The Greatest Challenge to Israel Education is Just Around the Corner

Photo by Cate Bligh on Unsplash

By Robbie Gringras

The greatest challenge to Israel Education is just around the corner, and we’re nowhere near ready. Softly-softly, under cover of Coronavirus, race riots, and threepeat elections in Israel, July 2020 is upon us. As promised constantly by Benjamin Netanyahu, and as outlined in the Peace to Prosperity plan from the White House, Israel is about to annex significant portions of the West Bank/apply sovereignty to significant portions of Judea and Samaria. The implications are profound, and yet many of us in Israel Education are still fiddling with the mute-all control on Zoom.

Many details are unclear, some don’t believe it will happen in the end, and the publicly-available maps are vague. Yet Prime Minister Netanyahu has been crystal clear about one thing: The Palestinians who currently live inside these soon-to-be annexed areas will not have a vote. Let’s be even clearer about what this means. These areas will not be a seemingly-temporary “Area C”: These areas will be officially and legally The State of Israel. And from July in the State of Israel, there will be thousands of Palestinians who have no vote, living next door to thousands of Jews who do have a vote.

This would be a permanent state of affairs: Israel-proper, not a seemingly-temporary military rule over disputed territory. This would be an Israeli choice, not a situation forced upon us by Palestinian intransigence. It will become nigh-on impossible for Israel advocates to parse the difference between critique of the decision, and critique of Israel itself since Israel itself will be changed by the decision.

This is no longer an issue of whether Judea and Samaria is our land. We must put out of our minds the discussion over whether the area is disputed or occupied or divinely-assigned territory. One might even go so far as to say that it is our land, and that of course the Jordan Valley should be recognized as being in the State of Israel: This does not address the question of peoples right to vote.

Israel Advocacy organizations such as the ADL have opposed annexation, and now AIPAC is briefing that it will not oppose critiquing the move. Even Benjamin Pogrund, who literally wrote the book on why Israel cannot be compared to apartheid-era South Africa, is in despair.

Whether or not one believes annexation/sovereignty is justified, we all must acknowledge it is a game-changer for Israel’s nature, and so it should also be a game-changer in Israel Education. It’s true that it might not happen on July 1st – but then again it just might. 2020 has been nothing if not surprising, and at least we can see this shock coming. It is for the activists and the politicians to work to influence the annexation/sovereignty decision itself. Irrespective of their efforts, it is for educators to prepare for the Prime Minister delivering on his promises. The mainstream must shift.

Hundreds of Jewish Studies academics have called out the move, but those of us who teach Jews to connect with Israel must now begin our own discourse.

When we teach about Israel, do we talk of a Jewish-Democratic State? When we teach about Israel, do we aim to build meaningful connections between our students and Israel?

How will these strategies work if the annexation/sovereignty plan goes through next month? We tend to grapple with the paradox of a Jewish-Democratic State in the context of religious freedom, conversions, and access to the Kotel. But how should we address the flat-out contradiction between democracy and a regime that does not allow a group of its “citizens” the right to vote? As Black Lives Matter reaches its moment, how will we answer our students’ questions about racism, and about the inevitably violent clashes that will hit our screens as the IDF enforces this plan?

Do we expect our students to avoid asking tough questions about what connection they should have – emotional, intellectual, moral – with a country whose democracy it has consciously decided to undermine?

And when these questions arise – as they will – how should we as educators respond to them?

Falling back on a “hugging and wrestling” stance will not suffice. To what extent will our students be open to embrace a country, or even to remain in a critical encounter with a country that so clearly rejects their own values?

Israel educators should bring learners into contact with Israel as she is, not as one might wish she were. Israel does indeed have many inspirational pluralists, peace activists, and cool artists our students could still meet, but these people are nowhere near the mainstream of 21st century Israel. It is true that surveys show a slight majority of Israelis are against the annexation, but a huge majority places the issue itself very low on their list of priorities. How will that play in a classroom of questioning teens?

These are not rhetorical questions. I myself do not know the answers. I think we need to talk about it.

Robbie Gringras is a British-born Israeli educator, writer, and performer. Since emigrating to Israel with a Literature degree from Oxford University, a teaching qualification, and his own theater company, he has trained hundreds of educators in generating honest complex connections to Israel. For several years he was the Creative Director of Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency, and now is in the middle of a Corona-induced break in an international tour of his new solo show “The Gate.”