The Case for Rigorous Israel Education for High School Students
By Marci Borenstein and Rachel Fish
As Israel approaches her 70th birthday as a modern nation-state we are given an opportunity to reflect on her growth, the changing dynamics within Israeli society, a thriving and maturing Hebrew culture that fuses eastern and western influences and a history that has had a profound impact on the region of the Middle East, international politics and the global Jewish community.
As we consider the ways in which Israel enters the educational framing of our young people, many educators observe that our children do not have an opportunity to engage in sophisticated Israel education whether in a day school environment, a supplemental Jewish educational framework or in our nation’s public school classrooms.
Unfortunately, many students enter higher education lacking foundational knowledge about Israel and have only a superficial background on Israel. This is compounded by the realities of the twenty-first century campus life which is increasingly marked by identity politics. Students attempt to silence ideas and voices that do not align with their own worldviews. The ideal of the university serving as the marketplace of free ideas is beginning to diminish. As a result of the current cultural climate on campus, Israel, far too often, falls prey.
Brandeis University recognizes the need to work with high school students and provide a “brave space” for high school aged students to think about Israel in a complex manner. The Office of Precollege Programs and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies has collaborated the past two years on developing a Young Leaders Seminar on Israel Studies. Students from a variety of backgrounds- religiously affiliated, secular, small Jewish communities, large metropolitan areas, those who have traveled to Israel and those who dream of traveling to Israel one day, to engage in sophisticated and nuanced conversations about Israeli history, society, politics, culture, peoples, and identities void of advocacy. We expose students to substantial content about Israel helping to inform their knowledge and engage in serious critical thinking while simultaneously informing their passions and identity.
Many high school students are taken aback by the discourse on campus with respect to Israel. In the last few months, professors and social scientists have articulated that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has not been having its desired impact on campus. Most campuses have marginalized the movement rather than the advancement of its intended outcome of boycotting Israeli companies and academic institutions. According to some social scientific research Jewish students on campus are not experiencing anti-Semitism and are quite comfortable outwardly demonstrating their Jewish identity and support for Israel on campus. Yet less than a year and a half ago previous research contradicted the aforementioned results suggesting that the BDS movement spurred the growth of anti-Semitism on campus.
So which is true? Are campuses rampant with advocates of BDS and are Jewish students silenced for their support of Israel on campus, or are detractors of Israel receiving more publicity from those that squelch BDS activities? Of course the answer is somewhere in the murky middle. Not one BDS resolution has been successful at the level of the university administration, meaning no University President has supported BDS activities but rather quite the opposite. Despite several student government resolutions supporting BDS, university administrations have marginalized these actions, if not completely ignored them. Each campus is unique and the particular campus climate dictates the students’ reactions and willingness or reluctance to engage in the Israel discourse.
So, how is BDS obtaining success? We suggest that the BDS framework puts students on the defensive and their talking points are in terms of those who detract from Israel’s complexity and nuance. BDS polarizes the campus community, and in an age of intersectionality, BDS is utilized as a tool against Israel and her supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, liberal and conservative. In this era of identity politics, students who are the ‘other’ are deemed legitimate to work together in order to elevate their particular concern whether related to gender, race, feminism, immigrant status or socio-economic class. The only group excluded from this collaboration are self-identified Zionists. This reality was most evident during the Dyke march in Chicago and with the feminist marches where Zionists were considered beyond the pale of progressive politics.
We would argue that the long-term cost of BDS is students find themselves shirking opportunities to engage in conversations about Israel and silencing voices because it is deemed too polarizing, highly polemical and attracts the extremes on each side. The vast majority, in the middle, want to get through their course work, enjoy extracurricular campus life- sports, Greek life, clubs, and engage in social justice work and internship opportunities. We work with students on college campuses across the United States and hear regularly from Jewish students that they avoid the Israel conversation because it “Just isn’t cool to talk about Israel.” These are precisely the students we, educators, seek to engage with and provide opportunities for learning.
