On Ambivalent Complexity: A Response to Barry Chazan

by Dr. Alex Sinclair

Professor Barry Chazan has been one of my teachers and inspirations, and is probably the person who has made the single largest contribution to the contemporary field of Israel education. I am humbled to be called his colleague. In a time when the discourse around Israel education can so often slide into shrill and debilitating attacks, I do not take for granted the collegial and dialogical tone of his critique of my piece. In what follows, I hope to respond in that same vein.

That said, let me begin by stating that while some of Barry’s comments are serious arguments, requiring serious response (which I’ll get to below), I would respectfully suggest that he also used the old rhetorical technique of attacking the speaker for something that he did not say. I didn’t write, nor do I think, that complexity is “equivalent to Israel education;” I didn’t “promise to explain this term;” and this was not an attempt to set up “good guys” and “bad guys.” Those over-extensions belie the important questions at stake.

My claim was and is, quite simply, that complexity is a term that is used willy-nilly in the discourse of Israel education, but that that ubiquity obscures a variety of differing assumptions about and approaches to complexity.

There was one bad error in the original essay: as Barry points out, one of the iCenter quotes is a conflation of two separate sources. When I wrote the original essay, I had cited these correctly as two separate sources. However, during the online formatting process, they got conflated. I didn’t spot the mistake and take full responsibility for it.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of the typology, it doesn’t matter. Whether or not the iCenter’s approach is or is not one of “ambivalent complexity,” that approach undoubtedly exists in the field. Many Israel educators still use the “yes, but” or “only after” formulations that I pointed out in the original essay. “We must get young people to love Israel first,” they say. “Only when we are sure that they love Israel can we tell them that things are more complicated.”

It’s here that Barry and I may differ, although I suspect that these differences are nuances – important nuances, perhaps – rather than outright disagreements.

I think that Barry would agree that the core narratives we have told about Israel for generations are to some degree inaccurate, and that the Jewish people are currently in a process of struggling with how to reframe our Israel narrative in a way that is more honest, while still retaining a deep commitment to Israel qua Israel. The response to Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land shows just how hungry the community is for this reframing.

The question is, what is the correct educational response to this reframing? How should My Promised Land affect the Israel education that we do with adults, students, teenagers, and younger children? Here, the nuances between Barry and me may emerge. He argues for a spiral curriculum, not super-imposing adult conceptions of complexity on the young, but paying careful attention to young children’s ability to think and feel in diverse ways at different ages. I would agree with this statement, but to the writers whom Barry notes, I would add scholars like Robert Coles and Gareth Matthews, who have shown that very young children are routinely capable of extraordinarily complex thought. And taking into account adult conceptions when we educate the young doesn’t mean super-imposing; it means creating a thoughtful spiral curriculum which does not only rely on the child’s desires, but also has an end goal in mind. As John Dewey puts it in The Child and The Curriculum, “The systematized and defined experience of the adult mind, in other words, is of value to us in interpreting the child’s life as it immediately shows itself, and in passing on to guidance or direction.”

Let’s not caricature this approach: I’m not suggesting that we read Shavit’s chapter on Lydda to 5-year-olds during story hour at the JCC. What I am saying is that we must develop language that helps us talk about and teach about the complexities of Israel with children, including young children, in developmentally-appropriate, spiral fashion.

Barry is right that complexity is a characteristic of many, probably all subject matters, and that thoughtful educators must decide when and how to introduce that complexity. His comparison to the teaching of Bible is one that I have written extensively about, and it’s an instructive one. At what age do we tell children that the Torah is probably an edited anthology of sources written by several different people over several different centuries? 16? 12? 8? 4? In Bible education, just as in Israel education, educators will have varied responses to this question. Some will be ambivalent about this highly complex aspect of the subject matter, and will argue that only when young people are a) older and b) fully committed to Jewish life should we complicate their identity with such difficult theological positions. I think that’s a deeply problematic position, as I explain more fully in my recent book, Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. I believe that our task as educators is to engage learners with the subject matter in as authentic a way as possible, developing age-appropriate language that helps learners understand the complexities of the subject matter from day one.

Barry criticizes me for not paying attention to Schwab’s commonplaces, but I don’t think that’s a correct analysis. It’s more accurate to say that we each have a slightly different emphasis in the weight we give to the commonplaces. Barry puts a strong emphasis on the commonplace of the learner, (although, without wishing to turn this into a seminar on Schwab, I am arguing above for a more “eclectic” view of the learner commonplace). I probably put more of an emphasis on the milieu and the subject matter.

In 1,900 words, any typology that one tries to present will be painted in broad strokes, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not a useful map that puts its finger on certain characteristics of the field and acts as a starting point for further research. Yes, so far it’s only “my” typology, and I would welcome the kind of extensive research that Barry suggests in order to investigate the issue more thoroughly. But at the very least, I hope that this dialogue between us will mean that from now on, the word “complex” will always have a hyphenated identity.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is director of Programs in Israel Education for the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. In this capacity he directs The Davidson School’s Kesher Hadash semester-in-Israel program, which prepares educators to transform the field of Israel Education by developing a sophisticated love of Israel that is nurtured through immersion in and deep understanding of the complexities and nuances of Israeli life, culture, politics and society.