The Imperative of Israel Education

by Matthew Ackerman

A fascinating discussion on Israel education recently concluded on Lookjed, an online forum hosted by The Lookstein Center at Bar-Ilan University.

The discussion was prompted by Stuart Zweiter, the Center’s director, in response to a challenge put to him by Natan Sharansky over how well American Jews are prepared to defend Israel against defamatory charges, as well as a couple of incidents (a Jewish day school whose students “love Israelis but not Israel,” the recently failed attempt to boycott Israeli hummus at Princeton) that raised for him questions about how Israel is being taught in Jewish schools.

The first person to respond complained about the course on Zionism he had taken at a “Modern Orthodox Yeshiva high school” where religious Zionism was the only version taught, and that in a fairly aggressive manner. He concluded, “A balanced curriculum is needed, where a voice is given to opposing actors, and even anti-Zionists. This is because certainty is a fragile thing: an untested Zionism is like a toddler with an ice cream.” Yitzchak Mansdorf from Midreshet Lindenbaum later wrote, “I am still amazed at the phenomenal lack of basic knowledge some students have regarding Israel after high school… They have little to no preparation related to the notion of Israel as ‘Jewish’ state. And they inevitably have an awakening when they begin to realize that many of the social and political dilemmas that find expression in the media and on campus are issues that we Israelis deal with all the time.” And the discussion was off from there.

Perhaps most notably, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that Israel is currently taught in a largely superficial and perfunctory manner in American Jewish schools. (This was probably best summarized by Alex Pomson, who quoted from studies he helped compile for the Melton Center at Hebrew University, “Israel education in day schools lacks clear educational purpose… and is bombarded by a confusion of initiatives that purport to solve the disconnect between American Jewish youth and the State of Israel.”) For some, like Michael Berkowitz, this isn’t a problem. He wrote that “anything more than a cursory knowledge of Israel” is unnecessary since everyone knows the “basic facts” and these are sufficient to know who the “Good Guys” and the “Bad Guys” are. If there is something preventing students from speaking out in defense of Israel, it has therefore to do with something other than ignorance.

On similar lines, Jay Goldmintz, Headmaster of the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan, wondered about “priorities,” noting that schools have many other things to teach (Gemara, halakha, Tanakh) to students who will face moral challenges in high school and their lives beyond that in many ways cut deeper than the political issues swirling around Israel.

Most, however, seemed to agree that there is a problem in the current manner Israel is taught, with Wally Greene opening a side-issue on the problem of American gap year students in Israel who live largely in a bubble, without any substantive exposure to Tel Aviv and the wider, daily life of the Jewish state. Everyone who agreed on the problem also agreed that its solution included education in Israel and Zionism that was broader than usually considered, including different perspectives on the meaning of the Jewish state. This was summarized well by Zweiter, who acknowledged “that serious and systematic Israel education” in high school will be, like education in any topic, mostly an introduction to hopefully a lifetime of further learning, but that does not absolve schools from their responsibility of approaching the issue thoroughly and with a host of resources, as school’s choices about what they teach at a minimum tells students “what is most important to know.”

This much agreement on anything by this broad a range of thoughtful and experienced voices deserves serious consideration. It also, of course, is part of a broader trend of a deepening recognition of the seriousness of the issues surrounding the way Jews in America talk about Israel, a front-line of which it should be understood by all is our Jewish day schools.

Clearly, we at The David Project believe that Israel education needs to be handled much more systematically and with a broader range of perspectives than it is usually treated, and we’ve worked hard to develop curricula toward that end. In everything we do, we also try to present issues in as much complexity as different forums allows, giving the people we work with the opportunity to wrestle with the fascinating topic that Zionism is.

But I think it’s important to have in mind a direction for this kind of education, and to be clear and unapologetic about that goal. We need to teach Israel better not because, as some who are better left unnamed have inexpertly argued, we can no longer cover up the many ways in which modern Israel allegedly tramples on liberal ideals, but because we show how much we truly care about something in the focus we put on having our children understand it. Imperfect just as any other state, there is nevertheless no fact about Zionism or Israel that we need fear. We should teach our young people all of it as well as we can, first and foremost, because that kind of education is in itself an act of love.

The end, however, should be clear. A moral education that does not aim to ultimately help its charges become moral individuals is really nothing of the sort. An Israel education that doesn’t seek to impart pride and a sense of connection to Israel, along with equipping students with the tools to defend the Jewish state against the legion of unjust charges regularly hurled at it, is similarly lacking. On this point, we need to be clear. Otherwise our students won’t be.

Of course, none of this, done as it should be done, will be easy. It means more investment of school resources at a time when tuition affordability (and even that of a Jewish life) is increasingly in crisis. It means doing more than occasional school assemblies or mentioning Israel during school events. It might mean, even, teaching a bit less religious coursework in favor of teaching more about the secular ideas of Israel’s founders, or giving less time to SAT prep and more to Zionist history. If we want to be secure in the knowledge that this time we did all we could to combat a political scourge afflicting the Jewish people, they are the tradeoffs we’ll have to make.

Matthew Ackerman is Middle East analyst with The David Project.