As a means to counter the effects and impact of BDS much energy and financial support has been channeled into ensuring that university age students experience Israel through initiatives such as Birthright Israel and student organizations dedicated to Israel educational programming and advocacy. These initiatives are important and valuable. However, Israel engagement ought to begin at a younger age prior to a student stepping foot on the campus quad and navigating campus politics.
The Young Leaders Seminar exposes high school students to Israel Studies faculty who share their expertise about Israel through substantive content. The mentors to the high school students are advanced graduate students who are skilled facilitators and benefit from the training of Resetting the Table. The backdrops for their exploration of Israeli society and history are the university lecture halls and the library where students explore Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State via the scaffolding of Zionism, Hebrew literature, Palestinian and Israeli art, and Hebrew and Israeli culture through the lens of music, film and television. Project based learning is a central component of the five-day program allowing students to take ownership of their learning and become “expert” in a particular cultural artifact.
The students demonstrate their knowledge to their peers, faculty mentors and academics by presenting the content they curate in a poster session that coincides with the Schusterman Center’s Summer Institute for Israel Studies program for faculty. Faculty members affiliated with the Summer Institute attended the Young Leaders Seminar poster session this past summer and told us that they appreciated the strong educational model they observed, indeed, some have even adapted this pedagogical approach in their own college classroom.
What has been astonishing is to witness the power of this seminar on our high school students. In five days, students from diverse backgrounds begin cultivating meaningful friendships with peers resulting in navigating challenging conversations. Students engage with intellectual ideas that they are not regularly exposed to in their home communities or educational environments and they do so with enthusiasm, curiosity and healthy vulnerability.
As we teach these students we remind them that we want their sentences ending with question marks rather than exclamation points. The more questions that emerge the more they are beginning to comprehend the complexity and nuance of Israeli society. One example that particularly resonated with us was a young woman from the Bay area who attends a liberal, pluralistic day school declaring early in the week that she wasn’t comfortable with Palestinian nationalism. In conversations with us she shared with us how she proudly subscribes to the AIPAC approach and despite some pressures in her school she felt confident in her self-identified “right of center” positions toward Israel. During the project-based learning aspect of the Young Leaders Seminar this same student decided, along with her group comprised of two other students, that they would study Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry. Darwish is regarded as the Palestinian national poet and his writings are crucial in understanding identity formation of the Palestinian people. Darwish’s writings can be challenging to read, not only because of the depth of his literary expression, but also because his writings express deep conviction for the concept of watan, or homeland, and what it means to be exiled from that beloved location and territory. Needless to say, for this young Jewish woman the writings of Darwish were eye-opening as she was exposed to a love of land, desire for return, and a narrative that ran parallel to the Zionist dream. She was moved. She was moved to want to learn more about Darwish, his poetry, and the formation of Palestinian identity alongside Zionism and national formation of the Jewish people. It became apparent to this student that the Zionist and Palestinian narratives run parallel to one another and both are needed to gain greater appreciation and complexity of the realities.
It is these educational moments that we know that we are successfully providing an opportunity to young people, before they step foot on the campus quad, to engage in serious learning about Israel, Israeli history and the complex relationship and interactions between Jews and Arabs in this territory, in a space that demands academic rigor, curiosity, an appreciation for historical contexts and a desire to learn more while feeling confident to express views. As the young woman from Palo Alto told us, “As a result of what I experienced at Young Leaders Seminar, I am more open to discussing Israel with people that do not agree with me, and I am more prepared to truly listen and consider what these people have to say. I recognize that one, I cannot shy away from hearing or reading offensive materials about Israel with which I disagree, and two, that understanding ‘the other side’ does not threaten my own beliefs.” This is our primary educational goal and we invite you to be a part of this journey.
Thanks to a generous donor, we are able to offer full and partial scholarships to interested high school students to participate in the seminar. Applications are available here.
Marci Borenstein, PhD, is the Director of Precollege Programs at Brandeis University and Rachel Fish, PhD, is the Associate Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.