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A Comprehensive Guide to Deepening Your Understanding of Israel

As the Director of Queen’s Hillel, one of the things I work on regularly is helping my students to foster a comprehensive understanding of Israel that goes beyond headlines. Israel, with its tapestry of cultures, history, and geopolitics, can be hard to understand for those who’ve never received any formal education on the subject. I have developed this comprehensive guide for students and others seeking to deepen their understanding of Israel, outlines resources and actions that will help. Whether you’re building a foundational knowledge or seeking a deeper connection, these recommendations will serve as your compass.

Knowledge: Building a Foundational Understanding of Israel

1. Israeli News Websites: Acquiring information from diverse perspectives is key to a well-rounded understanding. I recommend regularly reading Haaretz for a liberal take, The Times of Israel and Jerusalem Post for centrist views, Ynet for mainstream Israeli opinions, and Arutz Sheva for a right-wing perspective. Engage with these sources through their multiple social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Telegram and Twitter as this will give you real-time insights into the events unfolding in Israel and each of these news sources utilises their social media platforms in different ways.

I also highly recommend downloading the Ground News App which aggregates news stories from thousands of publications and helps you to understand the political leanings of the different outlets you’re reading. This is incredibly helpful for recognising when the news you’re reading has a particular bias that may not be clear to an uninitiated reader.

2. Books: Literature is a window into the soul of a nation. Delving into books that focus on Israeli history, culture, and politics is invaluable. For instance, ‘Israel’ by Daniel Gordis provides an intricate account of Israel’s history and the existential challenges it has faced. ‘Israel: A History’ by Anita Shapira offers an academic perspective on the formation and evolution of the state. In contrast, ‘Like Dreamers’ by Yossi Klein Halevi takes readers on a journey of the paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem. It beautifully captures Israel’s evolution through the lives of seven such individuals. These are just a few of the many books that shed light on Israel’s complex and often tumultuous journey.

On the other hand, ‘In the Land of Israel’ by Amos Oz captures the diversity of voices and views within Israeli society. ‘The Zionist Ideas’ by Dr Gil Troy is an anthology that is essential for understanding the roots and evolution of Zionism. To grasp the spiritual essence of the land, indulge in ‘Open Closed Open’ by Yehuda Amichai, which is a collection of poignant poetry.

3. Email Bulletins: Staying connected with organisations that offer insights into Israeli life and politics can enhance your understanding. By subscribing to these bulletins, you’ll receive a curated selection of news and analysis in your inbox. The ‘Jewish Insider‘ and ‘eJewishPhilanthropy‘ offer unique perspectives on Jewish and Israeli communities worldwide and their daily skims sent directly to my email every morning help me to digest the previous day’s news from a Jewish perspective. I also recommend signing up for the newsletters of the ‘Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA)‘ and ‘JSpace‘ to get a view into the Canadian Jewish community’s conversation about Israel and Jewish issues. ‘Israel Policy Forum‘ and ‘Shalom Hartman Institute‘ offer thoughtful analysis on Israeli and Jewish affairs. In particular the Koplow Column – a weekly opinion piece from IPF’s Policy Director Michael Koplow – is the one piece regarding Israel that I ensure I read every week.

4. Podcasts: Podcasts offer an immersive and accessible way to learn about Israel. Similar to the famous ‘This American Life’ podcast, ‘Israel Story‘ shares narratives from diverse Israelis, providing a human picture of life in Israel. ‘The Promised Podcast‘ discusses Israeli society and culture, offering an analysis of the latest developments. ‘Streetwise Hebrew‘ helps listeners understand Hebrew as it is spoken in Israel, while ‘For Heaven’s Sake‘ engages the listener in a conversation about Israel grounded in Jewish values. ‘Israel Policy Pod‘ provides an in-depth look into policy issues impacting Israel.

5. Learn Hebrew (Ivrit): The significance of learning Hebrew cannot be understated. Learning Hebrew will enrich your understanding of Israeli culture, allowing you to engage with Israeli literature, music, and film in the original language. Hebrew classes are available through Jewish Community Centres (JCCs), local shlichim, and shinshinim. Many online resources, like Duolingo, offer free or low-cost courses. Immersing yourself in the language will give you access to nuances often lost in translation.

6. Visit Israel: The importance of visiting Israel in understanding the country cannot be overstated. Experiencing Israel’s unique blend of ancient history and modern innovation firsthand will bring all your acquired knowledge to life. Start by exploring the cityscapes, from Jerusalem’s rich historical tapestry to the vibrant modernity of Tel Aviv. Immerse yourself in Haifa’s unique blend of cultures and explore the stark beauty of the Negev desert. Cities like Acre and Jaffa offer insights into the enduring presence of Arab culture in Israel.

Interact with the locals from various backgrounds – Jews, Arabs, Bedouins, Druze – to gain an understanding of the multiplicity of experiences and perspectives within Israel. Engage with the language, even if it’s just ordering food in Hebrew. Speaking of food, don’t forget to sample Israel’s culinary delights. The cuisine, from street food to sophisticated fusion dishes, reflects the country’s cultural diversity. Finally, try to experience some of the country’s many cultural events, which give you a deeper understanding of Israel’s complex societal fabric. Remember, every visit offers new insights as the country itself is in a constant state of evolution.

If you meet their eligibility criteria, organised programs like RootOne, Birthright Israel, Onward Israel, Masa Israel Journey, Honeymoon Israel and Momentum can be excellent ways to explore Israel in a curated and affordable way.

