Moving Beyond the Israel Education and Advocacy Dichotomy

by David Bernstein

There is a debate escalating in American Jewish circles between those who favor Israel advocacy and those who favor Israel education for high school and college age Jewish students.

For many years, the establishment favored Israel advocacy. It armed young Jews with the basic skills of communication and argumentation, and gave them “the facts.” It sent them back to places like the college campus in the hopes that their new-found confidence and knowledge would sway opinion in Israel’s favor. Many who favor this approach believe that Israel education that embraces critical views of the Jewish state can undermine communal unity on Israel.

Proponents of Israel education argue that the advocacy paradigm has created a “with us or against us” discourse that alienates many young Jews. They promote a more open, critical discourse that encourages young Jews to come to their own opinions about Israel’s policies, arguing that such an approach is more likely to create buy-in into the Zionist narrative. Many who favor Israel education believe that traditional advocacy is alienating and ineffective.

While the debate between these views is often portrayed as a clash of polar opposites, the two, at their best, can be mutually supportive.

Israel education, in nearly every Jewish context, is not value neutral. While Jewish educators seek to encourage critical thinking about Israel, as they would on any topic, they generally do so within a Zionist framework. They want students to believe in the justness of Zionism and encourage a strong connection with Israel. A headmaster at one Jewish day school said that Jewish educators seek to balance critical thinking with the need to instill a strong Jewish identity. In other words, Israel education involves a measure of advocacy on the part of the educators to the students.

Indeed, in the elementary school years, the objective of Israel education ought not to be comprehension of diverse perspective on Israel but instilling a strong sense of identity and commitment. Only later, in middle school and high school, should critical views be introduced.

The need to balance critical thinking and national pride is not limited to Israel education. The notion of American civic education is premised on such a balance. Paul Houston, former executive director of American Association of School Administrators, has said, “If you look back in history, you will find that the core mission of public education in America was to create places of civic virtue for our children and for our society.”

Lines between education and advocacy are further blurred by the emergence of a more nuanced form of Israel advocacy. Many Israel advocates have come to realize that they cannot mandate a simplistic approach to Israel and must allow young activists to debate hot topics, lest they risk an all-out revolt. Our experience is that when, in the context of advocacy training, students are allowed and even encouraged to think through controversial issues, from settlements to the rights of Israeli Arabs, they will usually emerge more, not less, loyal to the cause. Such findings are in keeping with longstanding theories about adolescent intellectual development. Educational researcher Sheldon Berman cites numerous studies demonstrating how teaching multiple perspectives enhances youth participation in society.

Good Israel advocacy also requires a measure of critical thinking. Young Jews exposed to varied interpretations about Israel’s policies are not only more loyal but far better at speaking with external audiences. This view is buttressed by a recent survey of college campuses conducted by the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise and The Israel Project that showed that no one talking point has wide resonance on college campuses. The once oft-cited peace message – “Israel wants peace but has no partner” – no longer holds sway among broad swaths of elites on and off campus. What does seem to work is presenting Israel as a basically just but highly complex democratic society facing unique challenges.

This is not to say that Israel education and advocacy are one and the same. The primary purpose of education is to teach students how to think. The primary purpose of advocacy is to persuade external audiences.

But neither are they mutually exclusive. The Jewish community must ensure that every child receives a first-rate Israel education in the course of their Jewish education. And it should present Israel advocacy as a viable, but not exclusive, way to express one’s commitment to Israel.

There’s plenty of room at the table for both approaches.

David Bernstein is Executive Director of The David Project.