The Complexity of “Complexity” in Israel Education

complexityby Alex Sinclair

“There will be fireworks,” I told the students. “You’re going to witness three totally different approaches to Israel education, and it will be fascinating to see how they disagree with each other.” I had invited representatives from three major Israel education organizations – the David Project, the iCenter, and Makom – to participate in a panel debate as part of Kesher Hadash, The Davidson School’s semester-in-Israel program. Kesher Hadash “prepares educators to transform the field of Israel education by developing a sophisticated love of Israel that is nurtured through immersion in and deep understanding of the complexities and nuances of Israeli life, culture, politics, and society,” and I hoped that the radical differences among these three organizations would be a significant contribution to my students’ professional development.

The fireworks, though, did not materialize. The three panelists seemed to agree with each other on almost everything. And there was one word that had them all nodding in particularly heated agreement: complexity. All three panelists thought that complexity was a good thing.

I knew that they didn’t all mean the same thing by the term complexity. Indeed, complexity has become such a buzzword in Israel education that it’s in danger of losing its meaning. In this essay, I’m going to present a “typology” of complexity that will help us as a field to become more sophisticated in our interpretation and use of the term. In preparing this paper, I searched the websites of five major organizations that deal with Israel education, including the three previously mentioned, Shalom Hartman Institute, and Encounter, for the terms complex or complexity in order to examine their usage. I present my findings and analysis below.

1. The David Project

The David Project is a nonprofit based in Boston that “positively shapes campus opinion on Israel by educating, training, and empowering student leaders to be thoughtful, strategic and persuasive advocates.” Let’s look at a couple of places on its website where the term complexity comes up:

  • [People should] be able to experience [Israel’s] specialness in person and to understand how complex Israel is while learning to properly handle this complexity.
  • The issue of Israeli settlements has generated intense public debate on campuses, in communities and in the international arena, reflecting a broad consensus that these communities are an obstacle to peace. Though often presented or discussed in simplistic terms, this is an extremely complex topic that requires greater nuance and context.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about how complexity appears here. First, it’s something that has to be “properly handled;” that is, it needs mediation and careful treatment. Secondly, Israel’s complexity is a tool that can be used in Israel advocacy. Anti-Israel critique is painted as being simplistic and therefore unsophisticated, whereas the reality is much more complex. Complexity, used this way, is a powerful arrow in the Israel advocate’s quiver. But one might critique this approach on the grounds that it’s valuable only, or primarily, in instrumental fashion. It doesn’t seem to be “complexity lishmah” (for its own sake). I will call this first approach to complexity “advocacy complexity.”

2. The iCenter

The iCenter, based in Chicago, is “dedicated to igniting a passion for and a commitment to Israel in the hearts and minds of young Jews.” Here are two quotes from its website:

  • Understanding these core narratives during their early years will enable our young to deal with conflicting narratives as they grow older. If they do not begin with core narratives as part of their youthful legacy, it will be difficult for them to intelligently deal with complex narratives as young adults. It is only after this context has been established for the learner that we can begin to broach more complex topics such as war or the current political and societal issues facing Israel.
  • Yes, there are complex issues, yes, we can be disappointed by some contemporary policies and behavior, but we still live in a time of “wonder and miracles.”

This approach differs from the first because complexity is seen not just in instrumental fashion, but as a genuine characteristic of the subject matter. Nevertheless, there’s a certain ambivalence about complexity. We can’t ignore it, but we are a little nervous about it: look at that “yes, but” in the second excerpt. Furthermore, complexity is seen as something that should be shared with the learner only after we are sure that the learner is already committed to Israel. When learners are young and/or just getting to know Israel, we have to make sure that they are committed to its “core narratives” and that they feel connected to Israel in general. Only then, when we’re sure that their identity is solid and “established,” can we reveal that things are actually more complicated than we may have first let on. This approach might be called the “love-first approach;” I’ve written elsewhere of some potential concerns and problems with this approach, but it’s certainly a very common theme in the field.

I call this second approach “ambivalent complexity.”

3. Makom

Makom, the Israel education think-tank housed within The Jewish Agency for Israel, “trains leaders and creates educational content to embrace the vibrant complexity of Israel: The People and the Place.” Its approach to complexity can already be seen in its “about us” statement, and here are a couple of other indicators from its website:

  • The developmental level of these conversations ranges from five years upwards, but the topics under discussion underlie some of the most adult and complex issues about Israel today. The discussions … are designed … to give you and your child the opportunity to develop a shared language that allows you to address complex ideas together.
  • The Israeli popular arts offer us a perfect tool and vehicle for Israel engagement. Celebrating complexity, embracing multi-vocality, touching both head and heart, the potential is huge.

