Reconsidering Reframing Israel

By Stuart Zweiter

I do not know Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman. Permit me to state at the outset, however, that after reviewing the curriculum, Reframing Israel, as well as reading some of her sermons found online, it becomes clear that she is an articulate, intelligent, dedicated, caring and spirited individual.

In all the years I have directed The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, a non-denominational academic and program center dedicated to enhancing and professionalizing Jewish education and Jewish educators, with programs throughout the Jewish world, I have been very careful not to offer any written comments regarding the innumerable materials that have been produced for various Jewish learning settings.

In the case of Reframing Israel, however, I felt that silence would be inappropriate – inappropriate from an educational perspective, not a political one. I do agree with Rabbi Zimmerman regarding the fact that when one lives in Israel, as I do, one sees things very differently than when one is geographically distant from the reality, and I do agree with her regarding the fact that Israel education in North America, the focus of her critique, has been less than balanced and less than effective. I also agree that Israel is a very complex reality (does anyone not agree with that?) and that almost nothing here can be understood in a black and white framework.

I am not going to comment on the curriculum from a political or doctrinal perspective since I do not claim to be any more knowledgeable than the next person in this area. I would only add that like Rabbi Zimmerman I feel for the plight of the Palestinian Arabs, I believe it is a central Jewish value to empathize with and try to do something on behalf of the unfortunate, and I also believe that the status quo is not sustainable. At the same time I want to add that I strongly believe that there must be zero tolerance of, and no sympathy for terrorists and those that encourage and sustain them and their supporters through their actions, directly or indirectly, whether they be governments, NGOs or movements.

I also agree with Rabbi Zimmerman’s statement contained in the section on educational vision, that most Jewish educators (unless they work in day schools) have very little time with their students. It is critical, therefore, that they maximize the time they do have, helping their students engage in learning that is grounded in intellectual inquiry and speaks to what it means to be an engaged, responsible young Jew in the twenty-first century.

From an educational standpoint, I would like to ask several fundamental questions concerning the concept and content of the curriculum.

  1. With the very limited number of hours that American Jewish children today spend studying Judaism, if they spend it at all, from an educational and self-interested communal perspective, what makes it so compelling that they should be spending a good deal of this very limited time focusing on the Israel-Palestinian conflict? If we were to engage in educational triage, what priority should be given to this topic? Rabbi Zimmerman writes that, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to Jewish life. It’s as important to Jewish identity as prayer and the weekly Torah portion.” Really? Israel is certainly central to Jewish life and identity but the Israel-Palestinian conflict is only one of dozens of aspects of Israel. How is it in particular, so central to Jewish life and identity?
  2. The curriculum clearly contains material about aspects of Israel other than the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but the conflict and empathizing with the Palestinian narrative is clearly its main trajectory. Is this the central aspect of Israel that American Jewish children need to learn and know and understand? Should there not be more focus on the many incredible positive things about Israel, (with all their inherent imperfections)? Would that not reflect a more sound, balanced and inclusive educational approach for children? Would it not result in a more balanced identification with Israel and its very complex issues?
  3. Rabbi Zimmerman writes: “Educators should refrain from trying to impose their own ideas onto their students for this hinders the students’ learning experiences and diverts energy from the process of teaching students how to think critically and develop their own well-formed perspectives.” Is this curriculum not so inclined in one direction that it does just that? A good and confident teacher in any course should be able to tell his or her students that they should not accept something simply because he or she said it. The curriculum is so disproportionate in one direction, that it is impossible to see genuine encouragement of such an approach in it.
  4. The sections called Historical overview and key terms and concepts, and additional resources are unfortunately clearly far from balanced in terms of content. How does that encourage the critical thinking so central to Rabbi Zimmerman’s goal in writing the curriculum?
  5. What role does substantive knowledge play in this curriculum? Shouldn’t young people first be provided with the opportunity to gain substantial knowledge of sources and a topic so that the questions they ask are substantive and meaningful? Otherwise, does it not result in a perhaps self-pleasing but inconsequential, and eventually potentially damaging discussion? With the extremely limited time allotted to the study of Judaism in the American Jewish community, how can analysis and understanding of the classical text sources included in the curriculum be anything but superficial? How could that possibly be helpful in providing a better text-based perspective and understanding of the conflict? In addition, these texts are wonderful and very rich sources but they are all inclined in one direction. Where is the complexity? Was Rabbi Zimmerman unable to find sources that support an opposite approach to the topic? Wouldn’t the need to tackle those much more challenging sources present an enhanced opportunity for dealing with complexity and more critical thinking? I identify in a personal way with every source that Rabbi Zimmerman included in her curriculum but I would not be intellectually honest if I were to ignore the others.
  6. Rabbi Zimmerman writes that virtually no Jewish materials exist that present complex Palestinian perspectives with the intent of helping American Jewish students understand Palestinian experiences. At what age is that educationally appropriate? 5? 8? 10? (as is suggested in the curriculum). As an experienced educator, parent and grandparent, I fully agree with Rabbi Zimmerman that our children are capable of discussing divergent viewpoints and wrestling with difficult issues. But what is really age appropriate? And what should we prioritize? Again, in the context of the very limited amount of time, if any, that American Jewish families spend studying Judaism or focused on Jewish life, should studying the Israel-Palestinian conflict be a priority? I live in Israel and believe very strongly that Israeli children, from a young age, should learn to understand the Other, to interact with and nurture understanding of Israeli Arabs and other minorities in Israel. But is learning about the Palestinian narrative a priority for American Jewish children of 5-8 years old or even 13 years old? While spending so much time focusing on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, what is being sacrificed that could really serve to develop a strong Jewish identity? And perhaps most importantly, how can a child begin to understand the Other if they do not begin to have a clear sense of their own identity, in this case their Jewish identity? I am not referring to Rabbi Zimmerman’s own children referred to in her writing, whom I am sure are growing up in a very supportive Jewish environment. But sadly it has been demonstrated over and over again that is not the case with most American Jewish families.
  7. What about young children’s need for heroes? (this is not the place to cite all the literature on this). Does this curriculum provide an opportunity for identifying with Jewish heroes? Dare I say with Zionist heroes? One of the reasons that children today do not identify with Jewish heroes is because they don’t know their stories, their stories in full color with all of their strengths as well as their frailties and imperfections. Shouldn’t we be prioritizing and spending so much more time on that? Wouldn’t that contribute so much more to strengthening Jewish knowledge, identity and connection?

