Embracing the Third Rail
Across the industrialized world, the third rail provides the electrical charge to railway locomotives and subway trains. In social and political circles, the third rail is any “charged” issue. Depending on where you live and with whom you frequent, the third rail is different. However, the outcome of touching it is always the same.
If it’s not clear what I am referring to, simply mention the word “Palestine” in most Jewish communities and see what happens next. Or talk about “judicial reform.” The result is equally incendiary. And if these conversations are difficult for adults, imagine how tough they are for teenagers.
So, do we remain silent in fear of saying the wrong thing about this “charged” issue? Should our concern for potential reputational damage upstage the concern that our silence effectively cedes the playing field to a crumbling consensus, or the shouting of both extremes? And, finally, will our unwillingness to engage the blunt discourse of “either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us” leave teens with this false choice and have them opt for the latter?
As a Jewish educator, avoiding this topic is ultimately counterproductive. Not only is grappling with Israel-Palestine crucial to student understanding of our increasingly complex world, how to conduct the conversation itself can also serve as a teachable moment.
As co-founder and principal of ADRABA, an online Jewish high school based in Toronto, Ontario, I opted to act. I transformed the latter two-thirds of an Ontario Ministry of Education-approved Media Studies course into a deep-dive on the history, coverage and framing of Israel-Palestine in legacy and new media. When ADRABA began to publicize our new course beginning in October 2023, we were inundated with strong opinions from the general public about how the course should and should not go. We were told which organizations to partner with and which to avoid. We were told which principles should be taught as fundamental premises. We were told which news sources to highlight and which never to allow our students to read. We were told where to begin the story and how it should unfold.
This outpouring was to be expected for, as the old adage tells us, two Jews have three opinions. (This means, incidentally, that one of those two Jews has two opinions. Hmm…) However, what we heard most unequivocally was that we were bold for embracing this third rail because of the critical need to prepare our teens for what’s to come in public high schools and universities. Without our course and others like it, our teens would surely fall prey to purported antisemites on campus and stand powerless to respond to attempts to delegitimize Israel. Our teens need ammunition for the inevitable fight!
As we were glad to be regarded as bold and daring, these kudos reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of what ADRABA stands for as a school and learning space for Jewish teens.
ADRABA has always started with questions, not answers. And our Media Studies course is no different. All of our courses are designed to help students hone their critical thinking skills so, in the case of legacy and new media, they will be able to differentiate between fact and fiction and fact from opinion. They will be able to distinguish misinformation from disinformation and malinformation. And most critically, they will be able to identify logical fallacies and root out bad faith arguments which, sadly, are not limited to one side. The same skills apply just as much in our classes on Canadian history, Medieval Jewish history, philosophy and Jewish food culture.
With these tools, ADRABA teens can better evaluate how the media frames stories about Israel-Palestine, who is the focus of the story, and what themes are privileged or played down. By consuming and scrutinizing diverse sources, each presenting their own truth, we will be better able to identify, explore and appreciate different perspectives. This is not a popular position to espouse in these deeply polarized times, but we would be remiss as educators if we avoided it out of fear of the third rail, institutional backlash and/or potential social media pile-ons.
In this way, our teens will be able to grapple with any challenge they will encounter in high school and beyond. It is only through asking questions and searching for verifiable and substantive answers that we can all strive toward a more profound knowledge and understanding of Israel-Palestine or any other important issue. Though we will never complete this task, we are not free to desist from it. But as we teach and learn in good faith, we can withstand any “charges” to the contrary.