In this approach, complexity is something to revel in, to celebrate, and not to be ambivalent about. The complexity of Israel is a characteristic of the country that actually makes it more attractive and interesting. Furthermore, complexity is something that can be taught and spoken about at any age; the Makom approach mirrors Jerome Bruner’s famous aphorism that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”

I call this approach “attractive complexity.” Notice the significant difference between attractive complexity and the previous approach, ambivalent complexity, and you can already begin to see why this typology is so important. Both Makom and the iCenter use the same term, but in different ways, with different educational assumptions and different educational implications. Educators whose Israel education vision is informed by attractive complexity will have different pedagogy, curriculum, and discourse from those whose vision is informed by ambivalent complexity. This typology is going to make us ask for further clarification the next time we hear someone talk about complexity in Israel education. But wait! Complexity gets even more complex.

4. Encounter

Encounter is “dedicated to strengthening the capacity of the Jewish people to be constructive agents of change in transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Its primary activities have in recent years taken place in Israel, although it now also has a growing North American presence. It speaks about complexity in yet another mode:

  • On our Middle East program, a pluralistic group of Jewish leaders meet Palestinian civilians and leaders in Bethlehem, Hebron, or East Jerusalem and engage in thoughtful conversation about the complexities of Israel and the conflict.
  • It was very difficult for me to suddenly be snapped into the world of complex ideas, of complex politics, but it was profoundly necessary for my personal development … [I seek to] fight for the sort of complicated worldview I now more-or-less hold after Bethlehem. I can try to ensure that people … think, and think hard, on their own about this issue.”

As with attractive complexity, we see here an approach that takes Israel’s complexities as an inherent and integral characteristic of the subject matter-but there is less celebration and more soul-searching. Complexity, the way Encounter frames it, requires hard, serious thought. It’s not always easy, it’s not always fun, but it is essential: Israel engagement without it isn’t true Israel engagement. I call this “anguished complexity.”

5. The Shalom Hartman Institute

The Shalom Hartman Institute is “a center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.” In recent years, one of its main programs has been its iEngage Project, whose goal is “to respond to growing feelings of disenchantment and disinterest toward Israel among an ever-increasing number of Jews worldwide by creating a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life.” The Hartman approach appears to contain another nuance on the notion of complexity:

The Hartman emphasis is a more academic one, aimed at truly understanding the complexities of modern Israel. The word complexity is often used in conjunction with the word explore, as in the above citation. This approach doesn’t have quite the same anguished feel as the Encounter approach, but it’s also rather more dispassionate than the Makom approach: it’s interested in understanding the subject matter somewhat academically, in the belief that exploring Israel’s complexities through the brain will ultimately lead to identity engagement and connection. I call this approach “analytic complexity.” (I’m grateful to Rabbi Joy Levitt for this term.)

6. My Own Approach

As part of this investigation, I analyzed my own use of the term complexity. This is a quotation from my recent book, Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism:

  • Passion, anger, and caring, when combined, create a model of empowerment that is essential for a dialogical approach to Israel engagement. Understand Israel’s complexity; listen to and get involved in its many complex conversations about compelling issues; become empowered to state your opinion in those conversations with passion, sometimes anger, and care (Sinclair: 2013, 47).

My own approach to Israel’s complexity has something of the attractive, the anguished, and the analytic, but I would add a further layer. For me, complexity on its own is never enough. It must always be a springboard for discussion, conversation, respectful argument, and ultimately, action. Once you understand Israel’s complexities, it’s only the beginning of the job. It’s your role as an engaged Diaspora Jew to articulate your own opinion on the complex issues at hand, and take action. The act of articulation itself, I contend, enriches identity and relationship with Israel. I therefore call my own approach to complexity “activist complexity.”

Advocacy complexity; ambivalent complexity; attractive complexity; anguished complexity; analytic complexity; and activist complexity. This typology can help us become more sophisticated readers of curricula, blogs, and educational visions in which the term is used. I’ll be doing more work on this typology in the months ahead; but for now, let me leave you with a couple of questions: Which kind of complexity speaks to you? Which feels right for your own philosophy of Israel education? These are the kinds of questions we encourage Kesher Hadash students to explore during their time in Israel; and they’re questions that I’d encourage us all to consider.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is director of Programs in Israel Education for the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. In this capacity he directs The Davidson School’s Kesher Hadash semester-in-Israel program, which prepares educators to transform the field of Israel Education by developing a sophisticated love of Israel that is nurtured through immersion in and deep understanding of the complexities and nuances of Israeli life, culture, politics and society.

Originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary.