Teaching Israel without Politics Probably Isn’t Possible

In honor of Israel’s 60th birthday (and the upcoming publication of Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter) we’re going to be taking some space in the TAPBB to talk about some real Israel issues. This is the third in a series of essays about how Israel fits into the school curriculum.

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

One of the “big ideas” that is at the root of our Israel curricular work is:

“Israel education should not reflect a political point of view but should provide information on those issues that ideological points of view focus on.”

In other words, teachers should not teach Israel from a specific political point of view (e.g. Meretz or Likkud) but need to help students to understand both the actions of Israel and the rhetoric against Israel. This means that it is not the job of the teacher to say either, “Israel should not return any of the territories,” or “Israel should give back all of the territories.” Rather, in teaching Israel in most contexts, it is impossible to avoid the word “territories.”

For us, the real question is “How can we teach the real Israel while at the same time building a loving connection?” What do we do about politics, territories, terrorists, and inequality, when at the same time we want our students to think of Israel as their spiritual homeland?

As we’ve developed our most recent Israel materials — notably Whole School Israel and Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter — we’ve given a lot of thought to this issue, and e’ve identified two distinct challenges. First, teaching Israel is problematic because our students see Israel as a problematic place, and in the end, those problems are unavoidable. Second, teaching Israel is problematic because our students (and their families, perhaps) are apathetic. Here are our thoughts on addressing these challenges.

Some Israel courses should be intentionally political. Not political in the sense that they impose a specific political viewpoint, but political in the sense that they open up the situations that are in the news, that are the current areas of conflict within Israel and are between Israel and her neighbors. This is especially true of high school programs. The general rule is that the younger the students, the less a teacher should proactively open these areas. But, despite the great importance on planning and preparation, some of the best teaching is reactive, responding to student inquiries. The truth is, just as it is impossible to teach Bible, prayer and a lot of other subjects without encountering God questions, it is impossible to teach about Israel without encountering some people questions.

Students may ask things as naive as “Why does Israel fight so many wars?” or “Why can’t Israel just make peace with the Palestinians?” or “Why do Arabs hate us?” Older students may ask, “Why doesn’t Israel just pull back and allow a Palestinian state and be done with it?” Or, depending on whom they are talking to, “Why does Israel have to be cruel occupiers of the West Bank?” You may be teaching none of these things. Your lesson may have been drafted to carefully steer around these things. But some of them are inevitable because there is a larger outside world that can’t be controlled as effectively as your classroom.

Let’s look at some viable answers to the first of these questions: “Why does Israel fight so many wars?”

  • Both the Palestinians and the Israelis believe that they have the right to the same land.
  • Israel feels that they need to occupy the Territories until there is an end of violence against Israel. They also feel the need to respond to specific acts of terror by retaliating (fighting back) against the groups that did the act of terror. Palestinians feel that the occupation itself is an act of terror and their acts of violence are acts of resistance.
  • Some Palestinians want peace with Israel. Extreme groups within the Palestinian community (like Hammas and Islamic Jihad) won’t stop the violence without Israel withdrawing. Some of them believe that all of Israel belongs to the Palestinian State. Many Israelis want to have peace with the Palestinians. Some Israelis believe that they have a right to all the territory that Israel was promised in the Torah (and that includes the West Bank). Most Israelis feel that they must continue the occupation (even though they hate it) until Israel can be assured of real safety. Some Arabs feel they must resist with violence as long as they are occupied.

All of these answers are both true and descriptive. They do not place specific blame and they do not take a side. What they do is expand student understandings of the situation. Every teacher who deals with Israel must have age appropriate versions of these answers and others like them up their sleeve for times when the questions emerge.

So why stay away from specific answers? Simple! To take either political position is to risk alienating a good number of parents and their students with them. Our job is to teach Ahavat Yisrael (love for Israel) and not break the sense of community by blaming either parents who feel Israel is sometimes too harsh or the parents that feel either that Israel is always right, or not severe enough. Tightropes are tough.

