Falafel balls, cherry tomatoes, Waze, and USB sticks. To some, these objects represent the aspects of modern Israel we know and love: its great taste in cuisine, its resilience, and its high-tech ingenuity. But these symbols don’t tell Israel’s full story, which includes its rich and complex history, its many struggles with hostile neighbours, and passionate disagreements about its future. Unfortunately, Israel education in today’s Diaspora Jewish schools tend to focus on the symbols and neglect the narratives. For many young and impressionable students learning in Diaspora Jewish day schools, these fun – but comparably trivial – symbols of Israel are the primary conceptions they have of the Jewish state, while the narratives get forgotten.
I have been attending Jewish day school all my life, and in my experience, Israel and Zionist education is oversimplified, lacking nuance, and fails to explain the importance of having and maintaining a Jewish state. Essentially, we are taught to love Israel without knowing what such love entails, and why it is important to harbour these feelings. We know Herzl’s identity as the father of Zionism, but, until much later on, we do not learn why he reached the conclusion that a Jewish state is necessary for Jewish survival. We celebrate Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), but only much later do we learn about the significant details surrounding these events and their importance, often insufficiently. Even after learning about them – crucial to understanding the course of modern Jewish and Zionist history – few of my peers retain this information.
The nuances and complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict are also woefully neglected. Despite having gone to Jewish day schools for twelve years, this year (grade eleven) was the first year in which I learned about the conflict in detail. Although a few students, including me, were familiar with the subject due to prior research and personal interest, much of the class was not. Since these students were insufficiently taught the basics of Israel’s modern history and its importance in younger years, a half-year unit is unlikely to provide them with enough knowledge on the subject. This is troublesome. With rising levels of anti-Israel sentiment on university campuses, I feel that my peers, even those who have always gone to Jewish schools, will be unequipped to have conversations about the Jewish state with those of opposing viewpoints. In some cases, anti-Israel narratives may even cause them to abandon Zionism altogether. With better education about Israel’s history and nuances – including the most contentious issues – campus won’t be the first place they hear these narratives.
Diaspora Jewish schools are also failing to teach my generation that well-intentioned, legitimate criticism of Israeli policy is possible. Before undertaking individual research on the topic, I knew little about Israeli settlements, Israeli military involvement in the territories, or the Gaza withdrawal of 2005. Prior to discussing it this year in class, Jewish day school did not explain why I saw the “Green Line” on some maps but not on others. Throughout my time at Jewish day school, we barely touched on how to distinguish between legitimate criticism of policy and malicious, frequently antisemitic, slanders of Israel that often question its very right to exist. Having the ability to make this distinction is crucial. Until relatively recently, I was inclined, through my profoundly “pro-Israel” educational experience (while not knowing what that term really meant), to instinctively dismiss any criticism of Israeli policy as “anti-Israel”. As students, we were never taught to think critically about Israel’s actions or policies; I barely knew that Benjamin Netanyahu was a controversial figure until my interest in the topic increased and I conducted individual research. No less importantly, we did not learn about the real Palestinian suffering occurring in Gaza and the territories, often because of their authoritarian, corrupt, and intransigent leaders, but real experiences nonetheless. It is important to be taught that well-intentioned critiques of Israel, or discussions of Palestinian suffering (which, no matter whom one blames, is undeniably occurring) do not make the utterer of such things “anti-Israel”. Ironically, it wasn’t school that taught me these lessons – it was informal discussions with a camp counsellor. Jewish schools need to begin teaching that it is possible, and even necessary, to critique Israel with anguish and love.
Domestic issues are important to discuss as well, such as Arab, Ethiopian, and Haredi socioeconomic predicaments (and Israeli initiatives intended to improve them), issues regarding religion and state (such as public transportation on Shabbat), and many others. In all these fields, Diaspora Israel education falls short.
My experiences in Jewish schools have been overwhelmingly positive. But I do think that their shortcomings in Israel education – in formal and informal settings alike – are significant and should be addressed. Obviously, pre-schoolers don’t need to learn about Israeli military stratagems or other intricate and similarly complex subjects. But teaching the different narratives and nuances of Israel, in proportion to students’ age and comprehension, will help foster a deeper understanding, appreciation, and love for the Jewish state. This means having real conversations – be it in class or on Shabbatonim – about real problems that Israel and Israelis face on the daily. It means teaching about Israel’s history from the youngest age, and explaining the context and importance of Zionism. A simple ambiance of Ahavat Eretz Yisrael (love for the Land of Israel) does not prepare students for critical thinking and thoughtful discussions in the real world. Restricting “real” nuance-filled discussions to later grades and optional courses doesn’t suffice: first impressions last forever.
I will always believe that Israel is the fulfillment of a two-thousand year-old Jewish dream to return to our homeland. But like all countries, Israel’s existence doesn’t come without challenges and mistakes. Israel is not a utopia filled only with irresistible falafel balls and high-tech start-ups. It is a real place with real issues that deserve to be discussed. From a young age, the next generation of Jewish leaders should be educated accordingly.
If we make these changes, the next generation will come to truly understand and appreciate Israel – including its importance, its challenges, and its future.