David Bryfman

Good Israel Education is Good Education

Last week I returned from JFNA’s General Assembly in Tel-Aviv, which was preceded by a Jewish Agency convening about Israel Education. In both forums, I heard two distinct critiques about the state of Israel Education in North America (and, may I suggest, the Jewish world).

On one hand, there are those who want our Jewish youth to have a greater love of Israel. They often believe that the kids of today don’t have the same connection to our homeland that they once did. They really don’t understand why we spend so much time critiquing the Jewish state, often preferring to highlight the start-up nation that Israel has become. These people believe that the more our kids experience Israel first-hand, the more likely they are to have a positive relationship with the state, people and land of Israel. They are also more likely to believe that it is essential for us to train a generation of youth to defend Israel from her detractors on college campuses.

On the other hand, there are those who also want our youth to have a greater love of Israel, but who believe that this love should be born out of an exploration of the complexity of Israeli society and the Palestinian Territories. They favor a warts-and-all approach, believing that we only really love things once we know them in their entirety, not just the apparent and prominently featured good parts.

One major difference between these two camps is that the former usually believes in the importance of Jews around the world, to unequivocally support the democratically elected Israeli government of the day. The latter camp believes that the Jews around the world have a right, if not an obligation, to help develop a Jewish state with values that they also hold dear – often those of equality, fairness and dignity for all of Israel’s citizens and people under her power.

I don’t mean to politicize these distinct views, but, as discussed at these convenings, all education is political, and even more so when it comes to Israel education.  I believe that the developing field of Israel education has room for both of these poles, as well as everything in between. Even more to the point, I want to suggest that both of these poles are inherently flawed, and, although they are not often expressed in their extremes, neither is a good enough approach for those of us engaged in educating our youth about Israel.

You see, every time I prepare to teach, I am making a conscious decision. There is that which I want to communicate to the group, let’s call it a curriculum, and there is the group’s mental space, let’s call it where the learners are. Every time I educate, I am choosing the points along this continuum at which I aim and deliver.

Now, to impartial observers, all of whom have been learners at one point or another in their lives, this might seem obvious. But, the reality is that all of us have been in situations wherein the educator simply relied on a script and ignored the interests of the learners, believing that those students would be better off, if only they absorbed every word that the expert teacher felt a need to impart. On the other end of the spectrum, many of us have experienced so-called educational moments when the educator has, for some reason or another, decided to forsake all content just to “keep the kids happy.”

Good education is located somewhere between these two poles, and the good educator is one who is constantly occupied by the achievement of balance in every metaphorical classroom.

So, what does any of this have to do with Israel and Israel education? For too long, much of Israel education has favored the curriculum side of the equation far more than it has paid attention to the Jewish learner. And, while I am not dismissing the importance of facts and knowledge about Israel, I am arguing that to remain wedded to planned content at the expense of acknowledging the learner’s headspace and standpoint is bad education. Some will argue that you must teach students the facts first before they can formulate their own opinions on specific issues – a totally laudable claim. But, often, the delivery of single narrative Zionist and Israeli facts has been the basis for these content-centered approaches to Israel education, often at the expense of voicing competing perspectives, and that form of education is at best biased and at its worst has another name – indoctrination.  

For those that claim that, first, you must teach students to love Israel, and, only then, will they be able to have the foundation upon which they can critique her, I simply ask: When was the last time you stood in a classroom before a group of inquisitive, smart individuals? It certainly wasn’t in the 21st century when, before us, we have a passionate and brilliant generation of critical minds, raised on curiosity, if not cynicism. In the world in which we live today, telling young people to love anything simply because the older generation deems it important, has but one sure outcome – for them to walk the other way.

To truly understand the learner of today is to at least understand the sociology of this younger generation. Whether one is referring to the non-Orthodox Jewish Americans of Generations X, Y, or Z (and many orthodox Jews, as well), the data are clear and cannot be ignored. The mantras of liberty, equality and fairness are their key doctrines. Anything that interferes with this universal desire to make the world better and equal for all its citizens will be dismissed. And, by the way, so many of them have come to these socially progressive worldviews because of—and not in spite of—the Jewish education that they have received in our schools, synagogues, summer camps and youth organizations.

Good Israel education, which is the same as any good education, must embrace Israel in all of her beauty and all of her complexity. To those who attended this year’s GA and heard the slogan “let’s talk,” I add “let’s listen.” Listen to our youth and take them into account when making our educational choices, not because we think it might be a good idea, but because it is the right thing to do.

Our task as Jewish educators is to educate. Our calling is to reach Jewish minds and souls. For those of us for whom Israel is crucial, it is our desire that our learners will also develop these bonds. But, while there are other very important fields dedicated to learning about Israel, raising money for Israel and advocating on behalf of Israel, these are not the charges of Jewish educators. Even educators for whom Israel is primary in their hearts and curricula must put aside their biases and love to honor and prioritize their responsibility to educate.

About the Author
David Bryfman, PhD, is CEO of The Jewish Education Project in New York. He hosts the weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.
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