Toward an Israel Education of Direction, not Connection

If we are only concerned with connection, we will find ourselves asking irrelevant research questions, creating educational programs that speak to no one

By Alex Sinclair

The philosophical questions we’ve been asking ourselves about Israel education, the research we’ve been doing into it, the pedagogical techniques we’ve been exploring: they’re no longer relevant, and it’s time that we take a deep breath, recognize that fact, and think about what to do instead.

Israel education has been entirely focused on questions of connection. How do we connect young Jews to Israel? What kinds of educational and communal interventions best create connection? Are American Jews more or less connected to Israel than in the past?

But connection is no longer enough; we need to be talking about direction as well. By which I mean, Israel’s direction and how American Jews are responding to it – or should respond to it.

And now comes the part where I have to say some things that people won’t like. Israel is moving in a worrying, disturbing, depressing direction. Religiously, a fundamentalist Judaism that is utterly alien to mainstream American Jewry is taking increasing hold of the country’s institutions, communities, and ways of thinking. Politically, the parties on the right and center-right are more and more tribal, jingoistic, and dismissive of minority rights (whether these be Jewish or non-Jewish minorities). Culturally, while there is an extraordinary and breathtaking creativity in Israeli arts, cinema, TV, song, and literature, there is also a closed-mindedness, an inability to see opposing points of view, a peculiarly Israeli blend of arrogance and ignorance when it comes to anything outside the accepted narratives.

We should no longer be asking how to connect American Jews to this story. We need to ask how American Jews should respond to this story.

It is instructive to compare recent developments in American society and the reactions of the Jewish community thereto. After the Trump administration released its “Muslim ban” executive order in January 2017, most of the American Jewish community rose up as one to protest. My own institution, The Jewish Theological Seminary, published an extraordinary, brave, inspiring, unequivocal press release, headlined “We cannot be neutral.” JTS joined other institutions “in condemning President Trump’s executive order … which flies in the face of that biblical principle [of protecting the stranger] … We stand with those who have courageously protested this assault on our values … This is no time for neutrality.” The press release ended with a call to action: “We will not stand idly by, nor will we be silent in the face of this injustice.”

Faced with the immigration executive order, JTS – and the Jewish community – did not ask how to connect young Americans to the Trump administration. It did not wring its hands that American Jews felt alienated from their political leadership. And in recent months, as the cultural and political direction of the Trump administration has continued in a similar vein, the liberal American Jewish community is not grappling with how to increase the levels of connection between its constituents and its country’s leadership. On the contrary, it is rediscovering how activism, social action, vision, and ideology can be engines of communal growth and motivations for communal belonging.

We cannot, we must not, deny American Jews the space to develop similar responses to contemporary Israel. If we are only concerned with connection, we will find ourselves asking irrelevant research questions, creating educational programs that speak to no one, and fiddling while the Jewish state is burning.

Reimagining Israel education around responses to Israel’s direction will not be easy, it will require uncomfortable choices, and it will challenge many sacred cows. It will mean rethinking the goals, pedagogies, research questions, and training programs for Israel education from the ground up, across many contexts. It will not be popular with some. But it’s inevitable, and the sooner we start, the greater our chances of success.

What might this look like in practice?

In research, it will radically alter the questions we ask. Instead of asking about how and why Jews are or could be connected to Israel (which is basically the core question that underlies all Israel education research), we would ask how and why Jews can impact Israel’s current and future directions.

For pedagogy with children, it will mean rethinking the curricular resources we use, the questions we ask, and the lessons we design. For example, when kids learn about Israel’s Declaration of Independence, we’ll have them think about how to use it as a proof text for raising hard questions about Israel’s current policies. When we teach Israeli music, we’ll focus, in particular, on songs that grapple with societal, cultural, and political issues head on. Israel education will look more like an ideological, agenda-driven youth movement.

Programs for adults will shift to being centered on debate and discussion of Israel’s major questions with Israelis, and American Jews will be urged to make their voice and opinions heard. American Jews will no longer tolerate the line from Israelis, “You don’t live here, so you can’t fully understand our situation.” Instead, they will respond, “Maybe you can’t fully understand your own situation because you are too deeply immersed in it to have any perspective – so let’s talk about it in the spirit of true dialogue.”

Sure, I’d like American Jews have a connection to Israel. But right now it’s more important to encourage them to do something to change Israel’s current path. This is no time for neutrality.

Dr Alex Sinclair is director of programs in Israel Education and an adjunct assistant professor of Jewish Education for JTS. He is the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. He lives in Modiin, Israel.