Teaching the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Why Wrestling with Israel Belongs in American Jewish Education

photo - mapBy Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

I would like to begin by thanking eJewish Philanthropy for providing space for these important conversations about Israel education. Just as the Jewish community holds many diverse ideas about Israel, so too do we differ on how we should educate our community’s children about Israel.

I also appreciate that Dr. Stuart Zweiter took the time to write a thoughtful critique of the curriculum I wrote, Reframing Israel: Teaching Kids to Think Critically About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I often use resources produced by the Lookstein Center, the center he directs at Bar Ilan University, in my work as a congregational rabbi.

I believe that we share some significant common goals. We want Jewish educators to immerse their students in Jewish tradition and practice, as well as to develop a commitment to Jewish community. We want them to engage their students in an exploration of their connections to Israel. And we want them to prioritize the little time they have so that Jewish learning can be compelling for American Jews.

Obviously, though, we have several disagreements. I would like to respond to two main points in his article: 1) the Reframing Israel curriculum spends too much time focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and 2) the curriculum is overly biased.

The importance of focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jewish education

Dr. Zweiter is correct that one main trajectory of the Reframing Israel curriculum is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; about half of the key points and learning activities speak to this issue in some way. Most congregations are using only parts of this curriculum to supplement their Israel education program, since so few other curricula focus on the conflict at all. But for the congregations that are using it as a stand-alone Israel curriculum, many lessons will indeed focus on various aspects of the conflict.

Why should we focus on teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Because American Jews are struggling with how they relate to Israel and understand the conflict, as well as how they identify with the larger Jewish community’s fervent support for Israel.

In the twentieth century supporting Israel became a kind of religion for American Jews, the last real expression of ethnic Judaism. Even Jews who were marginally involved in Jewish communities largely supported Israel. Still today Jewish leaders are free to challenge essentially any part of Jewish religious practice, but they encounter stiff resistance if they question Israel’s actions, because they are crossing a sacred line.

But our community is changing. As increasing numbers of young, liberal Jews see images of violence in Israel and the occupied territories and they read articles critical of Israel’s role in the conflict, they cannot square their beliefs in civil rights, human rights, and democracy with the policies of the Israeli government. They question not only the government but also the core principles of Zionism. When students bring these concerns into the classroom, teachers often brush them aside or explain to them why they are wrong. Unconvinced and disappointed, some of these young Jews simply lose interest in being Jewish or being involved in the Jewish community.

As a congregational rabbi I frequently watch this phenomenon play out. Parents tell me how their kids are reluctant to voice their opinions at Jewish summer camp and Hebrew high school. New members acknowledge that they would have never considered joining a congregation but when they found out that ours tolerated – and even invited – a wide range of discourse on Israel they decided to try again. College students confess to me that they are so confused about their attitudes towards Israel because they have never had an opportunity to ask challenging questions.

Our students are growing up in a Jewish community that is becoming increasingly fractured and intolerant of diverse viewpoints. American Jews are often unable to have thoughtful, well-reasoned, self-reflective conversations with each other, so they assiduously avoid them. Rabbis shy away from the issue because it is so divisive in their congregations. One reason for low affiliation rates among some young Jews is that their questions, challenges, and critiques are not welcome when it comes to Israel.

Given that our community is so divided, and our children and teenagers are often exposed to frightening images of the conflict in the media, shouldn’t we give them the skills they need to engage deeply with these difficult issues? Shouldn’t we help them navigate the complexity of their world and define Jewishness and Jewish community for themselves?

Wrestling with Israel is a core piece of Jewish identity, and by struggling together to grapple with these issues students can learn that Jewish identity is rich, challenging, painful, exciting, and meaningful.

The difference between overly biased and putting forth a minority perspective

Every curriculum is based on particular political perspectives. What makes Reframing Israel different is that it discusses these perspectives up front so that educators can decide whether it is an appropriate resource to use with their students.

Almost every Jewish curriculum on Israel I have read starts from the premise that Jews should support Israel. Does this mean that these curricula are biased? They flow from a particular belief system that has been widely adopted in the Jewish community, so the political perspectives upon which they are based are almost invisible.

Reframing Israel starts from a different perspective. It affirms the flourishing of Jewish life in Israel, the deep religious significance of the land, the revival of Hebrew language and culture, and the diversity of Jews and Jewish religious expression.

Given that Jewish Israelis live alongside Palestinians, and that Israel is a modern nation-state, it also emphasizes the following principles: 1) All people living in the region deserve to be treated equally and with respect. They have a right to safety and a dignified life. 2) State and civil institutions should uphold universal human rights, international law, and democratic systems of governance. 3) Violence against civilians is morally unacceptable. 4) A just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible.

These are minority perspectives within Jewish communal institutions, but they are shared by many American Jews. Let’s welcome these Jews into our conversations and communities, and let’s create educational opportunities that include diverse perspectives.

Laurie Zimmerman is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin and the author of “Reframing Israel: Teaching Kids to Think Critically About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

[eJP note: All further discussion on the Reframing Israel curriculum should be limited to the comments section of the respective post. We will not be accepting new stand-alone responses.]