Understanding: Delving Deeper into Israel’s Complexities

1. Basic Frameworks: An understanding of foundational concepts will give you the tools to critically engage with Israel’s complexities. Concepts such as Zionism, the triad of Am/Eretz/Medinat (People/Land/State), and the various Jewish responses to modernity are integral to understanding Israel’s societal and political dynamics. The importance of understanding both Israeli and Palestinian narratives, the various forms of Judaism practised in Israel, and the unique facets of Hebrew culture are essential for a nuanced understanding.

I’m also passionate about the importance of studying Jewish history in general but even more so for anyone looking to deepen their knowledge about Israel. To properly understand how Zionism emerged in the late 19th Century one simply must have a grounding in 18th and 19th Century Jewish history with a particular focus on the impact of Jewish emancipation in Europe. If you’re unsure where to start, my first suggestion is always the groundbreaking work of Youtuber, Sam Aronow.

2. In-depth exploration: Consider attending events, talks, courses, and seminars dedicated to the history and politics of Israel. Many universities and educational institutions offer online and offline resources to deepen your understanding. These can provide context, debunk myths, and engage you in thought-provoking discussions.

3. Talk to Israelis: Conversations with Israelis offer firsthand insights into the lives and perspectives of those living in the country. Whether in person or through virtual exchanges, engage with Israelis from various backgrounds and political ideologies. This multivocal interaction will deepen your understanding and humanise the narratives you study.

4. Visit Israel again: Repeated visits to Israel will allow you to explore specific regions, communities, or issues in greater depth. Whether attending a music festival in Tel Aviv, volunteering on a kibbutz, or visiting an Druze village in Galilee, each visit will add layers to your understanding.

Action: Cultivating a Personal and Informed Connection with Israel

1. Engage in Self-education and Dialogue with Others: The journey of understanding Israel should be characterised by constant learning and growth. Make a commitment to regularly seek out and consume new information about Israel. Read academic articles, listen to lectures, follow the news, and keep abreast of cultural developments. As you learn, challenge your existing perceptions and be open to evolving your understanding.

Furthermore, take the knowledge you acquire and bring it into conversation with others. Engage in constructive dialogue with those around you, including friends, family, and colleagues. Be open to discussing your insights, asking questions, and listening to others’ perspectives. It’s through these conversations that you will find your understanding of Israel deepening and becoming more nuanced.

2. Immersion in Israeli Culture: Israeli culture is vibrant and multifaceted, and immersing yourself in it can help you build a stronger connection to the country. Dive into the rich world of Israeli literature; works from David Grossman to Etgar Keret offer profound insights into the Israeli psyche.

Indulge in the diverse Israeli culinary scene. Whether cooking at home or exploring local Israeli restaurants, you’ll find that the food tells its own story of the country’s diverse influences. Attend Israeli film festivals or music concerts to experience different aspects of its modern culture.

Learning Hebrew also aids in this cultural immersion. As you become more proficient, you’ll find yourself better able to appreciate Israeli songs, movies, and literature in their original language.

3. Active Advocacy for Meaningful Causes: An integral part of connecting with Israel lies in aligning your passion for social causes with your understanding of Israel. The country offers a myriad of causes to get involved with, from environmental issues to peace-building initiatives, from promoting innovation to advocating for the rights of minorities.

Find the issues that resonate most deeply with you and use your voice and your platforms to bring attention to them. This could involve sharing relevant content on social media, organising events or discussions, or even getting involved in grassroots activism.

4. Engaging with Students: If you’re in an academic or educational role, consider how you can bring your growing understanding of Israel into your work with students. This can be particularly impactful if you work with Jewish students or if your institution has strong ties to Israel.

Facilitate open discussions about Israel, making your classroom or office a safe space for all kinds of questions and viewpoints. Foster an environment of respectful debate and empathetic listening. Encourage students to explore Israel for themselves and to think critically about the information they encounter.

5. Repeated Visits to Israel: I know I sound like a stuck record with this one but honestly there is simply no better way to get to know Israel than going there. Each visit to Israel presents an opportunity to explore the country through a new lens. As you grow in your understanding of Israel, you can use each trip to delve deeper into a particular area of interest. For instance, a trip could be centred around understanding the tech startup scene in Tel Aviv or studying the environmental conservation efforts in the Negev.

You could participate in a tour that traces the footsteps of historical events or join a culinary journey through Israel’s diverse food scene. Consider joining organised tours that align with your interests or even leading such trips yourself. This will not only deepen your own connection with Israel but could also inspire others to begin their own journey of understanding.

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This guide serves as a comprehensive roadmap for anyone keen on deepening their understanding of Israel. With the right tools and resources, you can navigate the complexities of Israeli society, history, and politics, enriching your knowledge and fostering informed conversations. Remember, learning about Israel is not a destination but a journey.

Israel is a multifaceted and complex country so keep exploring, keep asking, and keep learning!

About the Author
Yos Tarshish is the Director of Queen's Hillel in Kingston, Ontario, bringing a decade of experience in global Jewish student communities. A UK native, Yos previously served as President of both the Union of Jewish Students and the World Union of Jewish Students. Passionate about social activism and building inclusive Jewish communities, he holds a BA in Youth & Community Studies, sits on the steering committee of IPF Atid Toronto and on the board of Kingston's Beth Israel Congregation.
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