A group of about 20 Jewish educational leaders of American, Canadian and British organizations came to Israel for 48 hours. They came to see, to hear, and to be with us in Israel. They came to begin to think about how to teach and share what the Jewish and Israeli people are living through. They have read just as much news as I have. They’ve probably watched more video footage than I have. And yet, they felt that they didn’t really understand. That they needed to be in Israel to try and feel some of what Israelis have felt for the last six weeks. Though I live in Israel and have been living through the pain and fear, I wanted to be with my colleagues. I wanted to be with them, as they experienced our new world.
While a two-day trip can only present a limited picture of the current Israel, there are so many powerful images, people and stories that even two-days can be too much to summarize in a few short paragraphs. Below, I outline just some of what touched me, along with some of the looming educational questions.
We drove the 90-minute drive from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, where the hotels are filled with Israeli refugees from the Gaza Envelope. Just down the street from the hotel strip, a brand new school has been built from caravans, to try to create a sense of every-day life for hundreds of students who return to their hotel rooms daily.
As we entered a hotel, we were greeted by a table filled with memorial candles and a board with pictures of the many hostages. On our walk through the hotel to the ballroom where our meeting was to take place, we walked through the dining room, and saw that one corner was turned into a day-center for older adults in wheelchairs. Another section was curtained off to create a medical center. A third section was filled with children, toys, and art supplies. Still another area was designated as the “store” for people to come and get much-needed items such as baby strollers, car seats, clothing and more. Six weeks of living in this hotel, and the residents had done their best to transform a vacation spot into something more liveable. Something that could try and remind them of their former life on Kibbutz.
We sat down with Yaniv, a survivor from Kibbutz Be’eri. He described himself as a former computer programmer who discovered the peaceful life of being a Kibbutznik. This staunch secularist devoted many of the previous months to developing a peace initiative that would send carrier pigeons between Gazan and Israeli children to help them begin to form relationships. He was a man who believed that peace was imminent. He viewed the religious, the right wing of Israel as totally other from him. But then, he tells us, “We were saved by ultra-right wing settlers.” He could no longer make sense of who was his friend and who was his enemy. His world had been turned so upside down that he was lacking a certain coherence. He was trying to hold onto the opposing beliefs — the old ones conflicting with the new ones — not wanting to let go of so much of what made up his very being before October 7.
Next, we drove towards Beer Sheva into an industrial neighborhood, where the Arab-Jewish shared society organization, Ajeek, has its offices. There we heard from four Bedouin heroes. These four Arab men, all of the Elkrinawi family, and one of the men they saved, told us about their October 7. Upon receiving a panicked call from their cousin who was stuck in Kibbutz Be’eri when the terrorists entered, these men left their homes with the goal of rescuing their cousin. But on their way they did much more. They came upon the fleeing remnants of the Nova Nature party, and ultimately saved tens of people, before reaching their cousin and saving him as well. These men repeated to us over and over, “Our fate is tied with your fate. We have the same fate.” In other words, we – Arab-Israelis – are no different than you Jewish-Israelis. October 7, they explained, showed us that we have the same fate.
Next we heard from their friend and activist, Shir Nosatzki from “Have You Seen the Horizon Lately” (another shared society organization). She looked at us and said, “Crimes against humanity make you lose faith in humanity. But to prevent long-term trauma, we need to see many good acts of humanity.” Towards that end she has taken it upon herself to share stories of heroism from October 7 through film.
Noam Dan, a secular Jewish ritual leader and activist, talked to us about her work to free her cousins, along with the other hostages held by Hamas. She practically screamed when she said to us, “This isn’t a bargaining situation. We’ve already lost, so what’s to bargain for?! The question is whether we’ll be able to resurrect ourselves and our country – our ancient covenant between ourselves and the state of Israel.” An argument almost broke out among our group, some angered by her critique of Israel, depicting us as having lost. Others were emboldened, feeling that she gave expression to their feelings.
In Tel Aviv we learned about the successes and challenges of the public school system. Since October 7th, the Tel Aviv school district has absorbed 3000 new students – evacuees from the North and the South, most of whom are currently living in hotel rooms throughout the city. Shirley Rimon-Bracha, Head of the Education Administration in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, told us that although the war brought us all together momentarily, there are so many divisions in society. For the more than six months that preceded the war, more than 100,000 people gathered weekly at Kaplan Square to protest proposed government changes to the Judicial system. The activism combined with the existing divisions in society had already been pushing the education system to its limit.
“There will be no day after. There won’t be a day when it’s all over,” Shirley explained, meaning that the Israeli people will be forever changed. A trauma of these proportions does not end. It will be an ongoing struggle for all of us. She told us that one of the great educational needs will be in universities. They will have to adapt, as they will receive students who lived through COVID and war. These students will have very different abilities than others before them.
Professor Nitzan Censor told us of his grave disappointment with the government. With almost all those in government positions. He believes that what is needed to rebuild Israel is a vision constructed from diversity, not individuals who serve their own sectors only. He went further, “Moderates need to shout, even if it’s against their general way of being. Speak up!”
All of these individuals – and others we heard from – portrayed a very different picture of Israel from the one so many of us are familiar with. They did not speak of Israel as a safe haven for Jews. They didn’t speak of Israel as a light unto the nations. They spoke about tragedy. They also told us of heroic acts. They told us, with shaky voices, that things will have to change.
Researcher, Dr. Alex Pomson helped summarize some of what we heard using educational language. “What should be our master narrative?” he asked. Jokingly, cynically, he suggested two possibilities, “Start Alone Nation.” “Start Again Nation.”
But, perhaps that’s it. We need to once again focus on the Nation. While we may continue to teach about the State of Israel, the reverberations around the world have pulled our focus to the Jewish nation. To the Jewish people.
For many years there have been those who have focused on creating an idea that was dubbed “Jewish peoplehood.” And for the same number of years, while we have seen a growth in organizations focused on this concept, there has been a sense (at least among some) that “peoplehood” is still too nebulous a term.
I left the 48 hours we spent together wondering if peoplehood was a term that was chosen in an era when particularism equaled tribalism. And tribalism – by many liberals – was considered myopic at best, immoral at worst. Peoplehood became the term to best approximate a sense of a particular identity, with care for a particular people, without naming outright a push towards particularism.
I wonder, if today, as a people, we once again need to embrace the concept of particularism. Or put differently, maybe the words of Hillel the Elder that deserve focus, at least for now, are “If I’m not for myself who will be for me?” The educational question before us is how to teach this value, and how to embody this value, while leaving intact the value that caring for the other is critical as well. Maybe the first step of this has already begun to happen. The group of educators that joined together, that showed a sense of “us” in the midst of an incredibly chaotic time, may be an indication that our educational approach is already beginning to shift. While, as a group, we have worked together on many occasions, it’s rare that all of us have come together to be in each other’s company, to share in sorrow, and to begin to build together.
*With thanks to the Jim Joseph Foundation for providing financial support to enable this trip, and to CEO of Jewish Education Project, David Bryfman, and Shelley Kedar of the Jewish Agency for Israel, for planning and organizing it.