When I was 11, I used to sit in Father Marek’s religion class and get called out for asking too many questions.
“Why can’t women be priests?”
“Why can’t priests get married?”
“Why do we pray to saints?”
My questions weren’t encouraged, but my silence certainly was.
Many years later, one of the initial aspects that appealed to me about Judaism was the emphasis on questioning, on digging deeper, teasing out answers, discovering new meanings in text, in pushing back. I’d found my People.
And yet, it always bothers me that, despite our tradition, we seem to struggle when our teens question Israel. Critical thinking is encouraged in History class, in Physics, in Trig, in Jewish Studies and Tanakh, but definitely not in that History of Israel elective.
Well, I have something important to tell you: Israel can take the heat.
Israel has an incredible story of resilience, determination, adversity, and triumph. It has highs and lows, rights and wrongs, missteps and amazing moments of contribution to the world. It’s the story of a modern nation state, and it reflects our People in all our messy glory.
Yes, I said it — rights and wrongs. Sometimes, Israel screws up. Quite spectacularly. When we downplay the bad, focusing only on the good, the miracle that is the modern State shines a little less brightly.
Our students crave authenticity. They have all the information they could need and want at their fingertips. Yet, in our classrooms, do we share the full story of the 1948 War and Palestinian refugees? How many of us discuss Deir Yassin? Do we contextualize the Palestinian narrative for our students, and encourage them to learn and understand it? What about what it means to be a Palestinian living in the West Bank, a non-citizen of a country that doesn’t exist? If we choose not to share information with them, and they find it elsewhere, what does it say about what we ourselves think of Israel?
When we shrink from something because we’re afraid of what our students will think, or because we’re afraid of how Israel will look in their eyes, we’re ultimately doing everyone — them, us, and the State — a disservice. In embracing the challenge of teaching the tough parts, of helping our students understand that Israel isn’t a perfect place — it’s a place that’s real, a place that makes mistakes — we help our students forge an adult relationship with Israel. We help them avoid feeling betrayed when they learn something negative in a college classroom. We do our jobs in raising educated Jewish adults who are knowledgeable of and engaged with Israel.
Our students expect us to teach Israel with the same rigor that our fellow educators teach other academic subjects. Yes, Israel is more than an academic exercise: it’s our home, the sum total of 2000 years of collective longing. But we can’t forget that our students are smart, and fierce, and engaged; they take critical thinking seriously, and know when something is being presented with an agenda. Israel can take any criticism a 16-year-old throws at it. We need to wrestle with our past and our present in our homeland. We need to share that struggle with the next generation, so all of us can come out stronger, and wiser, and more deeply engaged. We as Israel educators need to accept the challenge and look to our tradition.
The rush of the chagim has ended. As we dive deeply into the solid work of the fall semester, we need to encourage more than our students’ silence on Israel. We need to embrace their questions.
Lior Krinsky is the Vice President of Israel Education Content and US Operations at Jerusalem U.