Talking About Israel with Our Students

To make Jewish schools safe spaces in which students can learn about Israel, teachers must establish explicit ground rules for conversations. These ground rules must honor a diversity of beliefs and allow students to participate in respectful dialogue.

By Sivan Zakai and Jonah Hassenfeld

Pencils are sharpened and backpacks are full. The start of this school year feels like any other: full of promise and possibilities for learning. This year, Jewish students return to school in the aftermath of the war in Gaza. This too is an opportunity – not only to talk with students about what’s been happening, but also to reevaluate how we teach about Israel in general.

We propose three questions for schools to consider when (re)articulating an approach to Israel education.

What do we want students to know and understand about Israelis and Palestinians?

Articulating a vision for what students should know about Israel’s geography, history, political structure, and society is an essential step for teachers and schools who are committed to Israel education. But this summer’s conflict has shown more clearly than ever before that if American Jewish students are truly to understand life in Israel, they must be taught not only about Jews in the Jewish State, but also about Palestinian history, politics, and society.

It is increasingly clear that Israel – both its current reality and its future – is inextricably linked with that of Palestinians. American Jewish schools must focus on the unique history and politics of Israel, but they must also widen their view to help students understand its context. This means teaching about Palestinians as well as a much longer history of relations between Arabs and Jews.

For younger students, it is important to consider questions like:

  • What are Israel’s borders (today and in the past), and who are its neighbors?
  • What groups of people live in and around Israel?

For older students, it means addressing questions like:

  • What are the varied and diverse narratives that Israelis and Palestinians tell about their own and one another’s history?
  • What are the various political ideologies within Israeli and Palestinian societies, and how do different groups envision the future for Israelis and Palestinians?

What do we want students to value?

Teaching and learning about Israel includes much more than knowledge. It also includes cultivating values and commitments, and this requires a three-step approach:

  1. Name explicitly the values that are in play.
    Many schools are explicit about wanting students to love and support Israel, but other values may come into play as well. This summer, American Jews have invoked a host of values when talking about Israel: justice, democracy, peoplehood, the value of innocent life, and “Jewish values” in general. Schools and teachers must help students recognize and name the values that too often remain implicit in their conversations about Israel.
  2. Talk about what those values mean.
    It is not enough, however, just to name values. “Justice,” for example, means different things to different people. When talking about “justice,” some people mean the fundamental justice of the existence of Israel, while others mean the need to treat Palestinians justly. Taking the time to engage students in exploring different possible meanings of core values ensures that these values do not simply become empty slogans.
  3. Support students in navigating tensions among their values.
    There are times when core values come into tension. Students may feel a conflict between Israel’s democracy and its special Jewish character, or between the right to self-defense and concern for innocent casualties of war. Jewish schools must become places where talking about values in tension is not only a possibility but a value in itself.

How do we want students to talk about Israel?

In a world too often marred by vitriolic discourse, Jewish schools must be the places where our youth and teens learn how to talk – and listen – to one another about Israel.

To make Jewish schools safe spaces in which students can learn about Israel, teachers must establish explicit ground rules for conversations. These ground rules must honor a diversity of beliefs and allow students to participate in respectful dialogue.

For example, teachers might want to:

  • Set rules about what kinds of language (verbal and body) is acceptable
    One teacher we know encourages his students to express any thoughts and feelings that they have – but only using language they’d be comfortable with their grandparents overhearing. With any ground rules for language, the goal is to help students distinguish between the kinds of arguments and disagreements that are essential to the healthy functioning of any society and the kinds that needlessly increase tensions.
  • Put limits on “talk time”
    Limiting talk time can mean setting rules in advance, like using a stopwatch to give every student an equal amount of time to speak (or be silent). At other times, it means allowing for a more free flowing conversation but being willing to cut off students who are taking a lot of air time. In either case, limits help students to be more precise and deliberate when they are speaking and more focused when they are listening.
  • Distinguish between times for expressing feelings and times for critical analysis
    It is important for teachers to give space for students – especially those whose own lives or families have been affected by the conflict – to share how they feel. But school is also a place for learning new information and subjecting our perspectives to critical analysis. To make sure that Jewish schools can be both places of critical analysis and safe spaces for expressing feelings, educators must let students know which moments are for which.

When Israel is in the headlines and the public conversation takes place in short soundbites and tweets, it can be harder than ever to talk about it in meaningful and measured ways. But if schools and teachers formulate a general approach to teaching and learning about Israel – not just when Israel is at war, but always – students will find that the difficult moments become far easier to talk about. Articulating what students need to know, how they should navigate their values, and what ground rules guide the conversation creates a strong foundation for learning about Israel. This foundation can support not only Jewish youth, but the larger American Jewish community as well.

Sivan Zakai is assistant professor of education and director of Israel education initiatives at American Jewish University. Jonah Hassenfeld is a PhD candidate at Stanford University in Education and Jewish Studies, where he is a Jim Joseph fellow and Wexner fellow/Davidson scholar.