Responding to Israel’s Direction: Clarifications and Responses

Flowering poppies in the Negev, April 2012. Photo by Avishai Teicher; Wikimedia Israel free image collection project.

By Alex Sinclair

In a recent essay in these virtual pages, I argued that American Jewish Israel education must rethink many of its assumptions so that instead of being primarily concerned with American Jews’ connection to Israel, it should be concerned with American Jews’ responses to Israel’s direction.

I’ve received many responses to this essay, mostly positive, along with some that have questioned my position. In particular, Jonah Hassenfeld has pushed back, arguing that connection must come first, as a “catalyst for civic engagement,” for without prior connection, why would students care about Israel’s direction?

I appreciate Hassenfeld’s thoughtful response. I think that the differences between my position and his are not large, but they are worthy of further exploration and clarification.

Firstly, I am not suggesting that “Israel educators should tell students what to believe,” as Hassenfeld imputes. I am arguing that many American Jews, before they even walk through the door of an Israel education experience, already believe certain things about Jewish pluralism, social justice, equality, and other liberal values, and that various aspects of Israeli society, culture, and political discourse are currently out of sync with those values. What I’m arguing is that if we attempt connection without addressing that major tension between the values held by many American Jews and the values being played out in Israel, we will fail. Indeed, we are failing, since this is what we’ve been trying to do for the past several decades, and it doesn’t seem to be working.

Hassenfeld suggests that Israel education be built around a triad of “knowledge, connection, and stance.” The difference between us is that I am not so sure that this order – which, again, is the order that has driven nearly all Israel education over the past several decades – is the correct one. Delaying the possibility of “stance” until the moment “when students know about Israel and connect to Israel” is extremely problematic. Who decides when that moment is? How much knowledge and connection are enough before we allow students to take a stance? Are students who are more connected allowed to take stronger stances?

Furthermore, too many American Jews lose patience with Israel education and with Israel itself because of the delaying of the “stance” moment. They perceive this delay as condescending, sensing (correctly) that we don’t trust them to take thoughtful stances until “we” have vetted them. By the time we finally feel ready to allow students to respond to Israel, to take a stance, too many of them have given up and checked out, or taken stances that are devoid of connection.

The essence of my position is that we should re-order that triad: stance, connection, knowledge. While this sounds counter-intuitive, it’s actually a deeply educational approach. Begin by posing essential questions. Have students take stances. Allow them to respond. Through that engagement, connection will be built. And through that connection, students will seek out knowledge. It’s what we do in every other kind of good, constructivist education. Could you imagine beginning a course on prayer by saying to students: “you’re not allowed to say whether or not you believe in God until you’ve learned all the tefillot by heart and can prove that you feel connected to them”?!

The final clarification I wish to make is to emphasize a point I made in the original essay. Response to Israel’s direction should be done in the spirit of true dialogue with Israelis, and with American Jews who hold different opinions. That means arguing, expressing opinions, taking strong stances, but also being open to listening and truly hearing those who think differently. In essence, what I am proposing is a double challenge. To the established forms of Israel education, it’s a challenge to have responding to Israel’s direction as a much more central part of the educational enterprise. But to those who disagree with aspects of Israel’s direction, it’s a challenge to have them think about how to respond in ways that other Jews and Israelis can hear them – in Dewey’s terms, how to have those responses be “educative,” rather than just venting. Ultimately, the goal is to have as many Jews as possible actively trying to impact and be impacted by the amazing, crazy, frustrating, imperfect project that we call Israel. I hope that’s a goal that we can all agree on.

Dr Alex Sinclair is director of programs in Israel Education and an adjunct assistant professor of Jewish Education for JTS. He is the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. He lives in Modiin, Israel.