Teaching About Israel After Election Day… And Every Other Day

photo by Florence Broder Tuizer
photo by Florence Broder Tuizer

By Sivan Zakai and Lauren Applebaum

The polls in Israel have closed. The election results are pouring in. Politicians and pundits are scrambling to make sense of the will of the Israeli people. And those who work on the front lines of teaching American Jews about Israel are scrambling to make sense of how to teach and talk about the elections.

The recent elections – and other headlines from Israel – can seem daunting if we approach them as stand-alone events. Instead, they must become part of a larger framework of teaching and talking about Israel. Such an approach makes room for issues of immediate relevance by approaching them as part of an overall framework that includes:

1. Multiple Voices

If American Jewish youth are to truly understand what happened in this election cycle – indeed, if they are to really grasp what happens daily in Israel – they need to be introduced to multiple voices in Israel. This means deliberately providing opportunities for students to hear voices from the political right and voices from the political left; voices of Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews along with voices of Ashkenazi Jews; voices of Palestinians and immigrants to Israel from Africa and Southeast Asia along with voices of Israeli sabras and Russian immigrants; and voices of Christians and Muslims along with voices of Jews.

Hearing multiple voices – and the diversity of perspectives they articulate – is necessary for two reasons. First, it more accurately reflects the realities on the ground in Israel, helping students understand the varied people and communities that make up its population. Second, it is essential for helping American Jews understand how their own developing beliefs and positions about Israel fit into a larger spectrum of ideas and opinions, and how those ideas are playing out in the election and its aftermath.

Including multiple voices can often feel fraught. Which voices are legitimate to include? Which voices are safe for students to hear? Democratic elections project a cacophony of voices. Our job as educators is to reflect this reality to students, to allow them to see and hear voices that support their own beliefs – whatever those beliefs may be – as well as challenge those beliefs. Although the particular range of voices selected may be different in different Jewish educational settings, all Jewish educational institutions must help students understand the multi-vocal nature of Israeli democracy.

2. Multiple Visions

Students must also learn about multiple visions Jews and Israelis have had for Israel. When Israelis went to the polls, they each voted in support of their particular vision of what Israel is, and what it should be. It is important to contextualize these competing visions of Israel within the millennia of conversations about the Israel shel maalah of dreams and prayers, and the Israel shel matah of the realpolitik. It means exploring with students different iterations of Israel over time and different manifestations of Israel today, most importantly Israel as a Jewish country and Israel as a home to all of its citizens.

Introducing students to multiple visions of Israel is essential for two reasons. First, it highlights the multiple values that compete for attention – on election day and every other day – in the political arena and in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. Second, it helps students understand the larger contexts in which current events occur.

This approach challenges educators to explain multiple visions of Israel, including ones that we might personally find frightening or distasteful. Yet if we want students to comfortably and confidently take part in conversations about Israel, we must acknowledge that the discourse in which they will engage can be unsettling and uncomfortable. Presenting our students with a range of visions will allow them to practice and prepare for taking their place in the conversation.

3. Multiple Venues

While many American Jews were riveted by the Israeli elections, not everyone is interested in politics. Even if we engage students in multi-vocal, “multi-visioned” conversations about the elections, not all students will be drawn into meaningful engagement with Israel. Therefore, it is incumbent upon educators to offer multiple venues for learners to enter into relationship with Israel. This means that Israel education must involve teaching about Israel from multiple disciplinary perspectives including history, literature, music and art, Hebrew language, Zionist philosophy, and political science, both in the classroom and beyond.

Talking about Israel must include, but cannot be limited to, talk of politics and elections (or any other single facet of Israel). Teaching about Israel through multiple approaches provides students different entry points into meaningful conversations. This allows any student – whether she is passionate about poetry or politics, photography or prayer – to find a space where they can where they can be learning about Israel. It also allows learners to see varied facets of Israel: past and present, political and social, imagined and real.

A multi-disciplinary approach requires time and coordination with colleagues. But it also offers us a chance to learn about new subjects and approaches, demanding that we push ourselves – as we push our students – to broaden the voices and visions with which we engage.

While the recent election is undeniably important, and may be the current focus of educators’ planning, deliberations about how to teach and talk about Israel must stretch long past the weeks of coalition-building that lie ahead. We can respond best to the need for immediate conversations only when we approach them deliberately and through a thoughtful, ongoing framework.

Sivan Zakai is Assistant Professor of Education and Director of Israel Education Initiatives at American Jewish University. Lauren Applebaum is Director of Clinical Education and Professional Development at AJU, and a doctoral candidate in education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Together, they direct the AJU Teaching Israel Fellowship, a year-long professional development program for Jewish educators who teach about Israel.