I believe it is fair for me to conclude, that from an educational perspective, to borrow from Dr. Johnson, this curriculum essentially promotes one idea, and sorrowfully that is a wrong one.

In a speech found online, Rabbi Zimmerman stated: “Now partly because of my age and probably more because of my choice of profession, I’m still “within the system,” so to speak, and I’m not ready to give up yet on Jewish peoplehood. But I do question the idea that Jews have to be unified, that we have to fight intermarriage, that we should prioritize the well-being of Jews over the well-being of non-Jews, even in Israel.” I must admit that coming from a Rabbi, I find that statement very alarming, perhaps terrifying is more accurate. Whither Judaism and whither the Jewish people if that is the ethos and approach that energizes her thinking? It seems that Reframing Israel is a direct result of that kind of thinking?

I learned long ago from my esteemed teacher and friend Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, that among the many lessons that we learned from the tragedy of the Holocaust were two that I hold dear. The first is that since the Nazis placed no value on human life, we must believe and emphasize as Jewish tradition has, that every human being has ultimate value, and we must live our life and fashion our actions accordingly. The second is that because the world looked at best indifferently at the tragedy of the Jews we must recognize that we must learn to prioritize Jewish concerns. I am not suggesting that the plight of the Palestinians is not a Jewish concern, but I will end as I began, if we, as we must, engage in educational triage, how do we prioritize the very limited Jewish education time of American Jewish students? Should the Palestinian narrative on the Israel-Palestinian conflict be a priority topic that we teach young American Jewish children?

An addendum, if I may. In a 1958 paper delivered to the 58th convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, interestingly titled, Ideological Evaluation of Israel And The Diaspora, and later included in the collection of essays, “The Insecurity of Freedom” under the title, Israel and Diaspora, the revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrot:

“The State of Israel is not only an inspiration but also an embarrassment. One feels abashed at the thought of being a distant spectator while the most dramatic act of building and defending the land is being enacted by others. The shame of being absent is a new and urgent theme for Jewish apologetics.

How can the Jews of America resist the glory of living in Israel? How is it possible for us to stay away from the great and sacred drama being enacted in the land of Israel?”

He mentions two ways of directly aiding the State of Israel and then writes:

“There is a third way of aiding the State of Israel, which is in a sense an answer to the embarrassment, to bring about an inner spiritual and cultural Aliyah on the soil of America.”

Would it not be wonderful and extremely beneficial if Rabbi Zimmerman were to devote two years to developing a curriculum that contributes to the spiritual Aliyah of American Jewish youth? I am confident it would be a very fine piece of work. After learning that curriculum, they would certainly eventually be much better prepared to engage with the issues inherent in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Stuart Zweiter is the Director of The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University.