Teaching Critical Thinking and the History of Israel

Israel educators need to ask themselves how much they really value critical thinking.

By Jonah Hassenfeld

Everyone seems to agree that teaching the history of Israel is “complicated” and requires “critical thinking.” But some of the loudest voices calling for “critical thinking” continue to offer accounts of Israel’s history that make critical thinking all but impossible.

Earlier this month, two researchers from the right wing Stand with Us, an Israel advocacy organization, published a scathing review of Reframing Israel, a new curriculum, by Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman. The curriculum, already in use in several Hebrew schools, hopes to “teach Jewish kids to think critically” about the conflict and exposes them “to both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives.”

The Stand with Us writers attack the historical overview included in Reframing Israel arguing that it “fails to encourage genuine critical thinking.” They’re right.

Reframing Israel slams Jewish educators that ask their students to accept the “assumptions of a pro-Israel position.” The problem is that its authors never question their own assumptions. Its historical overview lacks footnotes and contains no original documents – just the interpretations of the author. Without the original evidence essential for historical thinking, students have no choice but to accept or reject a predigested narrative. Reframing Israel prevents students from thinking historically and short-circuits their ability to form their own understanding of Israeli history.

Yet Stand with Us engages in the same tactics even as they wave the flag of “critical thinking.” The Stand with Us writers raise issues with Reframing Israel’s account of Israel’s history and replace it with one more to their liking. They, too, treat history as a done deal, rather than a contested story open to multiple viewpoints. Both Reframing Israel and the Stand with Us writers claim that they base their history on unquestionable facts, but they don’t provide readers any way to evaluate their claims.

Consider the discussion of the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. Both Reframing Israel and the Stand with Us writers claim that Benny Morris is on their side. But neither lets readers see enough of Morris’s argument to evaluate it. Instead, they cherry pick quotations from Morris that seem to support their account. Reframing Israel concludes, “The historical record is more in line with the Palestinian version of events.” The Stand with Us writers have a different perspective: “No systematic policy of expulsion was ever adopted or implemented by Israel.”

How should readers react to these claims? They can accept one or the other on faith or they can decide that history is just a matter of opinion. In neither case will they engage in critical thinking. To do that, they would need to know how the authors reached their conclusions. They would need access to original documents as well as the work of other historians. To know what to do with the documents, they would need some historical training.

If we want our students to think critically about Israel’s history, then, we need to teach them to think like historians. They must learn to ask tough questions about the sources of documents, they must corroborate between different documents, and they must situate those documents in the broader historical contexts that shed light on what they mean.

Although both Reframing Israel and the Stand with Us writers sing the praises of critical thinking, their historical accounts make critical thinking nearly impossible. Whether it comes from the right or the left, a historical account that needs to be accepted on faith can’t foster critical thinking.

Israel educators need to ask themselves how much they really value critical thinking. Some may decide that transmitting a particular narrative of Israel’s history takes precedence over teaching critical thinking. In this case, they can choose from the many curricula that exist and find a historical account to their liking.

But if Israel educators want students to think critically about Israel’s history, they cannot ask students to accept predigested narratives. They must train them in the techniques historians use to investigate the truth about the past. They must let students dive into the historical record and draw their own conclusions based on careful analysis of evidence. In some cases, their students may reach conclusions with which they disagree. Perhaps this is the price of critical thinking.

Jonah Hassenfeld is a PhD student in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University. He is a Jim Joseph fellow and Wexner fellow/Davidson scholar.