Teaching Israel When Israel is at War

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Crossing the internet are two prayers. One is a prayer for Israel’s soldiers. The other is a prayer for the civilians of Gaza. Both are recommended as the way for teachers to begin their classes.

The problem is not that one is being asked to choose between these two prayers. Supporting both wishes is not a problem. Prayers for safety can’t be too many. And the problem is not that prayer seems to be the major response to War. Prayer is a good response to War. The problem is that this seems to be the only major public response besides a zillion causes to join on Facebook.

There is of course a need to teach “The War.” Explaining the background and context of the fighting is probably obligatory. Some teachers in some schools will teach the situation one way, some will teach it the other. My purpose here is not to argue for either Sderot or for the Palestinian population. Great teaching will make both of these “siduations” clear. The argument I want to make here is something else. That is, now is a time when we must teach about Israel, build connection to Israel, and to help our students understand that Israel is important in our lives. This is not a statement of Israel right or wrong. It is rather an expression of what I learned from Steven M. Cohen, that “We must teach that one can both love Israel and disagree with some of Her actions.” Do not take this as a statement that I think that Israel Gaza’s campaign is wrong. My reactions are actually more complex and not important to our discussion anyway. Do not take it as a statement of an expectation that students are going to flock to class with all kinds of expression of outrage at Israel’s actions. (That would actually be a great starting point—because the discussion would flow.)

My great fear is that the War, and the school with forty mainly women and children dead, and the general confusion of conflicting truths are perfectly good reasons to care less about Israel because it is too confusing, too complex, too far from our students’ experience. What scares me is not either position on who is wrong, nor the understanding that there is enough wrong to go around, but complete ambivalence. What I care about is caring about Israel.

In 1975 I was a brand new youth director at North Shore Congregation Israel, in Glencoe Illinois. Yom Kippur came. The War came. And I of a sudden I had a couple of hundred kids working the streets and going door to door collecting money for Mogen David Adom. That story is ancient history. It is as long ago as the rotary dial telephone. We live in a universe with different physics. We know that many of our families have little or no feeling about Israel. We know that the same is true of many of our kids.

Because Israel is at War, we need to be shouting “you are connected to Israel.” “You have a relationship with Israel.” “Israel’s future impacts your future.” Now is the time to emphasize knowledge about Israel, Zionist (or post-Zionist) ideology, and simple family relationships. You can teach “The War” or not teach “The War,” but you need to teach “the love.” I would hope that students can locate Gaza on the map. I wish that Tzipi Livni, Benyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Mahmud Abbas, Tzahal, Hamas, and Hezbollah were part of their vocabulary. It is easy to create a taxonomy of objectives for teaching “The War,” for explaining “the situation.” Matzav is a good vocabulary word.

But what I really want is this. I at least want them to care about Israel the way that I care about Boston sports teams. I never go to games. I live in Los Angeles but grew up in Boston. I have family in Boston. Boston is sort of my homeland. I don’t watch games of any kind on TV. But as the season comes to an end, I know if a Boston team is near the top. If Boston moves into the post season, I begin to know the scores. If they are in a super bowl, world series, or championship, I will probably watch some if not all of the games. Ideally, I’d want our students to care more about Israel than I care about the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics. But at the very least I want Israel to be for our students what Boston sports is in my life. I want them to care about the outcome.

So now is a time to make falafel and sing “Im Tirtzu.” We need to be dancing “Hinei Mah Tov u’Mah Nayim” and “Mah Na’avu.” Students should be finding Haifa on the map and learning that Ben Gurion like to stand on his head cause he thought it was good for his health. What we need to be doing is teaching Israel more than ever. And, if we do so, the questions about The War will come, and we will be able to answer them the way we want to answer them, providing we add, “And you are still connect to the land, people, and Nation of Israel—no matter how you feel about some of her actions.