But here is the scarier part of this process. What if there are no questions? What if Israel isn’t important enough or enough connected to bother with? What if for both parents and kids Israel is just a collection of people aren’t like me who act in ways we don’t understand or care about?

These are the tough questions but real. In the non-Orthodox world Israel is of ideological significance. Professionals and “active” lay people tend to also care about Israel, but the vast majority of amkha (the ordinary folks) tend to avoid Israel as just too difficult and thereby too remote. How do we deal with that?

Would that the choice was between the pill and the vaccination, but that technology does not exist. We have only one choice, and that is to create an importance for Israel in our classrooms and in our family education programs. There is a simple psychological truth. We heave our own name even when we are not focusing or listening. We can be shopping in a supermarket, an aisle over from a conversation, and if someone says our name, our attention is drawn. Our job is to make Israel one of our students names, a point of identification. Then, the rest of the world will do its job. They will hear Israel in the news, Israel in conversations, Israel in the world, and their attention will be drawn. With that attention will come the dissonance that provokes questions—the ones we hope to struggle to answer.

So we have a simple question: “How do we make Israel an identity factor?”

Taking a trip is of course the best answer, but we have to struggle because in most cases all we have are classrooms and maybe the social hall for a big program. We have to make Israel interesting, compelling, real, and connected. (We’ll deal with this issue — building a connection to Israel for kids who haven’t been there — in an upcoming article. Stay tuned to this space.)

Our problem with politics in our classroom is not that it is difficult, complex, and unclear. Or that is too clear and monolithic. Our problem is that it potentially works against our basic goal of teaching Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel). Once we could rely on kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh (all Israel is connected one to the other). Today we live in an age where the statement is universalized into either “all people are connected to each other,” or “the 600 people on my friends list on Facebook are connected through me.”

While the Palestinians and others in the Arab world may argue that Zionism is racism, subtlety many of our students and families resist ethnic unity. For them, Judaism is just a religion that they either will or will not choose later. The simple truth is that the freedom and security of American makes connecting ethnically harder. This is not true for every student, but it is the inner voice of many of our students. As Rashi makes clear with his comment on the v’ahavta’s opening, “It is very hard to command love.”

Here is a personal example of the process we are looking for. I am scanning for stuff to Tivo. I see a movie, a documentary called To Die in Jerusalem. It stops me flipping. If it is about Jerusalem, I have to see what it is. The description labels it as a dialogue between the mother of a suicide bomber and the mother of her Israeli victim. I’m hooked, I have to record it. It is a great film of a horrible moment. After four and a half years, these two mothers of dead 17-year-old girls can’t get together, but have a conversation over closed circuit TV. Each wants to be reasonable. Each wants the other to be reasonable. The Israeli mother wants the Palestinian mother to publicly condemn suicide bombings. The bombers mother had already admitted that she would have stopped her daughter if she had known. But, when it comes to “operations” (their jargon for attacks against Israel) she won’t budge. “We are being occupied. Occupation is terrorism. It is our only defense.” The Israeli mother counters, “Let’s not be political. Let’s just be mothers. Let’s stop other girls from dying the way our daughters did.” Back comes the Palestinian mother, “You have freedom, you have the luxury of talking about peace. I too dream of peace that comes with freedom and my family’s ability to leave the refugee camp and return to our home in Yafo.” The conversation continues until the two woman both cry and there is nothing more to say. They have not understood each other. They have not really heard each other. They simply both got to their own grief. I leave with a sense of frustration and an understanding of how difficult the situation is.

And my connection to Israel has deepened through a one hour documentary.

What this means is that we want the words Israel, Jerusalem, and others to pop from the background noise for our children. We want them be exposed to both the good and the bad, and we want them to have to work on their own reconciliation. Given the right identification, dissonance can deepen the relationship. Our job is to (1) open up this frustration as a deeper sense of the truth, and (2) reassure our students that Israel is a very safe place to visit because Israelis do take care of security. Any teaching of the politics has to reach the bottom line that Israel is a very safe place or we undermine our real objective, getting our students to visit Israel.