I’m in the middle of an Executive Masters program from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion to get a Masters in Religious Education. It’s a great program, I’m learning a ton, have made terrific connections with my cohort, and am feeling good about taking part in learning in a construct. As part of our program, this past January, we had a 2 week seminar in Israel–traveling the country with our cohort and the cohort ahead of us, looking at things through the lens of exploring multiple narratives of Israel. It was an unforgettable trip, and one that was different from any of my prior trips to Israel.
As our final project for that class, we had to write our “Israel Manifesto.” A statement of our concept of Israel education. It was a powerful assignment and a process that I think was important. I don’t think mine is perfect–I know it needs work and tweaking. But I like it as a start. And I thought it would be good to share.
When I was 15, like many a “product of the movement,” I traveled to Israel for the first time with NFTY, with the Camp Harlam trip. In our group journal that summer, my entry on the experience included the comment that before the trip, my view of Israel was textbookized, and that it had been transformed by traveling in the actual place, with my camp community. Reflecting back, I can identify that it is not the textbook version of Israel, a place of history and described Jewish identity, that I want to offer as the lens for Israel education. And I can also identify that my view of Israel from that trip was as much an idealized view, based on seeing it with camp friends, through a tourist’s lens—ignoring the subtleties, and (if I’m honest) paying as much attention (if not more) to the group dynamics on the bus as we paid to the dynamic history and living dynamics of the sites we were seeing. While that was surely a positive experience, and while I left that trip from Israel with the knowledge that would be the first and not the only trip I would make, I’m not sure it was the ideal lens, either—I’m not even sure how I’d define that particular narrative.
My NFTY in Israel trip, by the way, took place in the summer of 1988, the summer of the First Intifada; many of my peers who might have, did not join me that summer. But it wasn’t a question for my family. And from that, I learned that the Israel in the newspaper was also not the narrative that was the one that I was to believe as the true, full story of Israel. I also knew that I was traveling to Israel at a complicated time—it was many years later that I realized that any time is a complicated time in Israel.
Fast forward a few decades to the 2002 CCAR Convention in Jerusalem—what would have been my first CCAR Convention; my senior rabbi was going, so I couldn’t go. My parents were attending the conference, as well as many friends. And at the height of the start of the second intifada, I saw the news of the Cafe Moment bombing, and experienced for the first (and only) time the fear of having people I loved being in Israel during a time of terrorism. That is not to say that it was the only time that I have had people I care about be in Israel during times of terror—but that it was the only time I was fearful as a result. That momentary narrative was not one that lasted, but is one that I remember vividly. And that was a moment at which I understood the Israel that was the reality that persisted for many in the diaspora—the narrative that Israel is a place of war and terror, a place that is always unsafe. While the Israel I know is not that Israel, that was my glimpse at understanding that narrative.
It is, quite honestly, much easier for me to paint the narrative of Israel that I do not believe in teaching, than the narrative of Israel that I wish to present. I know it is not a war torn Israel that I want to teach, and that such is not a solitary image that is either true or helpful. I know that Israel is not monolithic, and that pretending that it is will not present an understanding that will add to the narrative of the Jewish people in a dynamic way. I know that it is not a magical fairy land Israel, or a Disney Land Israel, that I want to convey—the image of Israel that many adults seem to have of Israel as a wonderful place that can do no wrong, in which all Jews can thrive and be safe. While I’m not sure that such is the exact image that was portrayed for me as a child, I’m fairly certain that many of my teachers would not have objected to me coming away with that view—and even more certain that many of those teachers themselves had that view. And I’m just as uncomfortable with the more nuanced version of that attitude that while Israel is not perfect, we shouldn’t talk about the non-perfect parts of Israel. I firmly believe that we can’t form real relationship with idealized notions—and that relationship should be one of our primary goals. In order to have relationship, there must be nuance—there must be a recognition of flaws. And, on the other side of that balance, Israel can also not be portrayed as being bad. As nuanced my expectations about the positive portrayal of Israel, my hope is that the negative, and even problematic, aspects of Israel will also not be the solitary, or even primary focus of education.
I seek an Israel education that presents diversity. True diversity. Not just diversity in name, by offering Sephardic and Ashkenazic narratives of Israel, but also one that offers a fuller picture that offers Mizrachi narratives, so that more knowledgeable Jews know that there are Arabic speaking Jews. And so that Muslims and Christians are part of the story of Israel that Jews learn when they learn about Israel. It is important for us to educate about a comprehensive and nuanced Israel—in all of its aspects. Anything more than a surface engagement cannot exist without this. As Evan Traylor, Presidential Fellow for Millennial Engagement for the URJ, commented, “This idea of a comprehensive and nuanced Israel education is important. I don’t know of anyone in high school or college space that is really doing that.” Within the context of direct Israel experience, it is a missed opportunity to create these dynamic moments. As Traylor points out, “Thinking comprehensively: if we offer a comprehensive, nuanced picture of Israel, then we also need to delve into the parts that are often left out.”
In Israel trips, it is vital to include diverse pictures of Israel in the schedule. A trip must include visits to places like the Yad B’Yad School in Wadi Ara, to hear about the successes and challenges of parallel education of Arab and Jewish children in the only such school in an Arab town in Israel. A trip must include meeting people who work, teach, and learn there or in similar settings. A trip must include a visit to places like the Kiryat Ono Haredi Campus to hear from Orthodox Jews who are sharing a narrative that is not typical of the ultra Orthodox narrative with which many Reform Jews are familiar. A trip must include opportunities like the graffiti tour of Tel Aviv, to see the evolving messages of modern Israel and how that tale continues to be told—and how race and economics continue to have an impact on the story of that city. None of those experiences themselves must be a part of the experience—but experiences like them, which allow for different stories to be told and heard, must be considered in the creation of any Israel trip.
