Israel in Picture Books

By Dr. Ofra Backenroth

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go!”
Dr. Seuss.

Children learn about the world through a variety of means, one of which is through stories. How can we, as educators, harness the power of stories and pictures to teach children about Israel? How can we capitalize on the power of visuals to help us create a complex view of Israel and its people?

Israel has been part of the Jewish educational agenda since before the establishment of the state, and many children’s books have been published addressing its history, the connection to the Land, and stories about the people of Israel. In recent years, Israel education has emerged as a distinct subfield of Jewish education, aimed at more deeply and explicitly weaving present-day Israel into the enterprise of American Jewish education. This shift created both an expansion and professionalization of Israel educational programming, as well as a search for appropriate materials that present the complexity of life in Israel at a time of conflict and the reality of Israel’s multiethnic population and religious diversity.

Yet this increased focus has only served to illuminate the ways that teaching about Israel has been marked by a confusion of goals and purposes, especially when it comes to young children. The place of Israel in the curriculum is often unclear, and schools’ efforts are undermined by poorly coordinated and fragmented practices. Even in a context where there are clear curricular goals and communal ideological consensus, educators must scrutinize beliefs and assumptions both about Israel and about how children learn.

How, then, do Jewish educators navigate the multiple demands of their work in Israel education, especially when the target audience is young children?

There are two major dilemmas when it comes to teaching children about Israel: developmental appropriateness and suitable materials. These two dilemmas are interconnected. Educators are worried about exposing young children to challenging subjects. Teachers believe in protecting children from discussion on contentious topics and therefore they avoid talking about issues that might lead to criticism about some aspects of Israeli life. Educators also feel unprepared to lead conversations that might follow from teaching difficult subjects, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or religious diversity of the people who live in Israel. Consequently, educators frequently find themselves using advocacy materials and generic picture books about topics like a trip to Israel instead of thoughtful materials that promote serious, nuanced conversation about Israel and its society.

Sivan Zakai, a scholar and researcher of Israel education for young children, suggests three things when it comes to Israel education and early ages:

  • Transparency: Hiding information from children is not only futile, it also leaves children with excess anxiety and no outlet for clarifying information.
  • Discussion: It is vital to establish a healthy dialogue about difficult subjects with children of all ages in order to promote feelings of security.
  • Trust in children’s ability to understand complex information: Difficult topics cannot be changed but can be reframed in an age-appropriate manner.

Picture books can serve as a powerful resource for teaching children in a meaningful way about Israel and can help children understand core concepts and what they mean. Most of all, stories serve as a jumping-off point for sincere and open conversation.

What makes picture books so appealing and effective in teaching children?

  • Pictures and illustrations shape children’s first impressions of a book.
  • The picture books teach children about the world and about themselves.
  • Picture books introduce signs and symbols, which enhance abstract thinking.
  • Reading picture books to children allows adults to revisit the books they read as children and see them through children’s eyes.

How to choose picture books about Israel? Consider the following questions.

  • What are the lenses through which Israel is being shown to children?
  • What does the book tell children about Israeli society?
  • Who are the people we meet through the story?
  • Which places do the children see in the book?
  • What issues are presented?

If we educators are serious about educating for understanding, we need to treat children with respect and acknowledge the fact that they can think in a sophisticated way. We need to choose teaching materials that present Israel in a thought-provoking, complex manner and educate children about tolerance and understanding of differences among people. Picture books can help in changing perceptions about Israel and all its citizens.

Dr. Ofra Arieli Backenroth is the associate dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS and an assistant professor of Jewish education.

This article is part of a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS on training educators to lead inclusive learning communities.