Reveling and Unraveling in The Face of Israel’s Complexity

Reflections on Pushing Emerging Israel Educators Out of Their Comfort Zone
by Ofra Backenroth and Alex Sinclair

“We saw Israel-Diaspora relations up close when we interacted with [Israeli] teachers and students, and this was a very valuable exercise. It wasn’t always easy and I suppose that was the point.”

In a previous essay that appeared in these virtual pages, we outlined a new approach to training emerging Israel educators, and how we seek to apply this approach to our work as co-directors of Kesher Hadash, the Davidson School of JTS’s semester in Israel program.

In this essay we reflect on our students’ responses to this approach.

Kesher Hadash is a truly immersive experience in Israeli society. Rather than have our students experience Israel at arm’s length, studying in the Beit Midrash with American peers and teachers, interacting with Israelis mostly in the grocery store or bus line, we seek to engage them as much as possible in multiple and extended mifgashim (encounters) with diverse groups of Israelis, with whom they will dialogue about critical issues: Jewish identity, Israel-Diaspora relations, Israeli politics, and Israeli society. Kesher Hadash students also explore the complexities and intricacies of Israel through extended examinations of contemporary Israeli arts and culture, as well as site visits and meetings with cultural figures and educational thinkers.

This kind of engagement with Israel inevitably exposes students to a nuanced and complex picture of Israel. They experience Israel as subject matter, worthy of exploration on its own terms, needing thought and reflection to understand it, the feel-good factor of a visit to Israel being less important than true understanding.

For some students, this approach to Israel is liberating. They feel as if a breath of fresh air has been cast into their relationship with Israel, and that they have now been given the freedom and the imprimatur to find their own voice, to craft their own relationship with Israel, and to be authentic and honest in that relationship. They revel in this new approach. As one student wrote: “I arrived [in Israel] unsure that my voice in matters concerning Israel mattered or even existed… Looking back now, towards the end of this adventure, I still have uncertainties and confusions, but I now have the ability to address them; I have now found my voice.”

However, for other students (and in our experience so far, it is a small but not insignificant minority of around 20% of the students each year) Kesher Hadash is deeply disturbing. While they enter the program stating that they are aware of Israel’s difficult social, religious and political issues, they quickly undergo the difficult transition from cognitive, arm’s length awareness to face-to-face, “in-your-face”, engagement. Previously-held assumptions and rationales for commitment to Israel are unraveled. These assumptions and rationales, despite the ubiquity and accessibility of news about Israel from dozens of different perspectives, are still deeply rooted in a heroic-mythic narrative of Israel, and they exist not only in the student’s individual relationship with Israel, but often in that of their family and community too; so it’s not just a private journey that students embark on – they have the voices of their family and friends in their heads too.

As educators, it’s hard to take students through this unraveling. We cause them heartache and heartbreak (and often they explicitly use romantic metaphors like “loss of love” to describe their new feelings about Israel – see Backenroth, Bell-Kligler and Sinclair, 2010).

We try to support students during this unraveling, but we don’t let our students shy away from it. There are three core beliefs that we hold as educators that keep us going during these moments of unraveling.

Firstly, authenticity. We believe that a complex and sophisticated understanding of Israeli history, Israeli society, and Israeli politics, is a more authentic view of the subject matter. We would not teach a course on prayer to liberal Jews without grappling with the question of whether God really exists; so too, we cannot teach Israel without grappling with the tough issues in Israeli society, like issues concerning foreign workers and refugees, intra-religious conflict, or political mistakes. Yes, nuanced theologies make it harder for liberal Jews to pray; and it’s the same when it comes to grappling with Israel. Knowledge can be disturbing but sometimes that’s the price you have to pay for educational authenticity.

Secondly, faith. We have faith in our students’ abilities to reach a state of what Ricouer calls “second naïveté”; that they will come through their Kesher Hadash experience with a more sophisticated relationship with Israel, and that they will remain deeply committed to Israel even if that commitment will look and feel different.

Thirdly, ongoing educational translation. Our students will, in their future careers, need to translate their knowledge of Israel into educational curriculum, instruction and program implementation. Israel is not a fixed object; its society, politics and culture are constantly developing, and will require constant future translation by Israel educators. The base that our students acquire on Kesher Hadash will enable them to succeed at this ongoing task of educational translation in a way that less sophisticated understandings will not.

So far, there are encouraging signs that our approach is bearing fruit. Students who found Kesher Hadash “unraveling” while they were on the program, write to us after returning from Israel and report their pleasant surprise at the way they now see Israel education differently and feel more professionally competent. One wrote to us from camp, saying that her first few weeks back in the field since returning from Israel were “a reminder that every learning experience is a process and sometimes I just really need to trust the process more”.

For the students who feel unraveled, our role as educators is to remind ourselves of the importance of subject matter authenticity, faith in second naïveté, and the need for ongoing educational translation. Meanwhile, we take heart in the majority of our students, whose reveling in complexity is a sight to behold. As one of them put it:

“Whether you come to change your beliefs or hold them ever firmer, it will be because of conversation, not indoctrination.”

Dr Alex Sinclair is the Director of Programs in Israel Education at JTS. He has published numerous articles on Israel education, and his forthcoming book is entitled “Loving the Real Israel: An educational agenda for Liberal Zionism”.

Dr Ofra Backenroth is the Associate Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. Backenroth and Sinclair are jointly responsible for the leadership and direction of Kesher Hadash.

The Davidson School of JTS’s semester in Israel program is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.