I would even consider the idea that an organized, Jewish trip to Israel should include a trip to the West Bank. I feel it is vital for diaspora Jews to understand the impact of the settlements, and to see the dichotomy between the Jewish settlements and the Palestinian towns that are beside them. I also feel it is vital for Jews in the diaspora to meet individuals in the Palestinian territories and hear their stories and further understand that narrative and its complicated history. When American (and other diaspora) Jews visit Hebron, East Jerusalem, and other non-Jewish areas, in programs that allow them to interact with Christians and Muslims in dialogue and conversation, the overall education about Israel is enhanced. And the experiences should not be one sided. It is equally important to engage in dialogue with someone who lives in the settlements, in order to hear from that point of view, and to hear that aspect of the narrative, as well. I realize that these opportunities are not realistic for every American—but I believe that we should strive for these opportunities for every American Jew who visits Israel.
The greater question, because travel to Israel is not a possibility for all of those we teach (however much we want it to be) is what Israel education looks like at home, for those that have not visited Israel, and may not visit Israel. Dana Berman, the shlichah for Delawre, commented, “The relationship part is big. It shouldn’t be taught in a history class like something that happened in a faraway country. It should happen with people, like Israelis in the community…With each age group the answer will be different. It should be relevant to the person in front of you. Also to what interests the person learning. There should be content that speaks to both the person with the connection at home and the one without.” Ideally, the education we do in the diaspora is relevant to those who already have the relationship and those who do not. In order to do so, we must teach on multiple levels, and through multiple narratives.
Traylor touched on this, as well, in speaking of utilizing peoples’ interests as a doorway towards Israel engagement, “If they are passionate about immigration rights. Starting with what’s the connection between Israel and immigration rights, creating a door to broader, comprehensive engagement in Israel.” Which also leads to presenting an Israel, particularly to teens and adults, that is about complexities, but not just about the conflict. As he said, “What I’d love to see expanded…and have those informal conversations and cultural understandings—and expand that to have intentional spaces for conversation about the more challenging issues, societal and political: not jut Israel/Palestine/2 state solution, but also pluralism, immigration, etc. Also, more than just Women of the Wall, but other areas that the rabbinate has control over. In some ways, there’s not enough programming on political issues. But then people get tired of political issues, so it reverts back to shwarma and falafel. It needs to be about creating a balance of programs that are both comprehensive and nuanced.” He further points out that Israel must be part of our concern for tikkun olam, and that we support Israel in a way that is genuine, while not alienating other areas of repair work.
Berman pointed to a similar idea, in talking about the success she has seen in programming around ideas that are difficult, “The Yom HaZikaron service we had here (was an excellent example of Israel education). Phenomenal opportunity (in bringing Israeli teens to Delaware, and holding a memorial service) because it’s easier to explain happy things and harder to convince teens to take part in mourning something sad, especially not theirs. But the opportunity to bring Israeli teens here was important, and they were able to connect outside of the official hours, and spent time together, and they’re still in touch. And talking about experience. We brought video clip of a mom from Arad, which allowed the group to feel the pain—it’s harder to describe that if it isn’t yours.” It is so easy to shy away from challenge and difficulty, and yet we cannot. Berman further explains this challenge and the necessity to meet it, “[For many North American Jews in regard to Israel, there is a] lack of interest–some people are just oblivious or just don’t care. I have my world and classes and after school programs and don’t get why it matters. In later years the younger crowd hasn’t heard a well rounded story of Israel and don’t feel comfortable, and may become anti. It’s a painful spot for many Jews, including myself.” Indeed, if we do not tell a well rounded story of Israel, then our students have not heard it and have not learned it. They have not developed the nuanced relationship that can allow for them to ask healthy questions and challenge difficulties. They are more likely to turn away.
As Barry Chazan points out, “Israel today lends itself to diverse vantage points, perspectives, and tellings of the story. Indeed, the diverse pictures of Israel are in some ways the essence of life in Israel. The richness of Israel is that everyone is a narrator and everyone is a photographer.” The Israel education that we provide must allow our students to engage as narrators and as photographers as they discover their own perspective, through our guidance. As Robbie Gingras taught us, it is through Convictions, Connections, Content, and Conversation that this learning can take place. We must be careful to include each of these at different levels of learning.
The challenge remains of how to help our teachers to reframe their own narrative, or to at least recognize that other frames exist. But the fact remains that in order to form a real relationship, and a deep level of engagement, a comprehensive Israel education, with diverse narratives presented, must exist. There must be opportunities to meet Israelis and hear their stories. There must be the chance to eat the food and hear the music—but also to engage in difficult conversations. The challenges should not be ignored. But they should also not be the only focus. We do not want our teens to go to college and hear from an anti-Israel advocate some of Israel’s imperfections—and wonder about how much else we’ve lied to them about. We also want for them to be able to speak intelligently about the conflict when presented with that conversation. And, in this age in which antisemitism and antizionism seem to go hand in hand, and in which antisemitism seems to be increasing at an alarming speed, we must help our young people be ready to answer the challenge.
This isn’t easy. None of this is easy. But it’s Israel—it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s a country that’s named after struggle, after all. How can educating about that struggle—and embracing that struggle—be any easier?
Berman, Dana, Delaware Shlichah, Interview: January 17, 2017.
Chazan, Barry, “Diverse Narratives,” 2015.
Traylor, Evan, Presidential Fellow for Millennial Engagement, Union for Reform Judaism, Interview: January 26, 2017.