pedestal rather than being met at eye level.

For some Israel romantics, there is a strong impulse to ‘defend Israel.’ In many of these circles, a marketing-advertisement discourse is prevalent. The goal seems to be to capture the ‘buy-in’ of the audience/consumer, to promote an image, to sell a product. President Reuven Rivlin, in his ceremonial address for the opening of the new Knesset season, recently called Israel – “the boldest Jewish creation in the wondrous history of the Jewish people.” Remembering the historic significance of our educational work demands that educators refuse to settle for the same tips and tricks and tactics used to sell toothpaste and such, in our attempts to explore Israel as a foundational component of contemporary Jewishness.

Education is about enquiry, encounter, and conversation; therefore the educator cannot be satisfied with ‘buy-in’ as a compelling description of our work. Instead the educator ought to encourage ‘be-in.’ The educator asks, invites, inspires learners to ask who they want to be, and what place Israel, Judaism, & Jewishness might play in their lives.

In the context of Israel engagement, messiness… complexity… nuance … need to be embraced, shared, and developed. An approach that is overly-romantic, or that reduces real life from polychromatic to black and white is both a disservice and a distortion. Most of our emerging adult learners and program participants are students and graduates of excellent colleges and universities. Most of them will go on to be professionals in a variety of impressive fields. A presentation of Israeli realities which infantilizes will not be the ground from which adult commitments can be cultivated.

Some will suggest that initiation must precede engagement, that commitment and criticism can only come later. I want to suggest that even in initiation there must be a taste of engagement, of commitment, and of criticism. Learning is not like building a car. Indoctrination works along assembly lines. Education works through weaving webs of association and encouraging participants to take part, to add their own voice.

In various educational contexts and with learners at different stages, questions of implementation will demand practical clarifications. Work in the field of philosophy for children (and any sensitive person who has spoken with young children) would suggest that children – in their own ways – can appreciate and express nuance and complexity. What does this suggest about work with older children, teenagers, and emerging adults? My position remains that regardless of the age of the participants, our educational institutions and programs ought to dare to engage with the messiness of Israel as a real place, full of real people holding a wide variety of opinions and outlooks, and all living together in one small, dear corner of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Lee Shulman, in his juggling of more traditional taxonomies of learning, offers that education works mainly in sweeps and swerves, and not in straight lines. In that sense, education is like a musical movement – patterns of recurring tropes that rephrase and regroup, building one on the other in a cyclical, not linear fashion. Shulman shares this educational fable:

“Once upon a time someone was engaged in an experience of learning. And that engagement was so profound that it led to her understanding things she didn’t understand before, and therefore gave her the capacity to practice and to act in the world in new ways. But once she starting acting in the world, she realized that action doesn’t always work out as intended. so she had to start looking at what she was doing and at the consequences of her actions. This meant re-examining her actions to see whether she might want to act differently.”

(Lee S. Shulman (2002) Making Differences: A Table of Learning, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 34:6, p. 41)

Initiation that provides learners a look at a world that is open to interpretation, grounded in basic questions of meaning, and full of multiple voices has the chance to invite people into a home where they can actually imagine themselves living; alongside others who are worth celebrating with, standing with, and arguing with about the places of Israel, Judaism, and Jewishness in our lives.

Scott Copeland is a leading Jewish educator. He was the founding director of the Birthright Israel Institute for Tour Educators. Scott is the Vice President for Education at Onward Israel.