Teaching Israel in a time of war

My 5-year-old son regularly expresses how happy he is to know that America is helping Israel and making sure the people there are safe. 

My 9 year old asks for regular updates on the hostages, and like all of us wants to know when they are coming home. 

The other night, my seven year old asked me, “When Israel bombs a building in Gaza, what happens to the people inside?” 

Their thoughts mirror the ideas that have preoccupied us all in the last few months. 

I have been an Israel educator for the past 15 years and have taught people of all ages about the history of Israel and how we should talk about Israel. Never in my career have I faced a moment as difficult and as fraught as the tragic events of Oct. 7. I have found myself asking: What does it mean to teach about Israel in the shadow of war?

Over the past few months, I have taught about Israel to a wide variety of audiences, including elementary school students, high school students, and adults. These students bring a wide variety of perspectives and background knowledge. Getting to talk to so many people dealing with the war in various ways has helped me articulate three guiding principles that ought to shape our approach to Israel education.

  1. Anything can be taught to every student at some level.

This principle, first articulated by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, represents my deepest educational belief. Whether trying to teach calculus to a kindergartener or the ins and outs of the Palestinian-Israel conflict to eighth graders, I take for granted that there is some way to teach any topic. While our students might not be ready to look at a map of how the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank, they could engage authentically with some of the deepest questions about Israel and the conflict. 

Any time I design a lesson or course, I ask myself, “If I knew very little about the conflict, what would be the most important questions for me to answer?” I have organized my introductory class, designed to help those with little background understand the current moment as a set of questions including: Why does Israel exist? Where is Gaza? What is Hamas? What happened before Oct. 7? What happened on October 7? What has happened since?

For each question, I gave students the minimum information I thought they would need in order to be able to articulate true, authentic answers to those questions. These questions help students of all ages gain purchase and begin to discover their own pathway to studying Israel. 

  1. Learning about something can make it less scary and more accessible.

Most conversations about Israel education focus on how we can cultivate deep feelings of connection to Israel among our students, but it’s hard to connect to something that you know very little about. Educators need to build factual frameworks that allow students to organize and make sense of what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. These frameworks, when constructed thoughtfully, don’t scare or alienate students. On the contrary, they make connection possible.

For our youngest students, simply explaining where Israel is and describing the basics of the conflict (some people are fighting, some people have been hurt and the fighting is far away) can be enough. Children will then ask their own questions which provide opportunities for further discussion. Framing things this way validates children’s feelings that something serious is happening around them without getting into details. 

Upper elementary and middle school students can study Israel in greater depth and can find comfort in a factual framework. They can engage with and analyze primary sources, like the Hamas logo, and ask about the meaning of its component symbols, including a Palestinian flag, the Dome of the Rock, a map of Israel and a hand holding a gun. Learning about the details of the conflict helps our students feel more confident and calm rather than triggering anxiety or fear. Studying something through a factual, historical lens can empower and support students. 

  1. Strive for empathy and curiosity when you disagree with someone

We always must call out evil, and murdering innocent people is evil. When we study history, especially in an academic context, we quickly discover that only rarely are there simple answers. It is our job as educators to provide students with the tools they need to ask tough questions, seek out the information they want, and think critically to discover a nuanced truth.

This approach can be challenging. We must find a way to mourn our losses, show our love and support for Israel, and stand up for what is right. At the same time, it is essential to acknowledge and mourn the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians. Holding those two ideas in mind at the same time is not easy. Striving to remain curious and empathetic can be extraordinarily difficult. Nonetheless, we need to try. When we find ourselves feeling like the people who disagree with us are stupid or evil, we should take that as a sign that there is more to learn.

The months since Oct. 7 have been among the most challenging of my career as an educator. I don’t have easy answers about what should or could come next. Sometimes when I talk to friends and colleagues, they say, “Now is not the time for critical thinking about Israel.” I disagree. Engaging deeply with Israel can mean more than volunteering, donating or traveling there. Studying Israel and its history, talking to people with whom we may disagree and showing young people that we are all on a journey of understanding holds the key to a future where all people can live in peace. 

Jonah Hassenfeld is director of learning and teaching at Schechter Boston.